Universatility: rebuilding in the wake of disaster

06 May 2011

Towards the end of last term, the University's new Pro-Vice-Chancellor College of Arts, Professor Ed Adelson, welcomed his students back to campus following the quake with a discussion of how universities in his native United States responded with resilience and strength to devastating natural disasters in their regions.

Towards the end of last term, the University's new Pro-Vice-Chancellor College of Arts, Professor Ed Adelson, welcomed his students back to campus following the quake with a discussion of how universities in his native United States responded with resilience and strength to devastating natural disasters in their regions.

His talk demonstrated that even when a campus is decimated and students are unable to return for months, universities return with a quality and strength that makes them better than they ever were before.

"The [earthquake] itself was certainly a terrible thing," he says, "but there's much to build on and to think about what it is this institution can be as it moves forward."

Professor Adelson later expanded on some of his discussion in an interview with Canta, and gave us pause to look at some case studies of a few American universities.

"It's a beautiful place to live; it's a wonderful university. My enthusiasm for it is undampened, despite the [earthquakes]. In fact, I think this university could become a stronger and more interesting place based on what I've seen of institutions that have gone through natural disasters in the States."

Professor Ed Adelson on the University of Canterbury's post-quake environment California State University at Northridge Following the 1994 Northridge earthquake:

"In 1994 they had a quake that was really cataclysmic in the sense that it levelled much of the campus. The epicentre was just a couple of miles from the campus itself. At the time it was the most costly natural disaster in any American university's history." - Professor Adelson.

The 1994 Northridge earthquake caused $20 billion in damage, $400 million of which was sustained at the California State University's campus alone. As at Canterbury, no fatalities or serious injuries occurred on campus - largely because, like our September earthquake, it occurred in the early hours of the morning during a semester break - but entire sections of campus were too heavily damaged to repair, including a library and the Fine Arts building. A parking structure was destroyed in its entirety. Classes recommenced four weeks after the earthquake, and as every building on campus was damaged in some way, alternative classrooms and offices were established in hundreds of temporary structures located on lawns, athletic fields, and parking lots.

This initiative in part inspired the University of Canterbury's decision this year to erect tent precincts and the Oval and Dovedale pre-fab villages. The campus' main library was closed for eight months, with students being redirected to libraries at nearby campuses, for which shuttle buses were provided for transportation. A temporary library was established in an old fairground exhibition building, with administration operating out of a caravan.

US Vice President Al Gore visited the university soon after the earthquake, promising the immediate injection of federal funds to help the rebuilding effort. Subsequently, the university initiated a number of pilot programmes not being undertaken anywhere else in the country, including the United States' first Central American Studies programme.

In recent years, the university built a one megawatt fuel cell power plant, a clean energy initiative the largest of its kind at any university in the world. The earthquake also gave the university's civil engineering faculty and students the opportunity to participate in research on the earthquake protection of building structures - protection which would ultimately be incorporated in the university's new post-quake structures, to ensure the damage sustained would not be repeated in the future.

Professor Adelson says today the university is "quite vibrant", with over 36,000 students. More promisingly, it's the second most attractive university in its category in the United States for international students, which Adelson says suggests Canterbury might not need fear a downturn in international student numbers following our earthquake.

Tulane University Following 2005's Hurricane Katrina: "Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and the lingering effects of that in terms of the rebirth of the city still make the city a very challenged place with respect to what it used to be; in terms of the number of people who migrated away, and the number of neighbourhoods that were destroyed.

Nonetheless, Tulane, which is a very fine US university, has done spectacularly well in terms of its place as a destination, in a context in the United States where there's intense competition for students." - Professor Adelson.

The Tulane campus underwent extensive damage during Hurricane Katrina, and infrastructure in the area was similarly affected, with power out, roads blocked, and the waters ever rising. In the midst of the hurricane, the university initially announced a plan to close the campus for about four days. This ultimately turned into four months when days later the university cancelled the fall (autumn) semester.

But though the campus, and essentially the city, was closed, students were not left without options. 492 universities across the United States allowed students to enrol at their schools, and when these students returned to Tulane, the points they had earned were credited to their records as per normal.

The university's school of medicine relocated to facilities in Houston, Texas. In addition, Tulane offered a "lagniappe semester" after the regular spring semester had finished ("lagniappe" being a Louisiana French word for a small additional gift given to a customer as a means of good will) in order to help students make up any points they'd been unable to earn the year before.

"They really did all kinds of interesting things for students," comments Adelson. "And I see us starting to do that, too. In SMT [senior management team] and with my other colleagues we're having all sorts of discussion about what we can start to offer now that maybe we didn't before; what kind of institution we can be that we weren't - not saying that we weren't good, but let's think about new things."

Over the next couple of years, Tulane was forced to drastically reduce its budget, which was achieved by reducing the number of programmes on offer and cutting a large number of its employees. This was a contentious move, as some believed the university used the hurricane as an excuse to enact restructuring plans it could not have otherwise. Nevertheless, a handful of years later, Tulane's enrolments are up to the heady levels they were before.

"Tulane is a very attractive place," says Edelson, "and I would say it has a persona now in terms of an institution that people want to go to because it's a very interesting and special place, that is probably enhanced over what it was before Katrina.

"I believe it [had] the most applications for first year students - what we call 'freshmen students' in the States. And that's because it's a really interesting place to go to school, and that's despite the fact that New Orleans is still not the easiest city to live in, in terms of neighbourhoods and crime and other things like that. And so, again, I think it teaches us something about making assumptions. Christchurch will have some years to rebuild, but that doesn't mean it won't be a really interesting and vibrant place for students to be in, and a really meaningful place."

University of Iowa After the 2008 floods For several weeks in June 2008, Iowa was hit by severe flooding involving most of the rivers in its eastern regions. The university, through which the Iowa River flows, was particularly vulnerable. Although the university was able to move a lot of its library collections and artwork to higher ground, the campus buildings could not escape the water. Twenty buildings flooded, particularly in the Arts Campus, including the university's auditorium, fine arts buildings, and school of music.

Nevertheless, students were quickly returned to campus, the library reopened the next month, and on July 4th the campus celebrated Independence Day - and the end of flooding - with a fireworks display. In August, the university was proud to announce its enrolment was at an all-time high.

"They're rebuilding really interesting structures in the performing and fine arts, and moving forward," Adelson says.

Adelson believes that, as terrible as the disasters may be, the fact these institutions faced such tragedy enabled them to reflect on how they could improve, and how they could distinguish themselves from institutions that had not gone through such experiences.

"I think it gave them the opportunity to think about what they do really well, and what they don't do as well, and where they can focus. It gave them this opportunity to think that, well, we are different in some ways, so let's figure out how we can leverage those differences."

He adds that it's important for students to feel like they're not just recipients of a situation, but are partners in the on-going recovery and restart of an institution.

"I think on both sides - on our side the staff, on the students' side - we have to find ways to meet together and to have really interesting discussions. As I reflect on US situations I would say that makes a critical difference."

And with all those American universities coming out of adversity all the stronger for it, what does Professor Adelson envision the University of Canterbury will be like in five years' time?

"It's a little presumptions of me, being one of the newest people here, to own in on that, but I can tell you that I think it'll be a stronger institution. As I look at Arts, I think we will have both more focus and more vibrancy to what we do. I think we might have a different type and manner of conversation, all of which is really good.

"It's not that a crisis is a good thing, but I think a post-crisis institution can in some ways have a stronger sense of who it is and what it is."

View this Canta article (http://canta.co.nz/features/universatility-rebuilding-in-the-wake-of-disaster/) and others in Canta online.

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