Tulane’s Identity

This academic year marks my tenth as president of Tulane University.

In the span of Tulane’s nearly 200-year history, a decade seems like the blink of an eye — but what a decade it’s been. It is truly an honor to lead this institution at a time when our distinctive academic and research strengths, coupled with our unique history and culture, are making an impact like never before as we lay the groundwork for a transformative future. 

Many of us vividly remember a time when Tulane’s future seemed less than certain. I was dean of the law school at the University of Pennsylvania in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee failures devastated the city of New Orleans and forced Tulane to close for the fall semester. Penn Law hosted many Tulane law students tuition-free during the semester that Tulane was closed so they could continue their studies. In the months and years that followed, I watched as Tulane made a remarkable recovery, never imagining that I might find myself leading that same remarkable institution.

the skyline of downtown New Orleans at sunrise, as seen from the uptown campus
With sunrise hues overhead, the skyline of downtown New Orleans can be seen from the uptown campus. Tulane’s revitalization of downtown will expand the university’s footprint in research and innovation while strengthening the local economy. (Photo by Rusty Costanza)

Over the past ten years, I’ve come to understand a key factor that positioned Tulane to succeed and thrive after facing an unprecedented existential threat. Hurricane Katrina did not change Tulane’s identity — it reinforced and affirmed it. The university was originally founded as a medical school in 1834 in response to a yellow fever epidemic that was ravaging the local community. We were an outward-facing institution from the very start, founded to solve problems for the public good. In the aftermath of Katrina and the levee failures, Tulane’s administration leaned into our DNA and re-energized our commitment to the city, implementing a public service graduation requirement and dissolving boundaries between disciplines to foster the kind of academic innovations that change the world.  

“We were an outward-facing institution from the very start, founded to solve problems for the public good.”

Michael A. Fitts, Tulane University President

When faced with another major threat — the COVID-19 pandemic — our institutional experience and knowledge allowed us to approach this new crisis with confidence. While a majority of national universities remained remote for the fall 2020 semester, we leveraged the in-house expertise of our research enterprise to reopen in person, jump-starting the local economy. By developing one of the most robust surveillance testing programs in the United States, we dramatically bolstered the city’s public health efforts and continued our research on infectious diseases, which ultimately proved critical to the global effort to combat the pandemic.

As we embark on a holistic and revolutionary revitalization of downtown New Orleans, anchored by the redevelopment of the iconic Charity Hospital building, we are fulfilling the promise of Tulane’s founding. By expanding our research and clinical footprint and partnering with LCMC Health, we are creating a hub of innovation and bioscience discovery that will strengthen and diversify the local economy while improving access and quality of health care for the local community. This is a monumental moment for New Orleans and for the institution I am honored to lead.