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Francis, Cowen Say New Orleans Is Rebounding (Transcript)

Aug. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University, and Norman Francis, president of Xavier University, said on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” that New Orleans is rebounding strongly from Hurricane Katrina and moving toward better race relations.

(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)

AL HUNT: President Obama marks Katrina’s fifth anniversary at Xavier University and that is where our guests, Dr. Norman Francis and Dr. Scott Cowen, are.

These presidents are the most prominent civic leaders in the rebuilding of New Orleans. Dr. Francis was the chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. Dr. Cowen is the co-founder of the New Orleans Ambassadors Program. I thank you both, Dr. Francis for hosting us; Dr. Cowen for taking a break from your Habitat home building today.

Let me start with Dr. Francis. The fifth anniversary of the Katrina disaster, where is New Orleans today. Is it back? Is it close? Is it still a long way to go?

NORMAN FRANCIS: Well, let me first say we are back, number one. And number two, we are making great progress. And number three, we’re not yet where we want to be, but we’re going to get there.

HUNT: Dr. Cowen?

SCOTT COWEN: I would say first of all I am more optimistic about the future of New Orleans than I ever have been. And the reason I’m so optimistic is that all the issues we had pre-Katrina we’re really making a lot of progress to address those issues and make a better and stronger New Orleans itself. We’re clearly in the stage of recovery and renewal, so I think we’re moving from recovery to renewal and quite honestly inventing a new city for the 21st Century.

HUNT: Dr. Cowen, let me ask you this; what would you like to see the federal government or state government do to help New Orleans that it is not doing now?

COWEN: Well, at the federal level believe it or not we’re five years since Katrina and FEMA still has not paid out all the money that they owe individuals and entities. So the first thing I’d like to do is for the federal government to settle up with the institutions and the people of New Orleans.

We did get one bit of good news about that a couple days ago where FEMA did a lump-sum settlement with the public school system for $1.8 billion, but there are still tens and hundreds of millions of dollars owed to people and organizations, including Tulane.

HUNT: Dr. Francis, the decision has been made to rebuild all of New Orleans, yet some of the poorer sections are lagging behind. The city is back I think to 90 percent of its pre-storm population, yet only 4,000 of 18,000 residents of the Lower Ninth are back. Is that a disappointment?

FRANCIS: Well, it is a disappointment because the people who could least afford to be damaged, if you will, by anything and then with a disaster like Katrina are the ones who have paid a great price. I do want to say though, because I have said this everywhere I’ve spoken, that Katrina’s waters did not discriminate. It hit all of New Orleans.

But, as you have pointed out, there were people who could come back, had the resources to do so and are doing that, but the people in the Ninth Ward that we’ve heard a lot about they had - they were living really on Social Security. Many of them had their homes - modest as they were - paid for, but that’s all they had.

So when Katrina hit, they lost everything, and I think that’s the saddest part of what has not happened in our recovery to date. We lost a lot of people that obviously with their lives they were lost, but the ones that we really haven’t counted as well are those who were lost from a broken heart. They left New Orleans well, but as they saw their possessions inundated with no way to recover, they died of broken hearts.

And I think what we have seen in the Ninth Ward, the slowest recovery and it was unfortunately those who didn’t have it before and did not have anything after Katrina, and that is a major challenge. That is not to suggest, however, that there are not other parts of the city that people lived in that were hit by Katrina who need to be “brought back to full recovery.” But that for all of us is the challenge of the future.

HUNT: Dr. Francis, talk for a moment, and Dr. Cowen, you jump in, too, about the state of race relations in New Orleans. It is a city that for a number of years was quite polarized. You elected a white mayor in February, replacing a black mayor. What is the state of race relations today?

FRANCIS: I was not born in New Orleans for one, I’d better make that clear. But what you see in New Orleans and have seen for years, really, a metropolitan city that had European roots and you had people who lived side by side but because of the laws that separated us legally you had a development of what is, of course, the prejudices that you still see in some remnants now.

