New Tulane president focuses on curriculum

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Tulane University President Michael Fitts, Thursday, August 14, 2014. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Tulane University President Michael Fitts, Thursday, August 14, 2014.

When Michael Fitts was introduced in February as the next president of Tulane University, longtime colleagues lauded the Philadelphia native’s vision for integrating the law curriculum at the top-ranked Penn Law, where he was the dean, with other studies at the University of Pennsylvania, a private Ivy League school.

As he’s settling in to his new home, Fitts, 61, is thinking about how to apply that lesson on a bigger stage at Tulane. With programs in areas ranging from architecture and business to medicine and public health, he says, the private university of about 13,400 students may be fertile ground for such a concept.

“We’re very special in American higher education,” Fitts said last week in his Gibson Hall office. “We have the breadth of academic programs like a huge university, yet the intimacy of really a smaller undergraduate school, and a connection with a major city with a lot of diversity and innovation.”

In 14 years as Penn Law’s dean, Fitts expanded the number of degree and certificate programs offered jointly by the law school and Penn’s various other schools and interdisciplinary programs.

The idea caught on: Nearly three-quarters of Penn’s law students now graduate with a joint degree or obtain a certificate at another school in the university, said Fitts, who believes the diversity in coursework makes Penn Law graduates attractive to potential employers.

“So much of confronting problems in society requires you to think across categories,” he said. “They don’t come neatly packaged. You need to know something about engineering, something about business and, maybe, literally something about philosophy. Tulane has the ability to really be a leader in sort of focusing on areas and fields where problems cross, like energy and the environment.”

Penn began offering a program last year for graduate students to earn a law degree and a master’s degree in engineering. Another arrangement lets law students also earn a certificate in business management, merging legal training with management and leadership skills.

Still, after only six weeks on the job at Tulane, Fitts insists he’s not getting too far ahead of himself, saying he has no set agenda or sweeping changes in mind for the 180-year-old university.

For months, he’s traveled back and forth from Philadelphia to ease the transition before moving last month into an apartment a few blocks from campus. Even as he is still unpacking boxes, Tulane’s incoming freshman class will begin arriving this week. Fitts is scheduled to deliver remarks to the group of about 1,600 students during a convocation ceremony Saturday.

“I’m very much like the students: I made this decision to uproot myself and my life and come to New Orleans and to Tulane,” he said. “I’ve spent my life elsewhere. They’ve spent their lives mostly elsewhere, though there’s a good number from Louisiana, and I want to explain what I think is special and unique about how Tulane resonates with me and my own personal background, and how I think it should resonate with them.”

Fitts is taking the helm as Tulane seems to be experiencing a prosperity that other local universities — some of which are having to cut jobs and programs — can only envy.

For the first time in decades, college football will return to the Uptown campus next month, when the Green Wave plays Georgia Tech on Sept. 6 at Yulman Stadium, the school’s new $73 million, 30,000-seat stadium. The game is a sellout. Also this fall, Tulane will open a new dormitory, the 256-bed Barbara Greenbaum House at Zimpel Street and Broadway.

Bringing football back to the campus, so students can walk to home games rather than having to trek downtown to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, will help generate excitement, strengthen existing bonds and build new ones, Fitts said, all of which could translate to a boost in fundraising as well.

“It’s a gorgeous facility, which I think will be great for the university,” he said. “It makes the campus just spectacular. Sports is a way, really, of bringing a community together.”

In his few weeks on the job, Fitts said, he has met with some faculty and deans, and he has toured the campus and the city with a few student leaders, eager to show him their favorite spots and hangouts.

“I’ve been over to the Boot,” he said, referring to a popular college bar on the edge of the campus. “It was one of the first places they showed me. I didn’t go inside the Boot; I went outside the Boot.”

As he gets acclimated, Fitts has taken in some local fare, including meals at Antoine’s, Commander’s Palace and Popeyes. He’s had a po-boy (not dressed) and raw oysters, though when pressed, he couldn’t recall where. He’s rooting for the Saints, and he’s a fan of quarterback Drew Brees, but if they square off against his hometown Philadelphia Eagles, he’s somewhat conflicted.

Asked for his position on go-cups, a symbol of the city’s entrenched drinking culture, he paused. “Those are the ...?” he asked, trailing off. A university spokesman jumped in: “The cups that you’re allowed to take out of a bar.”

With a brief “Aha” and a chuckle, Fitts deferred, saying: “I’m not going to take a position on that.”

As he’s made his way throughout the city, he said, he’s been struck by its beauty, its mix of old and new culture, and the amount of construction underway. “I had known about (the cultural diversity), but to just sort of see it upfront is an experience,” he said.

Fitts succeeded Scott Cowen, who announced last summer that he planned to retire after leading the New Orleans school for 16 years. “I speak to him periodically about a number of issues,” Fitts said of his predecessor, whom he described as “very helpful in several areas where his knowledge and background is indispensable.”

Fitts comes to New Orleans after spending almost all of his life living in the shadow of the University of Pennsylvania, having grown up in West Philadelphia, about 10 blocks from Penn’s campus. His father, a native of Jackson, Tennessee, graduated from Penn’s medical school and later rose to chief of surgery at Penn Med, the oldest medical school in the country. Fitts’ grandfather was dean of the university’s business school.

He went to Harvard, graduating in 1975, and earned his law degree from Yale in 1979. Later, he worked as a clerk at the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia for two years and spent another four years with the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Justice Department. He focused on the constitutional separation of powers, an area that later became his focus in the classroom.

He has two children in their 20s. His wife, who worked as a lawyer before becoming a mother and homemaker, is still commuting between their old and new homes.

With classes set to start Aug. 25, Fitts said he can relate to what his new students must be feeling.

“I’m sure the freshmen are extremely nervous as well, but as you know, life is taking on new challenges,” he said. “I’ve spent a great deal of my life in one place and institution, and to be able to come to a new place and a university that has a different set of strengths and a different set of challenges, this is what growth and life is all about, for me and the entering freshmen.”

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.