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Moving Forward

by Lydia Lum

Moving Forward

For some faculty displaced by Hurricane Katrina, relocating      has been a mixed blessing, but others still long

By Lydia Lum

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, faculty ranks at New Orleans’ historically Black colleges remain noticeably shallower than before the floods.

The languishing numbers mirror a decline in student enrollment. Xavier University of Louisiana’s student head count, for instance, has lingered at about 73 percent of the pre-Katrina enrollment, a spokeswoman says. And a year ago, Dillard University and Southern University at New Orleans saw their student bodies dip to about 56 percent and 60 percent, respectively, of what they were at the beginning of the 2005 fall semester, just before the storm struck.

The devastation forced school officials throughout the area to cancel classes for the entire semester. And, the subsequent financial crisis resulted in mass layoffs, even though some of the furloughed faculty were called back to their jobs when the schools re-opened in the spring.

Faculty are expected to continue signing contracts through the rest of this month for the 2007-2008 academic year, making some statistics hard to come by. But the numbers aren’t expected to be as high as they were in 2005. Currently, SUNO employs about 66 percent of the full-time faculty it used to. A year ago, Dillard’s faculty was 70 percent of what it was in 2005. An Xavier spokeswoman says the university’s head count is difficult to gauge because the names of many ex-faculty haven’t yet been removed from the database. However, 55 of the 234 pre-Katrina faculty who worked there in 2005 were laid off after the flood.

Here, Diverse catches up with three faculty who lost their jobs at HBCUs soon after Katrina (see Diverse, March 23, 2006).

Dr. Sonya Caston-Pierre, Dillard University

Dr. Sonya Caston-Pierre knew her return to Dillard a year ago would mean pulling all-nighters to prepare for classes she didn’t normally teach. She and all her colleagues in chemistry returned to campus. Some of their counterparts in biology and physics did not. In addition to general chemistry, the assistant professor would teach physical science and earth science, the latter a subject she hadn’t touched since she was a middle-school student.

Also, many lab courses in the sciences weren’t offered in 2006-2007 because of a facilities scarcity while Dillard was continuing to rebuild from the flood. The lack of hands-on instruction caused Caston-Pierre to worry. Would students learn everything they needed?

“Everyone here had mixed feelings,” recalls Caston-Pierre. “Everyone was excited about moving back to campus, moving forward. But they were afraid of academic standards inadvertently getting lowered because we were still lacking so many resources.”

As the school year progressed, she saw how basic aspects of her students’ lives before Katrina became major conundrums in the post-disaster era. For instance, a student could normally visit the campus health center if he or she got sick. But, the Dillard community’s initial return to campus consisted of only students and faculty, not medical staff. So if a student got sick, Caston-Pierre says, faculty and staff were faced with trying to secure transportation and affordable medical care in town.

They sometimes even helped students deal with insurance issues.
From time to time, Caston-Pierre second-guessed her decision to return to Dillard.

She found assurance through slow-to-arrive milestones, such as her salary finally being restored to what it was before Katrina.

“I’ve had doubts, and sometimes I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay,” she says. “But everyone here has stuck together. Things will normalize. Now, I want to gain tenure. I can see a
future here.”

Her stressful year at Dillard followed one that saw her evacuate to her parents’ house in Jackson, Miss., as the hurricane approached. Afterward, Dillard laid off more than half its faculty, including her. Then she landed part-time, temporary teaching work at Jackson State University, her alma mater. She decided to have her New Orleans house in the Gentilly Woods section, where floodwaters had risen to four feet, gutted and rebuilt. She held out for a possible return to Dillard. There, she believed, she could most effectively help further education opportunities for Blacks. In 2006, with more students returning to campus than originally expected, Dillard officials contacted Caston-Pierre and invited her back for the fall semester.

Dr. Robert A. Waters Jr. and Dr. Sarah Waters, Ohio Northern University 

Most days, Drs. Robert and Sarah Waters consider themselves lucky.
Together, they now earn about 50 percent more than they did in New Orleans, where their cost of living was higher than it is in Ada, Ohio, population 5,500.

