Reynold T. Décou (A&S ’67, ’79) photographed in the Julia Ideson Public Library in Houston, Texas.

Pioneers on Campus

Tulane trailblazers are finally being recognized for their courage, tenacity and persistence in a number of ways — including the naming of campus buildings and programs in their honor.

Above photo: Reynold T. Décou (A&S ’67, ’79) photographed in the Julia Ideson Public Library in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

The story of Tulane University would not be complete without the contributions of many important people from diverse backgrounds who have made a substantial and lasting impact on our campus. The Committee on Campus Recognition, in an ongoing, campuswide effort to recognize those individuals, solicited nominations of Tulanians who have made our university what it is today. In April, President Mike Fitts announced an exciting new initiative to honor the first five of these Tulanians.

This effort began with the announcement of the intent to name prominent campus locations and programs after pioneering alumni and other Tulanians who led the way in the university becoming a more inclusive, diverse and welcoming community. 

The Board of Tulane approved naming Willow Residences, currently designated for the street on which they sit, in honor of the first African American undergraduates to earn degrees from Newcomb and Tulane, respectively: Deidre Dumas Labat (NC ’66, G ’69) and Reynold T. Décou (A&S ’67, ’79). 

The Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Office of Gender and Sexual Diversity, as well as their new space in the Richardson Building, will be named the Carolyn Barber-Pierre Center for Intercultural Life in honor of the campus pioneer whose decades of dedication to the Tulane community have been instrumental in its movement toward greater inclusion. 

Over the course of the academic year, the university will celebrate these new designations with special ceremonies and celebrations while recognizing many other great Tulanians, including Bobby Yan (TC ’95), a six-time Emmy Award winner and the founder of Tulane’s Asian American Student Union, for whom the Bobby Yan Lecture in Media and Social Change will be named; and Luis Guillermo Solís (G ’81), for whom a professorship will be named.

Here are the stories of the first five Tulane pioneers who will be honored.

Reynold T. Décou

At a time when large state universities were publicly, and sometimes violently, desegregating, Tulane administrators set about integrating the university. Among the first students recruited by Tulane was a St. Augustine High School New Orleans senior named Reynold T. Décou (A&S ’67, ’79). 

Décou already had a tentative plan to attend college on the East Coast. His career goal was to become a physician. So, when two Tulane deans arrived at the high school and personally invited Décou to enroll at Tulane, and mentioned the potential for a scholarship in his second semester, it was a surprise.

Décou said that at that time he was well aware of the events surrounding the integration of some other Southern universities.

He was swayed by Tulane’s reputation, but also made the decision out of respect for his family, who would shoulder a financial burden by sending him to college on the East Coast. His parents were cautiously optimistic about the agreement. He registered at Tulane for the summer 1963 semester, taking 10 hours of calculus before the fall semester began.

In August he moved into a dormitory, where patterns of intimidation by the student body began the very day he arrived. Name-calling, messages of hate, unpleasant “gifts” left at the door: “I took this all in stride, confided in just a couple of students who had befriended me, and never told my parents until years later,” Décou recalled in 2014. 

When he arrived at Tulane, he was still only 17. But even at that age, he said he was still fixed on his goal, to complete his education at Tulane.

Reflecting on his experiences, Décou said, “It’s a process. You have to go through this. It’s just like when you’re building a freeway, there’s just a lot of disruption, because that’s the theme for progress.”

Décou left the dorm for good in November 1963, although after the fall semester the episodes of abuse dwindled. He continued on at Tulane, entering the Air Force ROTC and pursuing a pre-med curriculum until he decided to switch to geology. He graduated from Tulane in 1967 with a Bachelor of Science and also attended Tulane graduate school in the geology program prior to his employment.

“I had some things that almost at times brought me to tears,” he said. “But at the same time, I said, ‘I have a goal to achieve, I can see that light at the end of the tunnel.’ And I had the support that I thought I needed to go forward from my family and from the administration. And even though I had experienced [intimidation] … it did not stop my momentum.”

After a commission with the U.S. Air Force, Décou worked as a petroleum geologist, traveling the world. He settled in Houston, where he still lives, and is semi-retired and active as a geological consultant.

Luis Guillermo Solís (G ’81)
Luis Guillermo Solís (G ’81) (photo by Tom C. Robison)

Luis Guillermo Solís

A Fulbright scholarship led Luis Guillermo Solís (G ’81), to the university’s Center for Latin American Studies — and in less than a year and a half, the experience imprinted on him in such a way that he still reflects on it as “extraordinary.”

