President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
November 2, 2005
Princeton is sometimes likened to a bubble—a place as peaceful as it is beautiful. This semester the bubble has become a safe haven for individuals affected by Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The magnitude of human suffering caused by the storm and flooding defies description, with tens of thousands stripped of their homes and livelihoods, and hundreds of their lives. Like colleges and universities across the country, Princeton has risen to the humanitarian challenge posed by this disaster, and I am pleased—though not surprised—by the creativity and generosity of our University community’s response.
Princeton was still basking in the warmth of the last few days of summer when Hurricane Katrina made its landfall on August 29. As its impact became apparent, Executive Vice President Mark Burstein convened a committee of administrators who could mobilize our institutional resources, not only on behalf of Princetonians and their families in devastated areas but also on behalf of affected sister academic institutions, particularly those in New Orleans. Our first priority was to ensure that all 71 of our students from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were safe and that they had whatever assistance they needed to travel to Princeton and embark on their studies. While many of these students had escaped the fury of Katrina, others had not, arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs. From toiletries to towels; from counseling to financial aid, the University responded to their immediate needs. While the experience of seeing everything you own disappear in a moment will not easily be forgotten, the spirit of one survivor, Lauren Bartholomew ’09, augurs well for the future. Speaking at a benefit concert in September, she declared, “I am still alive and will not let the dark side of Mother Nature deter me from continuing the life I once lived. I, along with many loyal residents, will return to the city we treasure and rebuild.”
As we extended a helping hand to our own students, our thoughts also turned to their peers at hurricane-damaged institutions. In anticipation of the forthcoming expansion of Princeton’s undergraduate student body, we were in the unusual position of having a number of vacant beds in Henry Hall. Furthermore, classes were not due to begin until September 15—ideal conditions under which to bring evacuees to the University for a semester so that their education would not be interrupted. Still, time was of the essence, and over the Labor Day weekend, I joined a small but enthusiastic band of administrators in what can only be called an exercise in admission triage. Huddled around a bank of telephones in our Office of Community and State Affairs, we fielded more than 200 inquiries from displaced students and assembled as much information about them as we could from cell phone conversations, faxes, and information provided by third parties. At the end of the long weekend, we admitted 23 undergraduates and five graduate students to Princeton as visiting students, waiving tuition and providing accommodation for all.
The undergraduates have formed a close-knit community in Henry, complete with their own resident adviser, a student from Tulane University who would have filled this role on his home campus had Hurricane Katrina not intervened. Thanks to the warm reception they have received, including a successful “buddy” system that paired them with our students, our visitors are forging ties with their Princeton classmates, dining in our residential colleges, participating in the give and take of precepts, and taking advantage of extracurricular opportunities. One visiting senior in classics is beginning his Tulane senior thesis under the direction of Professor Robert Kaster. This outpouring of assistance is a prime example of Princeton at its very best.
In addition to helping individuals, we have made an institutional commitment to assist in the rebuilding of Dillard University, a historically black institution that suffered crippling damage in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. We are being joined in this effort by Brown University, whose president, Ruth Simmons, is both a Dillard alumna and a former vice provost at Princeton. Dillard, whose entire campus was submerged in at least six feet of water, and then saw a number of its historic buildings succumb to fire, faces enormous difficulties, not the least of which is communication. Like so many residents of New Orleans, Dillard’s staff has been scattered across the southern United States, where they face the dual challenge of reconstituting their lives and reviving their institution, initially from afar. One administrator, who was evacuated with her husband and two children by helicopter with no more than a bag apiece, has had to turn to her host community’s public library for computer access, which is why much of our initial emphasis has been on helping her and her colleagues communicate with one another and the world at large. In the months ahead, we stand ready to offer a wide range of support and counsel, whether that means conducting damage assessments, helping with contract and insurance negotiations, restoring waterlogged holdings in their library, or providing surplus furniture and computers.
This account does not begin to encompass the generous support of individual students, faculty, and staff who have organized benefits—from concerts to charity auctions—made donations, opened their homes, and, in some cases, traveled to hurricane-ravaged areas to share their expertise under a two-week paid leave of absence program created for this purpose. About a dozen displaced faculty have already come to Princeton to pursue their research, and thanks to the efforts of Professor of Music Scott Burnham, the sweet sounds of New Orleans will be heard on campus with the arrival of celebrated singer and keyboardist Wilson Turbinton (better known as “Willie Tee”), who hails from one of that city’s hardest hit neighborhoods. Hurricane Katrina has left its survivors with a staggering amount of work to do, but as our University community has amply demonstrated, the citizens of the Gulf Coast do not face this task alone.