Hurricane Katrina almost wiped out Tulane University. Then, the disaster gave the 178-year-old New Orleans institution an exciting new vision.
That was the story that Tulane provost Michael Bernstein told last week, when he came to Lexington to speak as the guest of the University of Kentucky's Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching.
Before the August 2005 storm, Bernstein said, Tulane's engagement with the surrounding community "was haphazard at best." Now, he said, "it is part of the DNA of the institution."
Making the university more a part of the community — and the community more a part of the university — was a valuable lesson for Tulane. UK could learn that lesson, too, and it doesn't require a cataclysmic disaster.
Before Katrina, Bernstein said, "It used to be study and then go into the city to have fun." When the storm almost destroyed New Orleans, Tulane included, university officials canceled the fall semester and fled to Houston to regroup, reorganize and refocus the university around its most successful academic programs.
With Tulane's campus and finances either literally or figuratively under water, officials were forced to take a fresh look at the school's core mission — its very reason for existing.
"Instead of running from what the storm did to us, we have embraced it, and we're leveraging it in a powerful way," Bernstein said. "Now we are more focused on how the community can be used in learning and service for students."
The university has rebranded itself around the motto "Tulane Empowers: Helping People Build a Better World." Academic programs and learning activities have been refocused around themes of public service, public education, disaster response, urban redevelopment, public health and community medicine.
Unlike Tulane, a private institution, UK and similar state land-grant universities have had public engagement as part of their mission since Abraham Lincoln signed legislation during the Civil War that led to their creation.
Former President Lee T. Todd Jr. focused on revitalizing UK's land-grant mission statewide, especially in the areas of economic development and health care.
When Eli Capilouto became UK's 12th president last summer, he took on two long-simmering issues of town-gown relations. How he deals with them could well set the tone for UK's relationship with Lexington during his tenure.
Just a year ago, UK athletics officials were pushing for a new basketball venue to replace the 35-year-old Rupp Arena that anchors Lexington's downtown convention center.
Mayor Jim Gray sought to refocus the conversation in broader terms: renovating Rupp Arena and redeveloping the convention center and acres of underused surface parking as an economic engine for Lexington.
Gray created a task force that came up with a visionary and generally popular plan for doing that over the next decade or two. Capilouto has seemed somewhat cool to the idea, though, saying he doesn't want to jeopardize state funding that UK desperately needs to improve its campus.
With state resources scarce, Capilouto said, UK's priority needs to be renovating substandard academic buildings and building more and better housing for students. For years, UK students have either lived in scarce, neglected dormitories or been pushed off campus, largely to the detriment of surrounding neighborhoods.
Capilouto's stand hasn't pleased everyone, but it is the right approach.
The Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force's visionary plan for Rupp Arena and its surroundings will happen eventually. Few forces are more powerful in Kentucky than the love of UK basketball, so Rupp Arena is hardly in danger of falling into neglect.
On the other hand, UK's housing and academic structures have been neglected for years — in some cases, decades. So has the university's relationship with many of the neighborhoods surrounding campus. It is long past time that UK acknowledged and addressed those responsibilities.
Tulane's decision to embrace New Orleans and their shared fate was not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. Bernstein said community engagement has improved life in New Orleans and Tulane's educational potential. It even has helped attract students hungry for such real-world learning experiences.
UK already has many community-engagement efforts. But, as Tulane discovered, much more could be done. A closer relationship between UK and Lexington would pay huge dividends to both. Simply becoming a better neighbor is a good way for UK to start.