| By Chronicle of Higher Education
John D. Lawson, the chief information officer at Tulane University, garnered a standing ovation from a crowd at the Higher Education Leadership Forum, a two-day event sponsored by The Chronicle and Gartner. His talk covered in detail Tulane's preparation for Hurricane Katrina and the issues the university dealt with in the aftermath.
Mr. Lawson opened with a picture of the projected path of Hurricane Wilma, and then he started in. His talk was peppered with advice for CIO's and presidents, and also contained a good deal of true confessions. "We didn't really understand the scope of the disaster that could hit us," he said. He also admitted that Tulane's communications plan was not as robust as it should have been. He advised the audience to have a plan to rely on multiple cellphone vendors (he carries three phones) since the lines will likely be clogged. He also told the crowd to have an old-fashioned radio-communications system available, as that would be more reliable than telephones. Tulane had backed up its systems and arranged for the evacuation of those back-up tapes. But, he confessed, the tapes were stored in a downtown building that was locked before the pickup could occur.
He said that Tulane reacted to the disaster by establishing central control. Deans of schools within the university can't worry about their individual needs, he said, and egos need to come second to the survival of the institution. Mission-critical operations need to be preserved first -– keep public-relations staff close, re-establish e-mail for critical staff, and know how to handle payroll and billing. Take control of your destiny, he said –- don't wait for the government or insurance companies to come to the rescue. He told presidents to watch out for wild rumors, and he told CIO's to relay information accurately, no matter how dire. "Have a thick skin and a soft heart," he told his peers. "You are going to be the hero and the goat –- and often the hero and the goat at the same time."
He also said a college needs to show concern for its people. A disaster is as taxing mentally and emotionally as it is financially. And he ended on a tearjerker, saying that colleges hit by disasters should keep in mind the suffering of the people around them. He showed a news clip of an interview with a man whose wife was torn from his arms when Katrina floodwaters ripped their house apart. Before she disappeared into the water, she told him to take care of the kids.