While the university claimed the reorganization was driven by a motivation to help the university connect with the city and the region, it involved the closure of nearly all of the engineering departments on campus, including mechanical, civil and environmental engineering – expertise New Orleans would need to rebuild itself. For Nicole Gasparini, an earth scientist who joined Tulane in 2008, the university’s decision to eliminate the engineering department was surprising.
“I’m sure there were politics that went into it, but coming in with my background, I can’t understand why you would get rid of something like that in a place like this,” she says. Gasparini, who trained as an engineer before taking up her current research position, questions the decision to do away with a training program for engineers in a city that depends on that kind of knowledge base for its complicated infrastructure. “It just seems strange.”
The university defended its decision to close most of the engineering departments, even during a time when engineers could help rebuild New Orleans. According to Nicholas Altiero, dean of Tulane’s Science and Engineering School, the decision was difficult but was made because those departments were particularly costly. In addition, the university wanted to shift its resources into the academic areas that it was better known for.
“Not everyone agrees with all the decisions that were made by the president and the board (and I expressed my disagreement when that announcement was made), but there is no doubt in my mind that their quick and decisive action saved our university,” Altiero said in an interview with IEEE Spectrum in 2007.
In addition to training and educating local students, Tulane and other universities in New Orleans attract thousands of students from other parts of the country, and provide the city with a steady stream of revenue. Tulane is the city’s largest employer, with more than 4,500 employees. With these institutions comprising an essential component of the New Orleans community – both scientifically and culturally – their post-Katrina development path had an unavoidable impact on the entire region.
Plugging the Brain Drain
If the news of Tulane’s renewal plan, announced before the school had even reopened, was intended to boost the morale of those that remained at the university, the effect did not immediately take hold. Surrounded by a city that was still awash in hurricane damage, the university fought to repair itself while many departments struggled to keep operating.
“The first few years after the storm were incredibly stressful,” says Törnqvist, who was the only new professor hired in the summer of 2005 that returned to Tulane. “We were down to a small number of faculty but we just had to keep things going.”
But as departments began recruiting for new faculty members, the university had to contend with the city’s tarnished reputation. Even more difficult was the recruitment of graduate students, which is the foundation of most strong research programs.
"The  year was not a good recruiting year," says Nelson, of his department. "We had no new graduate students join."
But in the next year, Nelson says his department may have been saved by the fact that following the storm, many earth scientists from outside of Louisiana suddenly became interested in the research prospects in the Gulf Coast region. “Louisiana is a kind of natural laboratory for climate change [research],” he says. “New Orleans itself has become a good recruiting tool.”
The opportunity to closely monitor rapid changes in the area’s landscape is a natural draw for geologists, hydrologists and sediment specialists. Törnqvist himself studies the impact of sea level rise on coastal wetlands, and he says there is no better place to study this than in Louisiana. Even in the midst of the storm, he says he always knew he would stay at Tulane.
“I actually never considered leaving. I knew it was very bad [in New Orleans] but I also felt that this whole new situation that developed had so many connections with what I work on that this was where I had to be,” he explained.
Regaining a Research Community