The Hurricane Katrina-Displaced Student's Dilemma

I am a Tulane student, and I am attending a state university this semester.  As you may be aware, Tulane is trying to charge all students Tulane tuition.  There has been talk of a class action lawsuit.  I believe the law is very firm that collecting Fall 2005 tuition is illegal since services were not rendered due to the hurricane.  Any advice or publicity you can give to the matter would be greatly appreciated.

Email received 9/17/2005
(Writer's identity withheld)

I am not a lawyer and cannot give legal advice. However, I am not without thoughts on the complex problem you pose. I have seen the statements issued by Tulane on its Web site [1]. To its credit, Tulane did arrange for its students to be accommodated at other institutions notwithstanding the hardships inflicted by the displacement. Tulane cannot be held responsible for the difficulties caused by the hurricane. Tulane also cannot be faulted for attempting to preserve its financial base. However, Tulane is facing problems of its own that it is trying to fix by methods that may seem harsh and unfair to those impacted.

According to a report of October 1, 2005 on, Tulane has already terminated all part-time faculty, staff and graduate assistants, and on November 1 it will terminate research faculty, clinical faculty, medical residents, and professors from the VA hospital who work part-time at the medical school [2].

Tulane is also concerned that 85% of its students, who are not Louisiana residents, may not feel compelled to return to the toxic environment of New Orleans. This is one of Tulane's great vulnerabilities as it depends upon those students' tuition to meet its operating expenses.

The dilemma of students is one faced mainly by juniors and especially seniors who already have a substantial investment toward their Tulane degree. In most cases, they will want to return in January to complete their degree requirements and receive their Tulane diploma. Of course, juniors will have to weigh the option of transferring their credits to another institution. On the other hand, I see no reason why sophomores, and particularly freshmen, would want to return to Tulane given the conditions in New Orleans. Their educational and financial needs could be equally well-served at alternate institutions.

Tulane has stated that it will return tuition to students who choose to remain at other schools and pay tuition to those schools. Tuition takes the form of a contract between an institution and a student. Thus, in exchange for tuition, Tulane obligated itself to provide specified educational opportunities. If it fails to provide its side of the contract, even because of circumstances beyond its control, it could be required to return tuition fees.

I usually recommend to young people who feel injured or unjustly treated that they not become embroiled in litigation. That can sap their energy, exhaust their finances, and ultimately end in bitterness. Better that they expend their energy in learning about the world, soaking up knowledge, making social contacts, becoming politically active, and planning a career.

I would suggest that Tulane sophomores, and especially freshmen, forgo the goal of a Tulane diploma and seek to enroll in other institutions. They should then pay tuition to those institutions and press Tulane for the return of any tuition owed them. Only in the event that Tulane reneges on its promise (and obligation) to return the fees it collected from hurricane-displaced students should students, individually or collectively, seek a legal remedy. I would hope that Tulane, with an endowment of $810 million that can be tapped for emergencies such as this [3], would be forthcoming and that legal action would not be necessary.

With best wishes to you and your fellow students.

Carl Bernofsky

[Note:  See Inside Higher Ed for more student responses to Tulane's efforts to retain its students [4].  Also, Gary Roberts, Deputy Dean, Tulane Law School, has outlined why the law school compelled its students to return to Tulane for the spring semester [5].  His economic rationale is applicable to other segments of the university.]


On Thursday, January 12, 2006, Tulane welcomed back 85% of its freshman class to the uptown campus [6], and the following Monday treated returning students to a concert led by Wynton Marsalis at McAlister Auditorium.  Securing the freshman base is a tribute to the efforts of Tulane President Scott S. Cowen and his public relations staff, and it demonstrates the faith that students and their parents have in the Tulane administration.  Tulane's financial prospects may also be improving; they are, in part, dependent on the actions of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back commission, where Tulane's interests are very well represented.

The news for many Tulane employees is less rosy.  While freshmen were being welcomed, Tulane was implementing its third round of layoffs, cutting an additional 200 workers from its payroll [7].  Tulane previously dismissed 230 faculty members in December, 243 non-teaching personnel in November, and about 2,000 part-time employees during September and October of 2005 [7].

Time will tell whether Tulane will emerge whole or if Cowen's contradictory messages are harbingers of future conflict.  For example, Cowen created a graduation requirement for Tulane undergraduate students to participate in the rebuilding of New Orleans [8], while on the other hand, he shut down critical engineering programs for reasons that defy Tulane's charter from the state.  In a letter to one supporter, Cowen asserted: "It is true that the recovery of New Orleans is critically dependent on effectively addressing engineering challenges; however, Tulane is a national institution and cannot structure its programs primarily around the needs of a single region... ." [9]

Tulane students will be required to perform at least 15 hours per year of community service, working in troubled areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward, rebuilding homes, cleaning streets, tutoring children and teaching adults to use computers [10].

  1. Tulane University, "Academic Issues for Fall, 2005; Frequently Asked Questions — Tuition,", accessed 9/20/05.

  2. Rebecca Mowbray and Jaquetta White, "Some paychecks stop for New Orleans workers; Companies can't pay without customers," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, October 1, 2005, p. A-9.

  3. June Kronholz and Stefan Fatsis, "After Hurricane, Tulane University Struggles to Survive; School Plays Hardball to Keep Students and Tuition Fees," The Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2005, p. A1.

  4. David Epstein, "Ordered Back to Louisiana," Inside Higher Ed, September 27, 2005,, accessed 12/27/05.

  5. Gary Roberts, "Tulane to Force Students Ousted by Katrina to Return Spring Semester," TaxProf Blog, September 22, 2005,, accessed 01/23/06.

  6. Greg Allen, "Tulane University Reopens New Orleans Campus," National Public Radio, Morning Edition, January 13, 2006,, accessed 01/13/06.  See also: Justin Pope, "Coeds at Tulane have 'Orientation Deja Vu'," The Advocate, Baton Rouge, January 12, 2006.

  7. John Pope, "Tulane lays off 200 more workers; Faculty members are spared this time," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, January 13, 2006, p. B-1.

  8. Tulane University, "Tulane University — A Plan for Renewal," December 22, 2005,, accessed 01/12/06.

  9. Email communication of January 11, 2006 from Scott S. Cowen to Lucas H. Ehrensing, a Tulane alumnus and supporter (copy received 01/13/06).

  10. Elizabeth Mehren, "Students return to renovated Tulane; Four months after evacuations for Katrina, 80 percent of freshman have reenrolled," The Baltimore Sun, January 15, 2006,, accessed 01/15/06.