Solís, who earned a master’s degree after studying Central American history and political science, would go on to pursue an academic career and eventually be elected to the presidency of Costa Rica.

“I see [Tulane] as a fundamental part of my personal and, clearly, academic formation,” said Solís, who received the Tulane’s President’s Medal in 2017.

“New Orleans … and Tulane were a cradle of life opportunities for me. They formed me as a person in many ways. Tulane gave me a perspective much wider than I ever had before,” he said.

Solís said he benefited from mentor relationships with faculty members such as Richard Greenleaf and Ralph Lee Woodward. The faculty also entrusted to him important tasks, like serving as a liaison between the university and a visiting head of state, and later to a celebrated ethnohistorian on campus.

Solís had already worked as a university professor and a diplomat when he was elected as president, a position to which he brought a fresh perspective and an academic’s analytical thinking.

Tulane provided “hardcore intellectual instruments … the capacity to research, question things, seek for answers beyond the simple — making it more difficult to assume stereotypes — all of those things are very fundamental in my experience after Tulane, including my life in politics.”

After completing his term in 2018, Solís returned to what he described as his “academic vocation.” Now a visiting Distinguished University Professor at Florida International University’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, he teaches, writes and conducts research. This summer he traveled to Guatemala as chief of the Organization of American States’ electoral observation mission to that country.

Solís said he still keeps in touch with some of his former Tulane professors and classmates. He has also taught at CIAPA, a Tulane-affiliated campus in San Jose, Costa Rica. 

“Tulane never disappeared from my life,” he said.

The university will name a professorship in Solís’ honor.

Willow Residences
Willow Residences (photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

Campus recognition

  • Willow Residences will be named in honor of Reynold T. Décou (A&S ’67, ’79) and Deidre Dumas Labat (NC ’66, G ’69)
  • The Carolyn Barber-Pierre Center for Intercultural Life will be the new home of the offices of Multicultural Affairs and Gender and Sexual Diversity.
  • A professorship will be named in honor of Luis Guillermo Solís (G ’81).
  • The School of Liberal Arts will establish the Bobby Yan Lecture in Media and Social Change in honor of Bobby Yan (TC ’95).
Deidre Dumas Labat (NC ’66, G ’69)
Deidre Dumas Labat (NC ’66, G ’69) (photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

Deidre Dumas Labat 

Deidre Dumas Labat (NC ’66, G ’69) was a freshman at Xavier University when she learned that Tulane had integrated, creating an opportunity for her to enroll there. Even though she had been having a fine experience at Xavier, where she had a full scholarship, along with challenging academics and a comfortable social climate, she thought Newcomb College would offer a different challenge, one that would ultimately test her courage.

“I always enjoyed learning,” she said, noting that she was an A student. “But in the pit of my stomach, I always wondered, are you really good? Or are you just good in this situation?” Newcomb College represented an opportunity to prove her tenacity, if to no one but herself.

By this time, Labat already had one experience under her belt that many other college freshmen didn’t have: protesting segregation in the city of New Orleans. She had already picketed in front of Canal Street department stores that didn’t adequately serve or hire African Americans, had insults hurled at her and felt the wrath of individuals who opposed integration. 

“I always enjoyed learning. But in the pit of my stomach, I always wondered, are you really good? Or are you just good in this situation?”

DEIDRE DUMAS LABAT (NC ’66, G ’69), the first African American to enroll in and graduate from Tulane’s Newcomb College

Labat would be the first African American to enroll at Newcomb College in fall 1963, although she didn’t know it at the time she studied there. Either way, it didn’t matter.

What mattered to her was the pursuit of science. She majored in biology, always intending to earn a PhD, which she later did, from Louisiana State University Medical Center graduate school.

At Newcomb, she said, the work was challenging, but she felt prepared for it.

Some of her fellow students were friendly and welcoming, and some were indifferent. Many of the faculty members at that time were condescending or insulting. She heard she didn’t belong, couldn’t “compete.” She received hate mail. Often, she ate lunch alone in the basement of Josephine Louise House, she said. She made the Dean’s List and eventually graduated with the Biology Prize.

Given that she enjoyed Xavier so much, why would she put all that aside to go to a campus where no one seemed to know what to do with her?

“To prove to myself and to others … black people can compete here,” she said. 

