Q&A: President Mike Fitts on crime, Campus Health, Tulane’s future

Martha Sanchez, News Editor

President Mike Fitts discusses the issues that matter to Tulane students as they return to campus. (Courtesy of Tulane University )

President Fitts sat down with The Hullabaloo to discuss hurricane preparedness, crime and the issues that matter to Tulane students as they return to campus this semester. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: The pandemic has been a fixture of life at Tulane for two years. How will this semester compare to the past few? 

A: This is the fourth year we’ve been facing COVID. I just hadn’t fully appreciated it. We’ve been dealing with it almost half the time I’ve been president, so it’s affected everything, but each year has been different. Obviously, we depopulated campus four years ago, but the first year was heavy restrictions and masks and incredible testing and distanced classrooms and isolation space. That was the most restricted year. Last year, we thought it was behind us, but it was, again, a different set of limitations that came along. I think through the whole thing, too, our community handled this brilliantly. The students met all these challenges with as much good cheer as you could possibly have imagined. Faculty continue to teach. Staff work hard. We’re now vaccinated and boosted as a campus, and that has substantially reduced concerns. But you know, people still are getting COVID, there’s no question about it. But I think the impact is reduced, so we’ve gone from a pandemic to an endemic, and we’ll just face it as we have in the past. Hopefully, knocking on wood, this will be the best of all years.

Q: How is Tulane preparing for this hurricane season?

A: It’s important to notice that the threat of hurricanes here is really no different than the threat of hurricanes in Florida, across the Gulf South into Texas. I do think we take them more seriously, which is a good thing. We’re continually upgrading our hurricane preparedness. We have a new head of emergency management. We go through all sorts of tabletop exercises. We, in the past, have had great weather forecasters. We’ve now expanded, so we have sort of a variety of forecasters who we’re talking to in real time, so we can triangulate what’s going to happen. We’ve upgraded power on the campus with the Bernhart deal so that we have  generator power for the entire campus should power go out. And we’re constantly looking at ways to respond quicker, so I can’t imagine there’s another university in the country that has a better series of plans for confronting hurricanes.

Q: This summer’s reversal of Roe v. Wade is a big deal to many students on campus. What are your plans to support students on all sides of this issue?

A: The prime directive is to support students on this campus, and that means making contraceptive care available to them. It means supporting them in their health decisions. We have students from all over the country in places with very different legal restrictions. It is an issue that divides the Tulane community, so we hope everybody will be respectful of others’ opinions. But as the university, as we put out in the health plan notice, for us, the importance is to support the students in the decisions they will make.

Q: New Orleans is on track to become the “murder capital” of the United States. How confident are you in Tulane’s ability to keep students safe on and around campus?

A: Protecting the safety of the Tulane community is critically important to us. It has been since the day I became president. Of late, we’ve noticed cities in the United States have seen a lot of increase in crime, including in New Orleans. We have not seen an increase in crime on the Tulane campus or off the Tulane campuses last year, or the preceding years. In fact, it’s going down. Why is that? We introduced a lot of safety precautions over the last few years. First, we have expanded lighting and cameras, both on-campus and off-campus. We patrol on-campus, as well as Uptown. The Tulane Police Department is really the police force off-campus as well. We put increased security in all the dorms so that there’s only Splash Card access. We have security guards in the entrance to all the dorms. We have cameras in the dorms and security patrols, as well as Tulane University Police. That’s both on the Uptown and Downtown Campuses. We have all sorts of safety precautions with Everbridge, where, if you’re walking, you can alert the police if you feel uncomfortable. We have not seen an increase in crime. We’ve actually continued to see a decrease, but I understand completely that everybody needs to be very vigilant these days, and we need to be vigilant in protecting the community.

Q: What should students understand about Tulane’s expansion initiatives in downtown New Orleans? How will that shape the future of the university?