But I have to make it clear that I think that the race relations in New Orleans is, as good as it’s been in the past years, it is getting better. And strangely enough, I was on a TV show just like this and was asked the question, the election is tomorrow morning in New Orleans - that was in February - he said the national people say that there is never going to be another white mayor. I said there are going to be a lot of people who will be surprised on Sunday morning when they read the polls and we did elect a white mayor.

But it wasn’t the white mayor we were electing per se. We were electing somebody who the population felt would give leadership. We were looking for leadership. It did not matter the gender. It did not matter the race or religious background.

And I think that is currently what is fueling our optimism and our determination. We want to work together. And it was a great weekend. The next day on that Sunday we won the Super Bowl. Now, -

HUNT: I knew we couldn’t through a program without them bragging about the Saints.

FRANCIS: The reason I raised it, this was not just a football game. This was a win that brought New Orleans closer together than I have ever seen it. And I think it those - the wind under those sails that are pushing us right now, and I think Scott would agree, that we’ve never seen the enthusiasm and the determination of everybody wanting to be better than what we were.

HUNT: Well, Dr. Cowen, jump in on that and also tell me what you think of Mayor Landrieu. Has he been an improvement from his predecessor?

COWEN: Well, first let me just tag along with Norman on the race relations because I agree with him. I think that race relations down here are stronger and better, in many ways more constructive than what I’ve seen in other places. Unlike Dr. Francis, I was born and raised in the northeast, and I heard a lot about supposedly race relations and how destructive they were here in the south and in New Orleans.

And when I came to New Orleans I was very pleasantly surprised to say there is a divide in terms of just the sheer numbers of African-Americans to whites, but yet the dialogue across the races has been very strong and very constructive. And where there may be differences of opinion, we talk about the issues down here that many other cities around the country don’t talk about the issues.

And I think the other thing Norman said, which people have to remember, when Ray Nagin was first elected mayor, he was elected with a very strong white vote. When Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor, he was elected with a very strong black and white vote.

So our community always seems to come around and come together on the very important issues, and I think we blow out of proportion the negative side of race relations down here quite honestly.

COWEN: With respect to Mitch Landrieu, I think we are all very enthusiastic about Mitch being mayor. He came in with a huge mandate from the population of New Orleans.

And what we like about Mitch is first of all he was born and raised here. Politics in New Orleans and Louisiana is in his bloodstream. He got it from his father and from his sister and the rest of his siblings. And he has a passion, a commitment and understanding, and the interpersonal skills and intellect I think to help New Orleans continue to renew itself and become a truly great 21st Century city.

So I think everything we’ve seen from Mitch Landrieu in the first 100 days that he has been mayor says this is the right mayor for the right moment in time for the challenges that lie ahead for us.

HUNT: Okay, Dr. Cowen and Dr. Francis, we’re going to take a short break and we’ll be back in just a minute to talk about education.


HUNT: Welcome back. Xavier University President Dr. Norman Francis and Tulane University President Scott Cowen are with us from Xavier University campus in New Orleans.

Dr. Cowen, New Orleans has become a magnet for school reformers since the storm, charter schools and the like. Yet last year, 42 percent of city schools, according to Brookings, failed to meet state standards. Are you worried that the progress may slow when the stimulus and disaster aid money dries up?

COWEN: Well, first of all it is true that 42 percent of our schools are still unacceptable. But what I want you to know a few years earlier that number was 65 percent. So we’re clearly headed in the right direction to make sure that we have high quality education of all students in New Orleans. And it is going to take a generation to get there. It cannot be done overnight itself.

I do think we have three or four challenges that are daunting. One is facilities. We had even before the storm a lot of facilities that needed deferred maintenance and then the storm created a lot of additional damage. The good news is we just got a lump sum settlement from FEMA for $1.8 billion.

The second issue that we have to deal with is ongoing funding for public education. We used in New Orleans since Katrina a lot of one-time money to fund operations. That one-time money, as you suggested, is going to go away, and we have to fill that gap without losing the momentum. And we have a plan in place to do that, so that is something that we have to be very mindful of.

And the third thing that is still a challenge is we have a system of schools down here because as you probably know most of our children are in charter schools. As a matter of fact, 70 percent are in charter schools.

