October 28, 2020: Just two months after reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic, the eye of Category 3 Hurricane Zeta passed over New Orleans and Tulane University.
President Mike Fitts recalls that being “probably the biggest challenge” during a pensive and unusual academic year. “I’m not sure if any other university had to deal with COVID plus the eye of a hurricane,” he said. “That was certainly a special moment as we sheltered in place and came through it.”
The Green Wave did—with flying colors. Tulane managed to host 85% of its classes on the ground during the year while keeping its COVID numbers low. From robust testing (500,000 in all) to the building of 19 new classrooms to accommodate social distancing, Tulane became a model of success for other institutions. Its COVID dashboard even was rated in the top five in the nation.
But 2021-22 admittedly will present new challenges for this research-rich institution, Fitts says. COVID’s variants are circulating, Louisiana’s positive case numbers are very high and expectations for reopening are even higher. But Tulane has a major asset that will keep operations running near normal.
“We’ve got well over 95% of our students and well over 90% of our faculty [vaccinated],” says Fitts, who notes that while a vaccine mandate is in place for students, it isn’t for employees. “When students arrive back on campus, they are going to be doing more of the things that we were doing [in 2019]. When we came back last year, I think everybody was asking, are we going to be able to hold a year on ground? And we were able to do it. I don’t think anybody doubts our ability to do it now.”
Fitts says students will be tested before campus arrival and again when they get to Tulane. The few that aren’t vaccinated will be tested twice per week. All of them must wear masks indoors, adhering to a mandate that was launched by the city of New Orleans on July 30. Classes begin on Aug. 23.
Tulane, the trend-setter
In the past month, the state of Louisiana has gone from less than 1,000 COVID cases per day to more than 16,000 currently. Along with Florida and Missouri, it remains one of the top hotspots for new cases. New Orleans is in the eye of the storm again, though it has done better with getting populations vaccinated than the state (just 37%.)
Tulane’s ability to have its population vaccinated and almost insulated from severe COVID cases is a blessing, so much so that Fitts says even with the rising rates, “I don’t think there’s the same concern [at Tulane] that there was perhaps last year.” Tulane has about 4,500 undergrads who live on campus, and much of its remaining population, including graduate students, live principally near the university in neighborhoods in the uptown section of the city.
Of course, if the situation deteriorates, Tulane has a plan. “We still can, if need be, have socially distanced classes. We do have isolation space,” he says The experience of last year, surviving COVID and the hurricane, will serve as a framework for Fitts and the stakeholders at Tulane moving forward.
So how did they pull it off in 2020-21? The first step was leaning on stakeholders, including the head of housing who suggested the university test students offsite before arriving. So Tulane did, at a convention hotel it effectively took over. There were other valuable strategies implemented.
“We messaged very intensely the value of vaccines throughout the community,” Fitts says. “And toward the end of the academic year, we said to the employees, you did a great job so we’re just going to give everybody a $500 bonus for the great work. But we conditioned that bonus on them being vaccinated. It was for their efforts, but we said it was because they stepped up for the community, and the vaccine also steps up for the community. Then we followed up on communicating the importance of it and why vaccination has been effective. Tulane is a very close-knit community. I think people felt this was part of their obligation to that community to be vaccinated.”
Looking back, looking forward
Despite the challenges, there were surprising outcomes that have occurred on Tulane’s campus during the pandemic.
The first has been the power to provide in-person learning. “What’s fascinating is, in many respects, we came out of the pandemic of last year stronger than when we went into it,” he says. “The health of the community was maintained. Our positivity rates were far below New Orleans. There were these predictions ahead of time about how the university model would change; everything would go online. It is true things went online, but we also understood how important being here was. We’ve seen a huge uptick in applications, selectivity, yield and so on. Students want to be in New Orleans. They want to be at Tulane, and they want to be part of this community.”
The second has been the continuation of initiatives planned prior to the pandemic. “We’re building a new undergraduate quad, a learning residential learning community called The Village. We’ll be bringing 1,000 students back on campus to live. The construction continued through the entire pandemic. The fact that our students wanted to come back and felt it so important to hold on-ground classes, has reaffirmed the decision to build this undergraduate community. We’re also building a new science and engineering building. A lot of the research that we did during this period was on the pandemic and on issues of infectious diseases. So that reaffirmed the importance of the research we do.”
The third has been the reaction from students. “They stepped up. They wore masks. Everybody thought that the students would be the ones in New Orleans who wouldn’t follow the rules. They really took it seriously.”
One other element in Tulane’s success that can’t be discounted is Fitts’ background, not just as a leader at Tulane since 2014. He has extensive legal experience—professor of law at Tulane, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, president of the American Law Deans Association—that could be deemed especially vital during this crisis moment, particularly around issues regarding COVID-19, vaccinations and otherwise. While that expertise in law has helped, it was “not in the way you may think.”
“My legal background, I think ,was very helpful…lawyers are good at thinking through the intricacies of complex problems where there’s a lot of different things that come together,” he says. “Being able to analyze each part of it and figure out how they interrelate. If you’re an engineer, everything’s an engineering problem. If you’re a doctor, everything’s a health problem. Lawyers think through the complexity of decision-making. The pandemic was a medical problem. It was a financial problem. It was a public health problem. There were political issues and legal issues. There were social issues. And in a sense, you had to address all of them. And I do think being a lawyer made me appreciate how all of these different factors had to be taken into consideration.”