A: The Downtown Campus is really a reflection of our exponential growth in research over the last few years, and we’re on the forefront in doing research on COVID, river coastal issues, environmental issues, health issues, health equity. And our research exploded — it’s gone up 50%. Obviously, we’re not going to be building research labs in the middle of the Academic Quad. A lot of that expansion is Downtown, it’s out of the medical school. We’re taking over about a half of Charity Hospital. We’re going to have 600 researchers there. We’re expanding the whole campus there. We have 21 buildings there, and it will be a place where we can support this explosion in research. That’ll be good for Tulane. It’ll be good for the undergraduate students. It also will be good for New Orleans, so it will be expansion of labs, expansion of space for students and faculty but also a space for startups that would come out of the research that we do. Think about Silicon Valley, with Stanford, Cambridge, with MIT, Nashville, with Vanderbilt. We think we can have a similar beneficial effect on the world.

Q: Following turmoil last year, what work has been done to improve Campus Health and what changes can students expect this fall?

A: There’s nothing more important than the health of the student body and the whole community. Those needs were exacerbated by the pandemic. I think people were stressed, both mentally and physically, so there’s a lot of focus on Campus Health. We brought in a consultant over the summer who looked at the entire program from top to bottom and gave us a lot of good advice about how we can improve it. My understanding is we’re fully staffed. We are in a search for a new head of counseling, and my understanding is, we are hopeful that will be announced very soon. We have an interim director of Campus Health, and we’re doing a national search for that position. We hope and plan for that to be filled by the end of the semester, though, the interim is very experienced. We’ve had telehealth, now, 24 hours a day. So you know, that was a real concern so that students don’t have to go to urgent care or something like that. And I guess it’s connected with Tulane hospital. And we’ve improved the website, there were concerns about how well it was navigating. So again, a very important issue. We’ve really looked at it in some detail and made some changes.

[The Tulane Hullabaloo reported in December 2021 that, fully staffed, the Counseling Center has 18 employees. There are currently 15.]

Q: How do you see name, image and likeness along with conference realignment affecting Tulane athletics?

A: Anybody who knows how the college athletic world is going to change over the next five years is delusional because there are just a lot of moving parts at this point, a lot of changes. So we’re on top of them. Troy Dannan, head of athletics, has been on the central unit committee in the NCAA looking at how it’s going to be restructured. There’s been a lot of movement amongst schools within leagues, and we think the world will be reasonably stable. But it’s hard to tell. I think we’re happy in the American. We think we’ve got good other teams. We brought in a group of new teams into the American. We’re very optimistic about the football team this year and the basketball team. We think we’ve got good teams, great coaches. We’ve got great facilities. There are a lot of good things to talk about. But there’s a lot of change going on. My view is, every student ought to be able to sell their name, image and likeness. There are issues about whether you’re actually being paid for your name, image and likeness or something else. But in general, I think everybody thinks it’s a good thing that students ought to be able to sell that. 

Q: The Board recently voted to keep you at the helm of Tulane through 2026. What are the major goals you plan to accomplish by then? 

I’ve just finished up my eighth year, and I think this has been a really great time at Tulane. I think there’s a huge amount of momentum. I could rattle off a bunch of numbers in terms of selectivity, of the class research — we’ve never been more attractive to incoming students. Our research has never been more robust than it [is]. The alumni have never supported the institution in the way they have been busting all records in terms of fundraising. You look around the campus, you can just see that as a result of that, we’re able to build a much more robust infrastructure. We’ve done a lot of things, both the Business School addition, the Mussafer Hall, the Commons. Coming on, immediately thereafter will be the Village which will open up in January. Paul Hall for undergraduate science opens up next year, as will the architecture school building. So a lot of support for the undergraduate experience and equity, diversity and inclusion, and providing a more supportive, diverse community. That’s a huge initiative, and we’re rolling out a whole bunch of new goals as part of supporting the whole undergraduate student body. Secondly is really the Downtown Campus research. It will remake Tulane University over the next five years, and I think position us very strongly, as a major academic institution — whether it’s health issues of health equity, or COVID, infectious diseases, environmental concerns. The third piece is really what impact this will have on the world. We’ve had people working on issues of coastal erosion that are front and center for New Orleans. We have people working on issues of crime, and the startups that come out of this, I think, will help remake the economy. A lot of our students want to stay here. And what we want to do is create an economy in New Orleans, where they can have great jobs and stay here. 

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