Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
— “Big Yellow Taxi”
Jerah Johnson was a fine professor of history, equally at ease discussing New Left historians and the chroniclers of ancient Greece. He was also a University of New Orleans loyalist — his tenure stretching back to 1959 and the Lakefront institution’s founding days.
Other UNO professors also left enduring impressions from my time as a history grad student in the late ’90s: Madelon Powers, Arnold Hirsch, Joseph Logsdon and Jane Brooks (who advised from the urban studies realm), to name just a few.
They’re now gone from the academic stage: Logsdon and Powers are deceased, the others well into retirement. Each is missed, having influenced scholarship, ideas, career paths. But what is, perhaps, missed more fundamentally is the kind of department they all represented, one that brimmed with confidence and a sense of possibility.
The History Department isn’t rife with confidence these days. Instead, it struggles to remain viable — and its challenges mirror those of many academic units at UNO. Collectively, they are a casualty of deep budget cuts and tepid concern in the wider community. One suspects limited awareness among many thousands of loyal alumni.
Faculty positions and support services generally have been slashed as the university grappled with big post-Katrina enrollment losses. Accomplished professors haven’t seen a pay raise in a decade. Increasingly, hard-pressed professors must rely on students (and their inherent optimism) to carry out secretarial tasks — and keep Privateer spirits up.
“The students are great; the students keep you going,” one veteran professor said. “We have to keep going back to, ‘I’m doing this for the students.’ ”
Often lost in public discourse is a basic truth: They are also doing this for the city at large, furnishing the training and intellectual capital that make it possible to see a stronger economy, a better quality of life, a continuation of our recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
Today, as it has for decades, UNO serves as a primary source of higher education that is both affordable (read: low student debt) and accessible for locals. Nearly half of its more than 75,000 graduates remain in our area. Without a strong and diverse public university in sync with New Orleans’ aspirations, the city will falter. Promising high school graduates who might prefer to stay close to relatives in the Crescent City will move away, reluctantly opting to finish college, raise families and pay taxes elsewhere.
These bright young people — red beans and Saints in their DNA — should see concrete opportunities to stay. UNO is important to that encouragement.
Holding on to that student talent, and then refining it for the community’s benefit, is possible through the work of outstanding professors who are still, thankfully, found within UNO’s ranks. They include Golden Richard (computer science), an expert in the field of cybersecurity who trains schoolteachers from across the country; Marla Nelson (urban studies), who explores policies that can boost earnings of the working poor; and Mark Kulp (environmental sciences), who collects data on Louisiana coastlines to enhance restoration efforts.
UNO matters to our community’s future: This is the message we need to hear, once again, especially as this onetime LSU offshoot prepares for a leadership change. It will guide preparations for a UNO International Alumni Association celebration and awards ceremony on the evening of Nov. 5 in the restored New Orleans Lakefront Airport terminal building (more information: www.unoalumni.com/2015DA).
Advocates look for an robust turnout as this year’s top alumni award goes to Roy Glapion (civil engineering, Class of ’87), a striking community leader who chairs the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission.
I am among those who feel a certain debt to UNO. Its history program enhanced my past work in New Orleans journalism and later supported a career shift at The National WWII Museum — an institution founded by a pair of well-known UNO history professors, Stephen Ambrose and Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller. While UNO has always been a little rough around the edges, usually because of thin resources, I’ve seldom been disappointed in interactions with its graduates or professors. Overwhelmingly, they have the right kind of motivation and impact.
UNO’s faithfulness to New Orleans, in good and tough times, wins my respect. The fates of the city and this public university are intertwined.
Coleman Warner is a special assistant to Nick Mueller, president and CEO of The National WWII Museum; he previously served as a reporter and editor for The Times-Picayune.