It’s been a busy first year-and-a-half for Tulane University President Michael Fitts.
The 181-year-old school has been working to reduce costs and close an annual multimillion-dollar deficit. Meanwhile, Tulane is readying an ambitious fundraising campaign that’s expected to seek at least $1 billion.
Applications are up; the school jumped more than a dozen spots in a high-profile college ranking; and the hiring of a new athletic director and football coach is raising hopes for a program that finished 3-9 this season.
Already, the fundraising push has shown results: Tulane reported a record-breaking year, raising more than $125 million for the fiscal year that ended in June, while the number of people who donated rose 8 percent from a year earlier.
“I think things are going very well,” said Darryl Berger, chairman of Tulane’s board of trustees. “Transition periods are always times of opportunity. They’re times of reflection on the institution. They’re times of taking on new challenges and rethinking vast initiatives.”
Tulane rose 13 spots this year in U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of the nation’s top undergraduate universities, tying with five other schools for the No. 41 ranking.
“The fact that we’re way up in applications is great,” Fitts said last week in his office at Gibson Hall. “I think the country is recognizing” the school’s recent success.
When he was appointed last year, Fitts was praised for his efforts to integrate the law curriculum at the top-ranked Penn Law, where he was the dean, with other studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the private Ivy League school. Already, some of the same lessons have been applied at Tulane, particularly with business courses.
Tulane also is expanding its physical footprint, including a 42,000-square-foot project to link its business school’s two buildings to create a unified complex, renovate classrooms and add new space. The work is expected to finished by August.
The school also is renovating and expanding its former School of Social Work to centralize career services and academic advising.
In addition, Tulane is building a River and Coastal Center that will have 5,800 square feet of mostly research labs and office space for researching coastal protection and water resources. The facility, located on the Mississippi River between the Port of New Orleans headquarters and Mardi Gras World, is expected to be completed by summer.
Still, despite the flurry of activity, Fitts’ first year at the helm wasn’t without challenges.
Five Tulane students died during his first semester, including three who apparently committed suicide, an unusually high tally that drew local and national media attention, including a story in Yahoo! News under the headline: “Tulane’s mental health meltdown.”
In an interview, Fitts said the semester was “very difficult for everybody on campus.” Tulane has since reviewed how it handles student services tied to mental health, including hiring more counselors and improving access to counseling and psychological services.
Fitts issued messages to the campus community in the wake of some of the deaths, but some students felt more could have been done. Later in the semester, the school sponsored a number of activities aimed at raising awareness of mental health issues, including a series of webinars promoting mental well-being and a candlelight memorial.
Even as he prepares for Tulane’s first major fundraising campaign since 2008, Fitts has grappled with closing a running annual deficit of between $15 and $20 million on an $850 million budget.
Tulane hired a Chicago consulting firm to find ways to cut costs and improve efficiency. The school has since offered buyouts to some staff, with an eye toward cutting 90 to 110 positions while sparing the faculty. The cuts amounted to a bit less than 2 percent of Tulane’s nearly 5,800 employees.
The offer drew enough takers that Fitts isn’t expecting to have to resort to layoffs. Other moves to cut costs are in the works.
“We’ve come forward with a plan which we’re cautiously optimistic will put us in a very good situation in the next couple years,” he said. “It’ll take time to implement, but we’re doing it, I think, in exactly the right way.”
With the budget-tightening still fresh, Fitts is reluctant to discuss the yet-to-be unveiled fundraising effort. He described it in broad terms, filled gaps in conversation with uneasy laughter and declined to offer a specific dollar target — though the initiative is expected to seek at least $1 billion.
“I don’t want to get into those particular numbers,” he said. “We don’t even know if and when we decide to announce (it), at some point.”
As the cost of attending college has jumped sharply over the past decade, a healthy endowment has become critical for schools looking to expand programs, update campus facilities, improve services and provide financial aid to eligible students, industry experts say. Tulane is no different.
