They may have amassed a bunch of academic degrees and may hold prestigious positions, but a group of local college leaders talking about life in post-Katrina New Orleans sounds like any other group: Their dominant topics are the finer points of rebuilding and grievances about insurance.
In a meeting at the University of New Orleans to tell higher education officials about millions of dollars in federal aid, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and White House hurricane recovery chief Donald Powell got an earful.
Tulane University, for instance, is still due nearly $300 million to cover its damages, President Scott Cowen said. Tulane and its neighbor, Loyola University, are suing their insurance companies. Dillard University may be able to occupy some of its white stone buildings in a month, President Marvalene Hughes said, but repairs at the Gentilly campus may continue for four years. And Southern University at New Orleans, which has been operating out of trailers since reopening in January, may get back to its Pontchartrain Park campus in the spring, Chancellor Victor Ukpolo said.
"We have made some progress so far, but not enough for us," Ukpolo said. "We want to get back to our main campus."
Recovery is moving faster than people think, Xavier University President Norman Francis said. When people complain that progress is too slow, "my stock answer is, 'Compared to what?' " he said. "You tell me something that's happened in a major city, and I'll tell you."
Most academic leaders said they were heartened by the number of students expected for the fall semester, even though it falls below the enrollment totals for the term that Katrina interrupted. Plus, some officials said, parents are reluctant to send their children to a city they perceive is unsafe.
But this is no time to be complacent, said the Rev. Anthony DeConciliis, president of Our Lady of Holy Cross College, which depends on tuition for 95 percent of its budget.
"What's going to happen next year?" he said. "We're able to keep operating because of our numbers, but if we don't continue to grow, we're going to have difficulties."
Even though campuses may be surrounded by devastation, "All of us have become oases in our communities because people need places to go where they feel secure," said Nunez Community College Chancellor Thomas Warner, whose campus is in ravaged St. Bernard Parish.
A similar situation exists around UNO. The campus was bustling Thursday, but Elysian Fields Avenue, a principal approach, was still lined with vacant, battered buildings with blown-out windows and rubble-strewn parking lots.
"We really are a beacon of hope and a light in devastated communities," UNO Chancellor Tim Ryan said, "but we all have our problems, and we don't want the president and Congress to think that our work is over.
"We need help. . . . We can only continue to really help this community rebuild . . . if we can get the help we need."
Spellings called progress at local colleges "one of the bright spots" on the Katrina landscape.
The education chief, who later toured Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, used her visit to announce $235 million in supplemental money for displaced students that will benefit students from kindergarten through college and, she said, "make a very difficult situation more bearable."
And she told the college leaders she will do what she can to send more money their way.
"You have my personal commitment," she said near the end of the hourlong discussion. "We're in this for the long haul."
In coming back after Katrina, "education has led the way," Powell said. "My hat's off to you."