Mar 282013

Allan Katz and Danae Columbus

One of the region’s most interesting and not-yet-fully-covered stories is the rejuvenation and re-energizing of the University of New Orleans.

UNO’s tortuous ties to LSU in Baton Rouge have been severed. A new University of New Orleans President is in place. He is Dr. Peter Fos, a 1972 graduate of UNO. The university at the lakefront is now part of the University of Louisiana system which will likely be a more agreeable relationship than the old one with Baton Rouge where the Tiger bosses tended to see UNO as a threat rather than as a promising protégé.

Among those who paid a stiff price for UNO’s freedom from the Tigers is Dr. Fos’ predecessor, Dr. Tim Ryan. A long-time fixture at UNO who was a great Economics professor and Business School dean before becoming UNO Chancellor, Dr. Ryan fought the Tigers and ended up becoming a martyr to the cause. His situation was similar to that of the late Dr. Homer Hitt, the first chancellor at what was then known as Louisiana State University in New Orleans (LSUNO). Dr. Hitt like Dr. Ryan and Dr. Fos, had a clear vision of the importance of the lakefront university becoming successful and was at constant odds with his Tiger bosses.

From its first graduating class in 1962 of 118, UNO has played a crucial role in the development of the strong middle class that can be found today in New Orleans, Jefferson Parish, the River Parishes, the North Shore, St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish. It is to a considerable degree that middle class that has proven so resilient and rebuilt so splendidly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina eight years ago in response to the pessimists who wondered if South Louisiana would ever rise again.

Unfortunately, Dr. Fos, who arrived as a freshman at UNO in 1968 with a high school diploma from Holy Cross, finds upon his arrival this time that the UNO enrollment has never recovered from Katrina and today stands at about 10,000 in contrast to the enrollment of 16,000 back in his student days.

Along with a fine faculty, many of whom are 20-year or more veterans of teaching at UNO who hung on during the dark, dreary post-Katrina days, Dr. Fos is beating the drums to let the community know that UNO is once again ready to provide the academic training needed to build the strong middle class that will be needed in the 21st Century if South Louisiana is to flourish.

“As a public four-year university serving the Metro area, UNO offers excellent academics, a degree program that has credibility with the business community here and across the nation, and a comparative bargain-rate tuition set around $5,000 a year,” Dr. Fos says. “Once again, UNO is positioned to provide the middle class that is going to start businesses, create jobs and lift our regional economy to places that have never before been attained.”

Of course, the world has changed greatly since Dr. Fos was an 18-year-old freshman at the lakefront. Back then, UNO was the first fully-integrated public university in Louisiana, having endured riots and racial tension when it was integrated upon its opening in 1958. Today, UNO is considered the most diverse public university in Louisiana, benefiting in particular from the influx of Hispanic students post-Katrina. Dr. Fos recently invited to the lakefront campus the African-American students of 1958 who integrated the university. Now in their 70s, proud of their heritage, those first African-American graduates of UNO are part of the legacy of diversity that is today stronger than ever. Since its beginnings as a former Naval base, UNO has awarded 70,000 degrees.

Another change is that a freshman is less likely to be 18 years old than in Dr. Fos’ student days. Today, it isn’t unusual to find UNO freshmen who are in their 20s and 30s, men and women who went straight to work after finishing high school or spent a year or two in college before going to work. “Today, we have a very mature, purposeful student body, many of whom are part-time students with family responsibilities,” says Dr. Fos. “In contrast to my freshman class, today’s student might very well be planning to spend five, six or seven years in pursuit of their degree while holding a full-time job and  raising a family. As a university, we are very attuned to the needs of today’s student body. They are ambitious, experienced in the world of work and very fixed on their goals of improving their skills and credentials to achieve the success they want in their careers.”

We predict Dr. Fos will be successful in sending out the message that UNO is once again poised to be a growth institution, preparing the middle class of tomorrow that New Orleans and the region are going to need.

Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several televsion programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City Councilwoman Stacy Head, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and council candidate Dana Kaplan.

  • Jeffrey Talbot

    Best of luck to my Alma Mater!