President Michael Fitts leads commencement

‘‘Come Together.’’

The secret of President Michael Fitts’ seven strong years at Tulane as he leads in an unprecedented era.

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(Above photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

Mike Fitts likes to bring people together. Much of the success Tulane has experienced, the milestones it has reached, the records it has shattered, as well as the challenges it has overcome since Fitts’ arrival on campus in 2014, can be traced back to this tendency.
 
 “We’re all in this together” — the mantra of the pandemic era — could also be the theme of Fitts’ presidency. Throughout his leadership at Tulane, Fitts has brought people, disciplines and ideas together to confront natural disasters, financial crises, racial injustices and more. His overarching goal is to move the university ever forward as a force for good.
 
A prime example is Tulane’s response to COVID-19. The university’s interdisciplinary, collaborative and coordinated approach to problem solving is perfectly suited to confront such global threats.
 
As the race for vaccines, better tests, care and treatments began, Fitts turned to university scientists, encouraging partnerships among researchers at the School of Medicine, the National Primate Research Center, the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, as well as the School of Science and Engineering. The School of Social Work explored new approaches to the emotional toll of the pandemic while experts in the Schools of Architecture, Business, Law, Liberal Arts, Professional Advancement and Newcomb-Tulane College addressed its impact on schools, businesses and society. Meanwhile, administrators throughout campus enacted a bold return-to-campus plan that included one of the nation’s most extensive surveillance testing, contact tracing and isolation/quarantine programs. As a result, Tulane was able to hold in-person classes throughout the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, while maintaining a positivity rate substantially lower than the city and state.

“Pick a problem — environmental degradation, racial inequities, failing public schools or public health threats like COVID-19 — the sources of these challenges are multifaceted and often interrelated. So, it follows that the best way to help solve these problems is by having experts from diverse fields working together on their solutions,” Fitts said.

Such collaboration, he added, is also the best way to educate today’s students, whom he calls “the leaders, creators and global citizens who will shape the future.”

“When I was in college, students burrowed down in one major or specialty, such as engineering or English or business, and usually pursued ‘single-focus’ careers throughout their lives,” Fitts said. “Today, a graduate may change careers a dozen times and is more likely to create a startup than work for a single company or institution for 30 or 40 years. So, we need to prepare graduates to be more nimble, adaptive and open to other approaches in everything from solving problems to creating art, music and literature.”

Delivering the best university education “requires a laser focus on creating a truly interdisciplinary learning experience that educates the whole student — intellectually, emotionally and socially,” he said.

But Fitts’ leadership is not composed entirely of interdisciplinarity and strategic vision. His warm and affable personality is also central to his success.

“I think something President Fitts has done really well is demystify the role of the president on college campuses,” said Lela Scully, a junior in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. “He is approachable and accessible to the student body, a friendly face on campus, at games, or even walking down McAlister. He’s connected himself to students when he shows up to smile and shake hands. Because of that, he’s made his role of president feel less like a figurehead, which I think is an excellent evolution.”

Cross-Disciplinary Opportunities

Fitts loves the one-on-one interactions Scully describes.

“I deeply regret how the pandemic and requirements of social distancing over the last year have made it very difficult to be with and connect with students in the way I was able to before, and plan to in the coming years when the pandemic is behind us,” Fitts said.

Such interpersonal connections are possible because Tulane is “right-sized” in terms of population, according to Fitts, and because of its unique academic structure.

“While students at most universities enroll in the school that contains their major — whether it’s liberal arts, business, architecture, et cetera — we offer a single undergraduate portal, Newcomb-Tulane College, through which students can select a major from the five undergraduate schools after they have been here for a year or two.”

Given such expansive choices, more and more students are opting for double and even triple majors in far-flung subjects ranging from neuroscience and dance to music and math.

