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Journey to my MBA

Monday, August 28, 2006

Tulane (Freeman) Business School is back up again.

The B-School Of Hard Knocks
One year after Hurricane Katrina, Tulane's Freeman School is back in business

At Tulane University's commencement in May, Angelo DeNisi looked around at the thousands of graduates, at former Presidents Bush and Clinton, at the other deans and faculty members, and thought: "My God, we made it."

It was only a year earlier that DeNisi accepted the position as dean of Tulane's Freeman School of Business. At the time, he knew he would have challenges, but a Category 3 hurricane wasn't one of them. Neither was laying off more than 15% of the faculty, shutting down two departments, and answering hundreds of calls and e-mails from students placed at other B-schools across the U.S.

Today, one year after Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, the Tulane campus is all new paint and plaster, and only a handful of the B-school's dispersed students have not returned. But DeNisi's challenges are daunting. Among them: getting out the word -- to both students and recruiters -- that his B-school is back in business.

When DeNisi took office as dean on July 1, 2005, after 15 years on the business faculty at Texas A&M University, he spent time assessing the school's problems. The curriculum, last overhauled nearly a decade earlier, needed updating. Too few companies were recruiting on campus -- only about two dozen visited in 2004, a fraction of the number that recruit at top-ranked schools. "We weren't placing our students," DeNisi says. "People come here expecting to have a job when they leave, not just to be educated."

But DeNisi's to-do list was about to be rewritten. On Aug. 28, Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, forcing DeNisi and his family to evacuate to Houston. As the city took on water, students fled for higher ground, enrolling at the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, and other B-schools across the country as part of a deal struck to ensure Tulane students would be able to graduate on time. Suddenly, his school existed only in theory.

One thing DeNisi and his associate deans had was time. Holed up in a Houston classroom the school rents for satellite executive MBA courses, they redesigned the curriculum, adding a bigger international component and an entrepreneurship program. Says DeNisi: "When people have time to talk, it's amazing what they can get done."

In the storm's immediate aftermath, much of the Tulane campus was in shambles, including dorms and the recreation center. At the B-school, the main business building was hit hard, with six feet of water in the auditoriums on the ground level and mold and mildew taking over walls and ceilings. As crews worked to get the Freeman building up to code, DeNisi got word that programs would have to be cut to deal with the huge financial loss from Katrina, which caused an estimated $300 million in damage to the university as a whole. By December, 11 faculty members in marketing and operations management -- including seven tenured or tenure-track professors -- were let go, in what DeNisi describes as the most difficult experience of his first year as dean.

Now, as DeNisi enters his second year, Tulane is nearly back to normal. But enrollment for entering MBAs is way off: 60, down from 90 last year. "Half of the people still think we're underwater," says associate dean Peggy Babin. And with no career services director to lead the charge, recruiters haven't returned to campus. DeNisi knows that's unlikely to change until he fills the vacancy.

Oddly enough, the storm that destroyed the Tulane campus may end up as its saving grace. DeNisi is hatching plans to turn New Orleans itself into an extension of the B-school, a place where students will one day learn management techniques and in the process rebuild the city's economic infrastructure. If he succeeds, the educational experience that results will be unique. "This isn't a simulation," he says. "This is real life."


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