Former Central Valley Educator Makes Life Or Death Call in New Orleans

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(Atlanta, GA)
Thursday, September 22, 2005

Marvalene Hughes remembers the moment she found herself having to make a life and death decision as a college president. Watching TV during a break from meeting with her top aides, Hughes realized Hurricane Katrina was headed straight for New Orleans and Dillard University.

"And I saw this swirling storm that had bypassed Florida and was in the Gulf. I walked in and said 'close everything' and within less than two hours we had the word out that the campus was closing."

Speaking from a hotel in Atlanta, Hughes says her first concern was to get the school's 21-hundred students to safety -- and she acted quickly, faster, in fact, than most public officials at the time.  Hughes and her staff scrambled to charter six buses that transported several hundred students 350 miles away to Shreveport. 

"I actually went to the area where all the students assembled, spoke with them, asked them if they had everything they needed. They said 'yes'. We loaded them and I went to every bus and gave them cheers."

After urging faculty and staff to leave town, Hughes and her husband left their home. That Saturday night with Katrina bearing down on the city, Hughes received a disturbing phone call.

"One of the chartered buses had burned down. My first panicky reaction was that we had lost some students. We had not."

Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and New Orleans' levees at Lake Ponchatrain broke. According to published reports, much of Dillard University's 55-acre campus was covered by eight feet of water. Hughes says it doesn't stop there. 

"In addition to the water damage we also encountered some wind damage, because many of our buildings, perhaps two or more, lost their roofs. And about three of the buildings were burned."

Dillard, a historically black university with a long history, was founded shortly after the Civil War to educate freed slaves. It was recently ranked as one of the best private universities in the country by US News and World Report magazine. 

 Today, the school faces an uncertain future with its infrastructure severely damaged and its students scattered around the country. But Hughes insists the school will re-open, sooner rather than later. She has a contingency plan.

"Plan "B" would involve a potential relocation to another site."

The other site has yet to be found. Some in the education community say one of Hughes' biggest challenges will be to hold on to faculty, especially if the school has to be temporarily relocated for a time. But Hughes says she's determined to restore Dillard on the site where it has stood since 1869.