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Beyond the Columns

bc law dean john h. garvey

A Small Miracle from Katrina
Two stories on technology’s hand in helping New Orleans’ law students


John GarveyOn August 29 I woke up worrying about Loyola Law School in New Orleans. It’s a Jesuit school like Boston College, and it lay smack in the path of Hurricane Katrina. The storm hit Louisiana that day. It was a category 4 hurricane, as violent as the one that hit Galveston in 1900, and it caused more damage than one person can comprehend. Maybe that was why I focused on a small but familiar piece of the disaster. There are actually two law schools in New Orleans, Loyola and Tulane. You might be interested to hear how they are getting out of this mess.

The most interesting part of the story is what happened first. Within a day of Katrina’s landfall I had eight emails from my counterparts across the country. Within two days I had 100. The American Bar Association (ABA) runs a deans’ listserv, and it functioned like a national town meeting on how to address the law schools’ problems. People spoke in turn; their remarks were coherent and thoughtful; and as the emails piled up, the participants gradually contributed the parts of a solution. We had eyewitness accounts from New Orleans. Deans from Houston and New York who had recent experience with disasters counseled against impulsive offers of help that the schools might not want. There was a rapid debate about taking on the 1,000 or so displaced students, and on what terms. A consensus quickly developed that we would ask New Orleans students to pay tuition to their home schools and not the assisting schools.

Then it got complicated. First- and third-year students presented different problems. There were ABA rules about required class hours. Many schools around the country had already started classes and the drop-add date was approaching. Visiting students would need library access, email, student IDs, and health care. How could the New Orleans students even prove they were attending school? You couldn’t check with Loyola or Tulane. And how would the students know what options were available to them?

My contribution to the disaster relief was a good Rolodex. I instigated a conference call with the president of the Association of American Law Schools, the ABA’s Consultant on Legal Education, and the two affected deans to bring some order to the help effort. By September 1 we had posted on the AALS website a list of schools willing to help (there were eventually 177 in all), and the terms under which they would take in students. News of the website was communicated to schools through the deans’ listserv. Within hours everyone in legal education knew the broad outline of the workout. The major law publishers provided books free of charge. Sorting out financial aid was tricky, but Access Group (a child of the Law School Admission Council) offered help to both students and financial aid offices.

That’s one story. I have been reflecting on it this past month as I read Tom Friedman’s book The World Is Flat, because it is a good example of how changes in technology have altered our decisionmaking processes. The combination of email, Netscape, high-speed internet access, and cell phones has made possible a horizontal, collaborative method of problem-solving that would have been unthinkable ten or even five years ago. Almost immediately after Katrina hit, we were able to hold a discussion among the 190 people most familiar with the administration of legal education, identify the problems, propose solutions, debate them, and reach a consensus. (I must confess that there was a shadow discussion on the associate deans’ listserv among people who really know what they are talking about, and that the deans were counseled about what to say.) We could then post the solution in the electronic town square so everyone could see it. We did all this in three days. In old-fashioned hierarchical structures, achieving that kind of speed is the stuff of legend. (Think of George Patton moving the Third Army 100 miles in three days to attack Bastogne.)

The other story is a more familiar one. It’s about how the staff at Boston College Law School invited, received, and settled a group of new students in the blink of an eye. On September 1—the day we posted the solution on the AALS website—I met with the Law School’s deans and directors to plan our part. By the end of that day, we had received more than 100 inquiries. On September 2 we admitted 23 students. That was Friday of Labor Day weekend. When school opened the following Tuesday, we registered seven students (six from Tulane and one from Loyola), and they began their classes. Let me say that again, in case you are not sufficiently impressed. In two working days we designed a system for visitors from New Orleans, took applications, admitted students, enrolled them, registered them in classes, and put them to work.

The staff made this look easier than it was. And they had help from everyone in the community. All the students had some connection with Massachusetts (siblings, family, a fiancée), but only two were natives. Alumni offered places to live. Parents and faculty made contributions to the Law School Fund to pay for clothing, school supplies, and household necessities. The Law Student Association collected donations from more than 150 students, ranging from housing to clothing to computers to books. As one of the visiting students said, “Everyone here has been really great. The welcoming atmosphere at BC has really helped make the transition easier.”