The News Service
Ruth J. Simmons and Shirley Tilghman
Post-Katrina: Education Offers a Remedy for Social, Economic Inequality
Educational opportunity can help overcome many of the inequities revealed in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Every college and university owes the nation this promise: that they will do their share to make sure that youth from every community and every economic, racial, and ethnic group has a real opportunity, through education, to become productive citizens capable of helping to solve the persistent social ills that still infect our country.
Our distress in witnessing the epic destruction and loss of life that Hurricane Katrina inflicted on the most vulnerable citizens of the Gulf region is compounded by the evidence that we are still far from overcoming the social and economic disparities that many Americans hoped we were closer to eliminating.
As the relentless images so vividly demonstrated, our nation’s problems of social, racial, and economic inequality and instability are persistent and real, but they need not lead to despair. Education offers a remedy, and therefore we must make it a priority to rebuild not only homes and businesses, but also institutions of higher education in Louisiana and Mississippi that were damaged by the hurricane.
Universities and colleges around the country quickly responded to the hurricane and, each in its own way, offered to help. Within days of the flooding, many developed plans based on a tacit but shared conviction: that students whose schools were closed by the hurricane should continue their studies because their skills would be needed as never before to rebuild their communities. Universities offered expedited enrollment programs, waived tuition in many cases, and provided assistance with travel, room and board – the kind of support that academic institutions are uniquely positioned to offer. Thousands of students have benefited and are now well into the semester’s studies at their host institutions.
Now we must turn to the long-term needs. Hurricane Katrina has done considerable damage to institutions of higher learning in New Orleans and elsewhere in the storm’s path. Several of those colleges and universities are precisely the ones that have been working to transcend social divisions, explicitly serving students from disadvantaged circumstances, providing unique systems of support designed to ensure success for students who face long odds. Many were created because of racial discrimination. They have been doing their work for decades – deliberately, passionately, and largely out of the public eye.
Dillard University in New Orleans is one such institution. A month ago, this historically black university was home to nearly 2,000 students, most of them from disadvantaged backgrounds. Today, much of its campus lies in ruins. Some of its buildings were flooded by as much as eight feet of water, while a fire left five of them in ashes.
But as Katrina has so vividly demonstrated, our nation has a need for institutions like Dillard and other historically black colleges and universities, such as Tougaloo College in Mississippi and Xavier University of Louisiana, which have made it possible for thousands of young people of color to pursue their aspirations, enter the middle class, succeed in their careers, and raise the living standards of their communities.
Recently, Brown and Princeton universities announced a partnership with Dillard University that will, over the long term, help restore it to full operation and, we hope, expand what it can offer its students in the future. We will offer the kind of assistance that only universities can. Among other steps, we will send experienced personnel from our campuses to assist Dillard with restoring academic offerings, developing plans for classrooms and research space, and providing equipment for its faculty and students
Much has been lost at Dillard and in communities damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of jobs at higher education institutions in the region have been jeopardized, creating further anguish and uncertainty for those affected. Thousands of students are rightfully wondering whether the country will care enough about them to ensure that they and other young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in the Gulf region will receive the education that they, as citizens of a great democracy, deserve.
Educational opportunity can help overcome many of the inequities revealed in the chaotic aftermath of the storm. Every college and university owes the nation this promise: that they will do their share to make sure that youth from every community and every economic, racial, and ethnic group has a real opportunity, through education, to become productive citizens capable of helping to solve the persistent social ills that still infect our country.