Labat is professor emeritus, former senior vice president and vice president for academic affairs at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Carolyn Barber-Pierre
Carolyn Barber-Pierre (photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

Carolyn Barber-Pierre 

The Carolyn Barber-Pierre Center for Intercultural Life will unite the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Office of Gender and Sexual Diversity in a newly constructed space in the Richardson Building. Carolyn Barber-Pierre herself is keeping her focus where it’s always been. Barber-Pierre, an assistant vice president for student affairs, is mainly concerned with providing the types of services, programs and advocacy that will make the new space feel like “home” for students of color and other underrepresented student populations.

The office’s current space in the Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life, affectionately known as “The O,” serves many purposes — meeting space, social space, program space — and the students who work there or just drop in to eat lunch consider it to be a sort of family room on campus.

The common thread of the flow of students in the new space continues to be Barber-Pierre, who is going into her 36th year as an advocate for student equity across campus.

“The students are amazing,” she said of her longevity.

And she has had a diversity of experiences as well. 

“I enjoy my work at Tulane,” she said. “I’ve had the ability to take students abroad, who’ve never been out the country; to create programs that bring institutions together that wouldn’t typically (partner). We created the MLK Week for Peace, where we brought Xavier and Dillard in with Tulane and Loyola to have those conversations about what social justice looks like.”

Barber-Pierre came to New Orleans, her mother’s birthplace, for a job at St. Mary’s Dominican College. When that college closed, she joined Tulane in 1984 as director of special services, a position that set into motion a career of helping create student equity on campus.

At Tulane, she created welcoming spaces for students of color, marginalized students or those from nontraditional backgrounds. It was a challenging time, she said, but she drew on her own collegiate activist experiences, during which she served on the student government and with the Black Student Union at the University of Findlay in Ohio. She also notes that the Tulane administration, then led by President Eamon Kelly, was committed to the idea of inclusiveness.

Today, in the age of social media, activism feels different, less radical than the 1970s’ heyday of black activism, Barber-Pierre said.

“Diversity and equity benefit everyone.”

CAROLYN BARBER-PIERRE, assistant vice president for student affairs

“Our students today look at activism a little differently,” she said. In 2015, when many students of color were visible and vocal in addressing university administration with their needs, seeking racial equity and positive change across campus, “they went about it in the most professional way I’ve ever seen activism happen, because they knew that they had to ally with white students, with student government, with a whole bunch of folks, in order to say that it’s not just ‘our’ problem, it’s a community problem. Diversity and equity benefit everyone.”

Bobby Yan (TC ’95)
Bobby Yan (TC ’95) (photo by David Neff)

Bobby Yan

Filmmaker Bobby Yan (TC ’95) arrived at Tulane not knowing much about New Orleans. But he nonetheless embraced university life and the city. Yan founded the Asian American Students United (known as AASU) and a beloved cable-access TV show in his years here. 

Yan was surprised that the university only had organizations that appealed to students of specific Asian ethnicities, but no Asian American Student Union. So he founded the organization himself.

The organization ended up attracting students of various Asian ethnicities and is still active today.

“I guess, coming from a background of such a melting pot of culture, and coming down to the South, where I saw a very distinct division of race, it was eye-opening to see what existed outside of New York City, where I was born and raised. And I think it was necessary for me to grow and see this to become who I am today,” Yan said.

As a communication major, he pursued “bringing to light issues of justice” and researched Asian Americans’ contributions to civil rights in this country, drawing activist Yuri Kochiyama to a Tulane event co-sponsored by AASU and the African American Student Union.

“I’ve been very big on unifying people to bridge cultures, bridge dialogue between us,” Yan said, adding that he often tries to incorporate those themes in his work.

The School of Liberal Arts will establish the Bobby Yan Lecture in Media and Social Change, a series that brings to campus speakers invested in that subject, in his honor. 

Yan was also an innovator. As a student, he co-produced, along with fellow alumnus Jamal K. Payne, a cable access show for “TSTV” — Tulane Student Television — called “Hip-Hop Half-Hour,” (originally created by alumni Aaron Rhoden and Elvin Stampley) that featured music videos and celebrity guests (Jay-Z made an appearance in the ’90s, Yan said, and Lil Wayne would call in). The local show was so well-received that in its heyday, the producers received buckets of mail and more than 20 years later, fans still ask him about it.

“The beautiful soul of New Orleans, as well as going to Tulane, has enriched me in many ways,” Yan said. “And I would not be the person I am today without it.”

Today, Yan works as a filmmaker and video producer, with six Emmys to his name for his work with MLB Network. Yan was also chosen for the ABC Disney Directing Program, a highly selective, two-year professional TV-directing program, and is working on his first feature film.