Patrick Norton discusses Charity, crisis, collaboration

Rohan Goswami, News Editor

A long conference table dominates Patrick Norton’s eighth-floor office, in a downtown building miles away from Tulane University’s Uptown campus. A Bloomberg Terminal lies dormant at one end of the table, a television — quickly muted — with financial news at the other.

Patrick Norton, Tulane’s Chief Operating Officer.

To arrive there, where Tulane’s chief operating officer works and seemingly lives, visitors walk through a warren of offices and conference rooms, typically buzzing with activity and energy — the kind of intensity one would imagine from the operations center of the university.

“I wake up every day excited about the work we do,” Norton said.

Norton’s office was once on the second floor of Gibson Hall, steps away from the provost, the admissions office and the president. 

But Norton is responsible for administrators and staff —  working in nearly every nonacademic unit of the university — serving students Uptown from offices across the city. 

Being closer to his staff necessitated a move downtown, where most of Tulane’s support offices are concentrated. 

When he decided to move from Gibson Hall to offices on Poydras Street, though, there were slim pickings left.

“Because my staff were here first,” he said. Gesturing to the windows, Norton smiled. “This is what was remaining. And I said, okay, this is my view.”

Beyond the conference table, the reams of paper and the monitors is the view in question: the husk of Charity Hospital. 

It might seem to be the least salubrious of views, but for Norton, it couldn’t be more fitting. 

At the center of Tulane’s vision for downtown expansion is Charity itself — abandoned in the wake of Katrina but imminently poised for new life and energy.

Tulane — spearheaded by Norton’s office — recently announced a potentially stunning transformation for Charity Hospital, leasing over 300,000 square feet for research and educational facilities.

“And we’re going to have a fair amount of open space, retail space for the public and community,” Norton said.

Norton’s cadence is steady and meticulous, rarely modulating — but his optimism and excitement about the direction of the University is plainly evident.

His easy demeanor is perhaps surprising, given the width of his portfolio. Investments, police, human resources, information technology, facilities and emergency management all fall under his remit.

“That was intentional by the president, when he was recruiting for this position,” Norton said.

Norton began his career in healthcare accountancy, working at New York University — before sharpening his skillset at Columbia University and then Middlebury College, where he rose to Vice President for Finance and Treasurer in his decade-long tenure at the small, elite liberal arts college in Vermont.

Fitts brought Norton in early on in his presidency. 

“What he wanted — especially in the early years, and it’s taken — is that somebody that has the entire view of the whole landscape,” Norton said.

For university leadership, a balance between financial stability and continued investment can be a fine line to walk. Fitts — and Norton — arrived at a time when the university was in a financially precarious position.

Deficit spending, a heavy reliance on short-term lines of credit and rapidly aging physical plant all had the potential to become existential crises for the university. 

Norton distilled the crisis into a simple paradigm. 

“Borrowing a line of credit for working capital is just not good, right?” 

“I mean,” he said, “you have seasonal fluctuations of cash flows, I get it, yeah.”

“But then … if you can’t get off the line throughout the year,” Norton said, “then it becomes structural, and then it becomes permanent, financing. And that’s not a good place to be.”

Perhaps unusually for a finance chief, Norton is capable of expressing a complex crisis into concise and actionable points.

“My first big thing was, when I walked through the door, a major refinancing of our debt,” Norton said.

Major, in this case, was a staggering $173 million overhaul of bondage and lines of credit.

Momentarily, Norton reminisced. “I was the new guy, right, to come in and make a pitch to the rating agencies.”

He grins. “I kind of, you know, pulled in the president, pulled in the provost, pulled in the head of development.”

One can almost imagine Tulane’s leadership huddled in an oak-paneled room, preparing to duel with the arbiters of their financial fate.

“Get positive,” Norton recalls saying. “Be confident.”

Six years after that issuance, Standard & Poors and Moody’s upgraded and affirmed Tulane’s credit rating. Norton’s confidence, apparently, was merited.

The question of why any of this matters to a higher education institution doubtlessly has been asked. 

It seems clear, from Norton’s telling, that finance and operations propel Tulane’s mission to serve and educate the next generation of leaders.

“These facilities are expensive,” Norton said on the Charity project, the Commons and the Village. “So we need to continue to use them productively, and in a way that makes sense, to our mission and grows our program.”

“We’re a $1.3 billion organization,” Norton said. “We have to be very smart about how we allocate our resources.”

Those resources go beyond just physical plants. Compensation, a key issue for employees, constitutes a mammoth share of Tulane’s expenditure.

There’s a tacit agreement, Norton said, between universities and their employers. 

“It’s a safe environment for staff to be,” he said, pointing out that during the height of the COVID-19 crisis, Tulane avoided layoffs and pay cuts.

But beyond COVID-19, inflation has meant that dollars don’t go as far as they used to.

“I’m keeping an eye on inflation really closely,” Norton said. “We do want to be fair and equitable to staff, and ensure that the comp works for them. But yes, there are gonna be some grumblings, I get that.”

But, Norton conceded, there hasn’t been a discussion about raising compensation to reduce the effects of inflation. 

There will be a time, Norton said, “when we have to make a hard call on what we do for comp for next year.” 

But, he noted, “the one thing we are is flexible.”

Juggling myriad departments demands a great deal of adaptation and expansive thinking.

Take energy and electricity. Powering Tulane’s buildings falls squarely under Norton’s portfolio. The Bernhard deal, a plan with the Metairie, Louisiana based firm to transform how the university produces and consumes electricity, encapsulates the complexity of his role.

“It’s got facilities; it’s got capital planning; it’s got finance,” Norton said.

The Bernhard deal transferred power generation responsibilities from Tulane to Bernhard — a deal, Norton said, that had been pioneered in the healthcare industry and was now beginning to be adopted by education institutions nationally.

A stable energy supply took on a larger dimension for the university after Hurricane Ida, which saw power knocked out of Orleans Parish for days. 

Crises like hurricanes and COVID-19 are always major considerations for Norton. As experts argue that COVID-19 is approaching endemic status, it can be tempting to forget the tremendous challenges that the outbreak of the virus posed.

On COVID-19 testing specifically, Norton is clearly proud. 

When students were sent home Spring 2020, university leadership sprung into action to determine the safest — and most viable — way for Tulanians to return to campus. 

Over 80 days Norton and other campus leaders huddled to map out the uncertain future.

“We had two choices” on testing, Norton recalled. “One was to do it in house, and one was to do a private testing route.”

When Norton was presented with a comparison of the numbers on the two options, it wasn’t much of a choice. 

“I said, no, my money is on our School of Medicine.”

It was a gamble that paid off — a choice perhaps made easier by the ceaseless work that Norton and his team had put into shoring up the institution.

“It’s the relational culture of Tulane. It’s the fact that we knew each other; we were collaborative; we were collegial — I mean, every day for 80 days.”

Behind Norton is a roadmap stretching beyond 2025 — future plans on building and initiatives that Tulane has already begun, or will begin soon. It’s clear that for Norton, his money continues to be on Tulane.

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