“Clearly, it has to be significant,” Fitts said about the fundraising goal. “We need to raise resources to ensure Tulane over the next decade has the ability to be a premier university in the world, and we have historically not invested a lot in development.”
The football question
Connecting with alumni will play a major part. Attendance at Tulane reunions has “skyrocketed,” he said, aided by the opening last year of Tulane’s $73 million, 30,000-seat Yulman Stadium.
This month, Fitts hired a new athletic director, Troy Dannen, and a new football coach, Willie Fritz, who led Georgia Southern to nine victories in each of the past two years.
Expectations are high, and some alumni are ready for results quickly.
Count Jerry Greenbaum, who joined Tulane’s board in 2011, among them.
“First of all, we expect to be bowl-eligible, and we expect that virtually every year,” said Greenbaum, the chairman of a family-owned business that runs upscale restaurants such as Chophouse New Orleans in the Warehouse District. “We’d like to hope that we can win more than we lose.”
Greenbaum is optimistic about the school’s latest hires, and he believes they will be able to lure higher-caliber student-athletes. “We’re not going to be able to take the kid that wants to play for LSU,” he said. “We’re going to have a very hard time recruiting him. But if he wants to get a Tulane education, now we’ve got a shot.”
Fitts succeeded Scott Cowen, who retired after 16 high-profile years at Tulane’s helm.
Some observers reacted with surprise to the recently announced departures of some high-level administrators under Cowen, including Yvette Jones, the executive vice president for university relations and development; Tony Lorino, the chief financial officer; and Michael Bernstein, the provost.
Some turnover is “totally natural and it occurs with every presidential transition,” Fitts said.
“With a new president, you are bringing in people who will help implement your vision for the university,” he added, “so it’s a good opportunity, when people decide that they want to retire, to go on and bring in people who will help you and the institution move forward.”
The housing question
Another change that apparently has drawn comment among some board members concerns Fitts’ living arrangements. He lives in an apartment a few blocks from campus, choosing to pass up Tulane’s sprawling, century-old presidential residence at the corner of Audubon Place and St. Charles Avenue.
The 15,000-square-foot house, described by The Times-Picayune in 2007 as “a showplace of the Southern Colonial Revival style,” was donated to Tulane in 1965 by the family of fruit importer Samuel Zemurray with the idea it would house the university’s president.
Under his contract, Cowen was required to live in the house, according to Tulane’s 2012 federal tax records, which listed the perk’s fair-market value at $175,000. However, Fitts is not bound to do so, according to Tulane spokesman Mike Strecker. Instead, the house is used to host university-related events, sometimes more than 100 a year.
Nationally, the decision on whether a university president lives in a school-owned home has become “a hot topic in the boardroom in higher education,” said Dennis Barden, a senior partner at Illinois-based Witt/Kieffer, which assists in searches to fill presidential vacancies and other high-level positions at public and private institutions.
The Rev. Kevin Wildes, a Jesuit priest and president of Loyola University, lives in a student residence hall.
Having a place to live on the school’s dime was once considered a perk that could be used to help recruit a new president. These days, Barden said, the decision largely comes down to tradition. The homes often have become part of a school’s culture and landscape, even though they may not suit a president’s current needs.
“You need a very different kind of place to entertain a party of six or 60 or 600 than you need just for your family to live,” he said.
It’s not that Fitts doesn’t like the house. He said he just wants some privacy, though he acknowledges that his decision has “created questions in the community.”
“When I assumed the presidency, there was discussion about it beforehand, and I was told there was no expectation of my living in the house,” he said.
Berger, the board chairman, said the home’s main role is hosting functions, which it continues to do.
“Living in the house is not a condition of Mike’s presidency,” he said. “The primary purpose of the home has always been to be a wonderful place for social gatherings and important events involving and revolving around the university, and that is taking place.”
Greenbaum isn’t hung up on it, either. “We’re not going to judge him by whether he lives in the house or not,” he said. “The board’s got enough things to worry about other than the president living in the house.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.