“Pick a problem — environmental degradation, health inequities, failing public schools or public health threats like COVID-19 — the sources of these challenges are multifaceted and often interrelated. So, it follows that the best way to address these problems is by having experts from multiple fields working together on their solutions.”

MIKE FITTS, president

“At Tulane our neuroscience majors can dance, too. Then again, it’s New Orleans, everyone seems to dance,” Fitts likes to quip.

But he is serious about the value of such an education to students. This is one reason why, in 2019, he was glad to welcome Lee Skinner, a leading scholar of Latin American literature and proponent of multidiscipline education, as dean of Newcomb-Tulane College.

“If you’re a scientist you still need to understand what the humanists are thinking and how they experience their lives. You’re a history major — well, it’s important to have a sense of what scientific reasoning is. We get scientific information all the time. How do you make sense out of it?” said Skinner, who served as associate dean at Claremont McKenna College in California before coming to Tulane.

Skinner is one of many top national university administrators who have arrived at Tulane in recent years, bringing new leadership to more than half of Tulane’s nine schools. There have also been new faculty hires, cabinet appointments and the establishment of major research centers such as the Brain Institute and the ByWater Institute. In keeping with Fitts’ philosophy, the cohort of new leaders has forged strong personal and professional bonds across their disparate disciplines.

“We learn from each other and commiserate with each other. I hope I’m speaking for my colleagues. I think it’s making all of us a little bit better that we have each other,” said Thomas LaVeist, who spent 25 years at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health before becoming dean of Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in 2018.

LaVeist also holds the position of Weatherhead Presidential Chair in Health Equity. The newly endowed presidential chairs were created specifically to support Fitts’ top priority of attracting internationally recognized scholars whose work bridges wide-ranging fields.

Circle of leadership appointed by President Fitts
LEADERSHIP. Clockwise, from top: Robin Forman, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost; Dr. Giovanni Piedimonte, vice president for research; Anneliese Singh, associate provost for faculty development and diversity and chief diversity officer; Lee Skinner, dean of Newcomb-Tulane College; Brian Edwards, dean of the School of Liberal Arts; Thomas LaVeist, dean of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine; Iñaki Alday, dean of the School of Architecture; Kimberly Foster, dean of the School of Science and Engineering; and Jay Rappaport, director and chief academic officer of Tulane National Primate Research Center.

An Anchor Institution

As a firm believer that the country’s top students, researchers, faculty and staff need the best campus facilities to truly flourish, Fitts is working hard to enhance and expand the university’s physical presence.

Creating a built environment to support excellence is one of the pillars of Only the Audacious: the campaign for a bolder Tulane. The fundraising campaign has set records both in the amount raised, and in the number of alumni, parents, friends and first-time donors Fitts has inspired to contribute toward its $1.3 billion goal.

President Fitts speaks at the Mussafer Hall dedication
President Fitts at the dedication of Mussafer Hall, home to academic advising, career programming and success services at Newcomb-Tulane College, on Sept. 28, 2018. (Photo by Frank L. Aymami III)

“Supporting lifesaving research, groundbreaking scholarship in the humanities, innovative education and community service are things everyone wants to contribute to,” Fitts said. “This isn’t just about raising a lot of money for money’s sake. It’s about supporting and advancing an institution that transforms our students, the city and society.”

The campaign will also help support a major construction effort that will be directed by Patrick Norton, senior vice president and chief operating officer. Fitts points to Norton, Forman and others as members of a “long list of great and ambitious people who have made Tulane’s success possible.”

Tulane’s success is gaining national attention, too. A recent Forbes article touted Tulane’s financial and academic strength and “approaching Ivy League” acceptance rate, declaring, “Among top-tier colleges, few have improved in financial strength as much as New Orleans’ Tulane University.”

Tulane’s ongoing and upcoming building efforts include additional student residential learning communities in the space formerly occupied by Bruff Commons and a new home for the School of Science and Engineering on the uptown campus — Steven and Jann Paul Hall.

