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AU Tulane
Source: Tulane

Crisis and Adaptation for the Public Good

This article originally appeared on Stanford Social Innovation Review

After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, New Orleans experienced unprecedented devastation, and Tulane University was forced to close for a semester. In the months and years following this “human-induced disaster”—as it is called in New Orleans, due to the failure of the federal levees—we committed to reopening only by re-connecting the institution to the City of New Orleans and making social and environmental values paramount. Of course, Tulane has been engaged with the community since being founded in 1834 as the Medical College of Louisiana, with a focus on Yellow Fever and other tropical diseases. But in the years since Katrina, we’ve embedded social innovation and community engagement at the very core of our work. And as a significant anchor institution in this mid-sized city, and as the largest private employer, investments to accelerate the positive social impact produced by students and faculty have already made demonstrable effects.

Given the world-wide shock to our systems—including higher education—represented by COVID-19, Tulane’s example of a pivot, rather than a simple return to the pre-crisis status quo, presents a useful example for other institutions. After the shock of the moment, a culture of collaboration and social responsibility has emerged at Tulane: For example, along with broadly shifting teaching and research toward the imperative to rebuild—physically, socially, financially, and institutionally—we have embedded a tangible commitment to engage the community by requiring two semesters of service-learning for every student in every discipline and major at Tulane. Across the board, faculty, students, deans and other university leaders have contributed to diverse approaches that connect traditional academic ambitions with a deep sense of responsibility toward social and environmental justice.

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Ashoka insight

We’ve learned that education combining rigorous academic training with meaning and social impact resonates with many students, and we’ve seen significant improvement in all the traditional metrics of educational quality: application numbers, selectivity, rankings, retention and graduation rates, diversity among the student population, and the enhanced career paths of students who have engaged with a new model of connected college education. Undergraduate applications have risen from around 20,000 each year—before 2005—to nearly 45,000 for 1,800 freshman positions, and international students and students of color have each more than doubled.