I have always viewed communication as essential to the position of a university president. In my short time as president of Loyola University New Orleans, I have been guided by a basic, underlying commitment to be as open and transparent as possible in my decision-making. Communication is crucial to fulfilling that promise.
So, one of the immediate frustrations of Hurricane Katrina, for me, was the inability to be in touch with the university community. As someone who is a regular user of the telephone, a cell phone, voicemail, e-mail, and the web, the days of late August and early September were extremely difficult. The limits on communication were aggravated by the fact that the Loyola community was spread out from one end of the country to another, and even into a few countries abroad.
Members of our IT staff moved quickly to re-establish communication through the university webpage and through e-mail. That enabled us to work with the community in diaspora, conveying basic information and addressing questions about courses, salaries, the state of the campus, and life in New Orleans. The technologies also allowed me to communicate a vision of where we are and where we hope to be.
I have used e-mail as a way to talk with a large audience of people since I became university president last fall. After Katrina, I listed on the university's website a new, public e-mail address, and I have responded to more than 3,000 e-mails since.
Every week, I write a letter to the entire Loyola community via our online recovery site (www.loyno.edu). Key components for my weekly messages come from the e-mail traffic I receive. Through these e-mails, I listen to people and hear thematic types of questions that I can address.
At the moment I am also traveling to visit our alumni, students, parents, and supporters throughout the United States. In a 40-day period I will attend receptions at our 16 alumni clubs across the nation. In each meeting I speak to practical and real questions we are facing, and also to the future that we might imagine for Loyola and the city. There is always time during these receptions for questions, and they change from week to week. Early on, there were questions about the physical state of the campus. More recently, people have been asking about the surrounding neighborhood. Are there hospitals? (There are.) Is water drinkable? (It is.) Are there stores open? (Yes, there are drug stores and supermarkets open.)
While part of my message usually deals with a question or questions of the here and now, I am always conscious to address the future. I think an essential part of a president's job is to help a university imagine its future. I have always thought this, but the events of Katrina have made that clearer than ever to me. In my talks I try to strike a balance between realism about the challenges we face and optimism about the future of the university, the city, and the region.
Real hope envisions a future that is grounded in reality but also a world that can be different than it is now. In my messages, I tell some stories about Loyola; not about the place, but about the people. They are stories of generosity and courage. They are real stories that ground my own hope for our future. And they are stories that give me the courage to invite others to be part of the university's new life.
The Rev. Kevin William Wildes is president of Loyola University New Orleans. He is returning to his home on campus this fall; classes at Loyola will begin again on January 9, 2006.