Fitts also oversaw construction of The Commons, which opened in 2019 to provide a dining, meeting, studying and gathering place for students, and a new home for the Newcomb Institute.

Fitts sees Tulane’s downtown campus, which already includes 17 buildings, as a prime opportunity to exponentially expand the university’s physical size and research mission, while also helping to jump-start the revitalization of downtown New Orleans.

rendering of a renovated courtyard in Charity Hospital
An architectural rendering of the proposed downtown Charity Hospital development shows a view of the courtyard. (Courtesy 1532 Tulane Partners, Inc.)

Tulane plans to be an anchor tenant in the redevelopment of the iconic Charity Hospital, filling up a minimum of 300,000 square feet of it with laboratories, clinical space, classrooms, student housing and more. The rebirth of the Charity Hospital building and the conversion of the former Warwick Hotel to housing for graduate students, researchers, physicians, faculty and other affiliates, will place a sizable portion of Tulane’s research enterprise in close proximity to the city’s burgeoning biomedical research corridor. This will increase the likelihood that Tulane discoveries will find their way to market as Tulane biomedical research creates jobs and stimulates the COVID-19–battered local economy. Locating more Tulane students, scientists, faculty and over half of its staff downtown also promises to grow a neighborhood of retail shops, entertainment venues and ancillary businesses.

Economic Impact

“Cities everywhere have been renewed and transformed by local universities, especially those located near their downtowns,” Fitts said. “This is Tulane and New Orleans’ shared future.”

Local business leaders couldn’t agree more.

“The fate and future of Tulane and New Orleans are inextricably linked. This is why I am so excited about President Fitts’  vision and direction for Tulane: a world-class, interdisciplinary teaching and research university, with renewed commitment to the city of New Orleans, including massive investment in downtown,” said Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., the economic development organization for the New Orleans region.

“As Tulane rises to new levels of quality, prestige and external impact, so will the entire New Orleans community,” Hecht said. He emphasized that New Orleans cannot realize its potential absent Tulane’s ingenuity and economic power, especially as the city recovers from the economic disruption brought on by COVID-19.

“From an economic development perspective, the success of Tulane is a non-negotiable: So much of our human and intellectual capital comes from the university. With Mike Fitts at the helm of Tulane, the economic prospects of the entire New Orleans region are greatly enhanced,” Hecht said.

“The fate and future of Tulane and New Orleans are inextricably linked. This is why I am so excited about President Fitts’ vision and direction for Tulane: a world-class, interdisciplinary teaching and research university, with renewed commitment to the city of New Orleans, including massive investment in downtown.”

MICHAEL HECHT, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc.

Construction projects are among the numerous Tulane operations, capital investments and other activities that contribute $3.14 billion to the Louisiana economy each year and are responsible for supporting nearly 20,000 jobs statewide, according to a recent economic report. (President.tulane.edu/impact). Tulane serves a dual role, the report notes, as both a vital local institution and a global force. For instance, in addition to attracting more than $193 million in infectious disease research and other innovations that impact the world, the university has an outsized role in the social fabric of New Orleans, including its investment in prekindergarten to 12th-grade education, the health care it provides with more than 500 physicians, and the more than 200,000 hours of community service performed by its students, faculty and staff.

As Fitts is fond of saying, “Tulane would not be the university it is without New Orleans and New Orleans is a more vibrant city with greater promise and potential than ever before because of Tulane.”

Challenges Faced

As much success as Tulane has enjoyed in recent years, it has also faced many of the same challenges encountered by universities throughout the country.

In the first few months of Fitts’ presidency, Tulane suffered the loss of three students by suicide. In response, Fitts hosted a day of mental health awareness that included a mental health fair, candlelight memorial, webinars and discussions through which, Fitts said, he “gained much insight and perspective ... and witnessed, once again, the depth of compassion and true character of the Tulane community.”