And we have a very schizophrenic governance system right now for public education and we’re going to have to make some sense out of that governance system. So even though we’re all pleased with the progress we’ve made to date, I think we’d agree it’s a work in progress and we have to still be very vigilant about improving public education.

The last thing I would say and I’m going to lift up my hand and I hope you can get it, children are our future. And this was painted on my hand today for another speech I gave because what I said to the audience is if we’re ever going to make New Orleans a truly 21st Century city, we have to get public education right. It is the most important thing that has to be done. We’re on the trajectory to do it, but a lot more work needs to be done.

HUNT: That’s the kind of prop we could use every week. Dr. Francis, let me get you to pick up on that. I’ve been to those New Orleans schools. They are enormously impressive in the strides you’ve made. Yet you did lose out on the Race for the Top program for more federal monies. What did you take away from that?

FRANCIS: Well, it was disappointing not to get that money and we certainly need it. But we are a very resilient population and the school system and the leadership that is currently in place, it’s not going to give up. We’re going to keep trying to get it because we need it.

And I think it’s very clear, as Dr. Cowen just said, it’s great to have the money for the capital, and it’s still great, but we need to have a funding source more from the state and federal government in our recovery that will help us handle operations. And those monies will come, and I think they will be coming in large measure from our own communities.

For a long time the communities here, particularly in New Orleans, was supporting the schools but were not seeing results. I think we’re seeing results now, and nothing matters more than being successful. And I think there’s a new pride developing in New Orleans now, as Dr. Cowen said, when we’ve gone from a 65 percent now down to 45 percent of those who are not competing as well educationally.

And I think the more we make that progress, the more investment will come from the people. They’ll vote for taxes from the corporations and the like. But we’re going to have to have a sustainable amount of money for operations and, of course, capital improvements; deferred maintenance is a killer, so we’re going to have to have that.

But the key part is going to be people, good teachers, strong curricula offerings for the students who are in and high expectations. One of the things we haven’t talked as much about but I think it has been a part of the recovery, we have to hold young people to high expectations. I firmly believe that all students can learn.

HUNT: Dr. Francis, my impression is that Xavier has returned almost to where you were. It’s remarkable. But some of the public universities, like the Southern University of New Orleans, are having a much more difficult time. Is that right?

FRANCIS: Well, they are. In particular, Southern University of New Orleans was hit very hard by Katrina. I think they are much further behind than any of us because they were in a very vulnerable area and it took a while to get back. And the longer you take to get back in the system where flooding has taken place, the harder it is. And they are having a difficult time.

But I think that as the state of Louisiana starts to look at its entire public college education system, there is going to have to be some reorganization, and I think that reorganization will involve a re-look at all of the public schools, in fact, the public college and universities, to see how a coordinated effort in the system can work where every school can progress at a way and point that can be sustained by the funds the state has.

HUNT: I was going to say that you had more applications to Tulane last year than any private school in America. That’s really amazing.

COWEN: Yes, I would have to say five years after Katrina we have rebounded in a way that I never thought was possible five years ago. We did have 44,000 applications for the entering class of 2010 and, in fact, that was the highest number of any private university in the country.

Not only that, we wound up having an incoming class of 1,660, where we had planned on 1,500, and the academic quality of that class is by far the best we’ve ever had. And I think there is one factor that accounts for that that I want to underline. After the storm, Tulane became the first major research university in the country, and still the only one, that integrates public service into the core curriculum for all undergraduates all four years they are with us.

HUNT: We only have about 30 seconds left. Let me ask you both quickly, is New Orleans prepared today in the event there is another Katrina?

FRANCIS: That’s a tough question to answer. We all have the good faith and hope that the levies will hold and we’re certainly better prepared than we were. But to answer the question that we are, it’s difficult to say.

HUNT: Okay.

COWEN: I think we are definitely better prepared.

HUNT: I want to tell you if every city had a Xavier in New Orleans and a Tulane, they’d be much better off. Thank you both so much for joining us. And when we come back, we’ll talk about the stretch run before the November elections.



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