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Getting reoriented, New Orleans campus sets a new course

NEW ORLEANS -- Lee Marinelli opened her dorm room to find everything just as she left it in August -- the books and school supplies on the shelves, half-unpacked clothes in the closet, her giant stuffed bear Cinnamon lying on the bed.

Four-and-a-half months ago, the Hurricane Katrina evacuation canceled Tulane University's freshman orientation after just a few hours. Yesterday, the school finally came back to life.

Students moved in on a day called ''Orientation Deja Vu," with familiar scenes more typical of late summer -- parents carrying trunks and freshmen getting acquainted with neighbors and roommates. Some were greeted by president Scott Cowen, a man they had last seen in August wearing Bermuda shorts and delivering to the new class not his planned welcome speech but an evacuation notice.

''This is a glorious day, because I have to say there were times in the first few months after the storm when I wasn't sure we would ever be able to reopen the university again," Cowen said.

Nearly 90 percent of Tulane's 6,700 undergraduates are returning, the university said, and more than 80 percent of freshmen -- a significant accomplishment considering that college officials initially wondered whether they would draw 60 percent. It's also a big boost for New Orleans, where Tulane is the largest private employer and returning students will amount to a noticeable population increase.

Tulane, which sustained $200 million in property damage, still has washed-away lawns, and many students are struggling to find housing (Tulane has leased a cruise ship). But the campus, which was less badly flooded than other area schools, looks remarkably normal. All but one of the school's majestic oaks, beloved by alumni, survived.

Still, Tulane is changed. In December, Cowen announced plans for one of the boldest reorganizations ever by a university, cutting 27 of its 45 doctoral programs while consolidating its undergraduate program. About 230 faculty were laid off -- mostly from the medical school -- and eight athletic teams were suspended.

Marinelli got word that her major, computer science, was among the programs Tulane would no longer offer. She's willing to give Tulane a try, but can't be sure she'll finish here.

''I'm going to see what I like better, the computer science or the school itself," she said. Her mother, Cynthia, was none too pleased that her daughter had already bought $700 worth of books for classes she was no longer taking.

Others also aren't happy with the plan, which cut doctoral programs in core subjects such as English and economics, and in areas like civil and environmental engineering that seem more urgent than ever.

''Given the depth and the number of the cuts that they've made to the doctoral programs and the professional schools . . . one does have to wonder whether the institutional mission has been compromised," said Clarence Mohr, a historian at the University of South Alabama historian who has written a history of Tulane.

Cowen says he understands the anger, but says the change will let Tulane improve its undergraduate program while maintaining its research status and plugging a $100 million deficit caused by the storm. The school has avoided tapping its $800 million endowment, but has had to borrow $150 million so far, and at this point insurance has paid for only a quarter of the damage.

The best news for Tulane is that applications for next year are up 15 percent, a product of publicity from the storm and opportunities to participate in the rebuilding of New Orleans, said Richard Whiteside, the dean of admissions. The school is starting a service requirement.

''If you're the type of student who thinks of themselves as the someone who would want to make a difference," Whiteside said, ''there can be no place better than here, now."

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