The discussions spawned by the student deaths also led Fitts to order an overhaul of the university’s mental health services, vastly expanding its staff, resources and hours of operation.

Not long after this crisis, a series of racist incidents on campus and around the country prompted Fitts to establish the Presidential Commission on Race and Tulane Values. Since renamed the President’s Commission on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, its goal is to build a university in which the values of “respect, inclusion, equality, compassion and fundamental human dignity” are embraced by all members of the community.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of police — and the national reckoning it sparked — added urgency to this effort. In the fall of 2020, Fitts enacted A Plan for Now, the foundation of which recognizes diversity as central to advancing intellectual rigor, learning and community. In addition to building Tulane’s diversity, the plan includes a large number of initiatives across the university, including a Leadership Institute to create future leaders among a diverse community of faculty and staff, while enhancing the understanding of current leaders on matters of race, equity and inclusion. The university also hired Anneliese Singh, a native New Orleanian, as its new chief diversity officer.

“I am very much looking forward to collaborating with faculty, as well as the entire Tulane community and its many local, regional, national and international partners to develop innovative and courageous diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that support Tulane’s vision of building a more just and equitable world,” Singh said.

Incoming students cheer at an Orientation pep rally in Yulman Stadium on Aug. 23, 2018.
Incoming students cheer at an Orientation pep rally in Yulman Stadium on Aug. 23, 2018. (Photo by Cheryl Gerber)

Late last year, Fitts announced Louisiana Promise, a program that will make Tulane more accessible and affordable for Louisiana residents from low- and middle-income families and increase access to higher education for all students in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana.

In February, the administration engaged an outside consultant “to deepen our understanding of the lived experiences of our residents, faculty, staff, and other students relative to racism and sexism.” The firm will develop targeted recommendations to help build a more equitable, diverse and inclusive (EDI) academic community. Tulane is also expanding support, coordination and the sharing of best practices regarding EDI across all schools and will conduct a comprehensive, universitywide EDI climate survey in fall 2021.

“We have to get this right,” Fitts said. “Equity, diversity and inclusion are the hallmarks of a great university. They have got to remain our top priorities.”

Another societal problem Tulane faced was sexual assault. A 2018 climate survey revealed that 41 percent of undergraduate women respondents reported experiencing sexual assault since enrolling at Tulane.

Fitts called the results “heartbreaking and disturbing.” They were perplexing, as well, given that the university had long prided itself on following the country’s best practices in sexual assault prevention.

Since the Climate Survey’s release Tulane required more sexual violence programming for all incoming students, including topics of sexual education and communication. It also produced guides for parents and faculty on sexual assault prevention and hired professional staff to work closely with victims.

Fitts is quick to acknowledge that much more work needs to be done in all of these challenging areas, especially with regard to racial equity.

“We have made some real progress, but have so much further to go to build the Tulane we all want and deserve,” he said.

“Among top-tier colleges, few have improved in financial strength as much as New Orleans’ Tulane University.”

FORBES, on Tulane’s financial and academic strength and “approaching Ivy League” acceptance rate

President Fitts speaks to a participant at the Idea Symposium
President Fitts listens intently to a student at the 2019 Center for Academic Equity IDEA Symposium. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

Momentum

Fitts often uses the words “momentum” and “teamwork” in describing the university’s successes, pointing to a critical mass of achievement and growth — from a boost in national academic rankings and student achievement to an expanding research mission and a student body that reports high levels of happiness.

“When a company or a university is on a run of success you can sense the passion, the excitement, on the part of everyone involved,” said Carol Lavin Bernick, CEO of Polished Nickel Capital Management and chair of the Board of Tulane. “President Fitts has built on and burnished that environment at Tulane. His leadership skills, his great team, his articulation of the mission and direction of Tulane have energized the students, the faculty, the staff, the enrollments, the endowments, the new programs and all the elements that drive success and create enthusiasm for both today’s and tomorrow’s Tulane. 

 

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