Their rental house is comfortable, and their toddler sons love living close to their maternal grandparents.

But question marks still hover over Sarah and Robert. They worry about what the future might hold. They are visiting faculty at Ohio Northern University. Their appointments have been renewed annually so far, but there are currently no guarantees beyond the 2008 spring semester, meaning they could be searching for jobs again as the school year wends along.

“My mother calls this the biggest mixed blessing she’s ever heard of,” says Sarah, who was born and raised in Lima, a few miles from ONU. “We’re doing so well, but we’re still living a temporary life.”

The temporary life began when the family evacuated to Jackson, Miss. At the time, Robert was an associate professor of history at SUNO and Sarah taught percussion at a Catholic school. Their house stood half a mile from the 17th Street Canal and became uninhabitable when the levees failed.

The couple, with children in tow, then pointed their cars north to stay with Sarah’s parents. They lucked into part-time teaching jobs at ONU, Sarah’s alma mater. The jobs eventually expanded. She teaches music, Robert teaches history. Last academic year, students voted Robert their “Teacher of the Year” from among 130 faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences.

He has made two solo trips back to New Orleans. The first, shortly after Katrina, was to salvage a few random belongings from their former home. Then last year, he returned to pack up his office at SUNO.

As he drove the eight miles from his old house to campus, he passed familiar neighborhoods spanning the socioeconomic spectrum, all of them with so many boarded-up homes “that if there’d been tumbleweeds and coyotes it would’ve been a perfect ghost town for a movie set,” he says. “Lots of things actually looked worse in 2006 than in late 2005.”

As much as they liked New Orleans, the Waterses have no plans to move back. Considering the stress from evacuating with sons Donald, now 4, and Robbie, now 2, Sarah says she “can’t imagine” going back to a place vulnerable to more catastrophe.

Besides, Robert’s job at SUNO was among Katrina’s countless casualties.

Dr. Jeanine R. Burse, Augusta State University

Until she was laid off from Xavier University nearly two years ago, Dr. Jeanine Burse couldn’t fathom the school not being the focus of her daily life. She would typically go to campus several times a day not only for classes but also to guide students in extra-curricular activities or to advise them academically and career-wise.

Nowadays, Burse is hard-pressed to remember the last time she spoke to anyone at Xavier, her alma mater. Her closest friends from there have moved on to other jobs. Her mentors and role models have retired. And Burse, a native of New Orleans, is poised to start her second year as an assistant professor of biology at Augusta State University in Georgia.
“Everyone here has been very helpful, very welcoming,” she says. “I feel very wanted.”

Her unexpected journey began when she and her son evacuated to Goodman, Miss. Once it became obvious that Xavier and other New Orleans universities would shut down for the rest of 2005, Burse scoured for work, landing at Jackson State University as visiting faculty. Before long, Xavier notified her, along with others, that the school wouldn’t need her anymore because of an expected enrollment decrease for the spring semester. Even though Xavier eventually reversed a few layoffs due to a higher-than-expected student return rate, Burse decided not to re-apply. She didn’t want to move back to her hometown, tired of evacuating regularly because of storm threats. So by early 2006, she began hunting for jobs, including some outside of academia.

The move eastward to accept Augusta State’s job offer has literally paid off.

Her salary is about 10 percent higher than it was at Xavier. And she was able to recycle much of her curriculum in introductory biology and zoology from Xavier into the courses she picked up in her new job, saving her countless hours of preparation.

She appreciates her life outside of campus, too. Her son, Riley, a 6-year-old beginning  first grade this fall, has access to good public schools and easily makes new friends. They rent an apartment that’s only a two-hour drive to Atlanta, which they visit at least once a month, and where Burse has several sorority sisters they stay with. Her mother flies in from New Orleans for frequent visits, while Burse and her son reciprocate the visits for major holidays.

“I miss New Orleans like crazy, but it has been a great fit here,” she says.

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