Does Tulane Public Service Really Do Anything?

By Gus Veerman

The effectiveness of public service at Tulane is questionable

Public service is one of Tulane’s biggest selling points. The Tulane website speaks of the “transformative” impact that public service has on undergraduates, whose “social involvement” will lead them to be “the world’s next great leaders."

While such pronouncements may allure starry-eyed applicants, the reality of public service at Tulane is less grandiose than it may seem. Candidly ask a Tulane student about their service experience, and they might recall hungover misery, throwing up all over the vegetable garden that they were supposed to weed.

The gap between Tulane’s public service ideals and actuality raises questions not only of the effectiveness of the Center for Public Service, but also of the purpose of the institution itself.

The Center for Public Service was established in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as part of Tulane’s Renewal Plan to “implement measures to ensure the university’s financial stability.” The establishment of CPS was a win-win; Tulane students could help clean up the city and the university could structure this labor as an education in public service. As the years passed, however, the Center shifted its focus from debris clearing to more unique tasks, such as high school science fair assistance and ESL education. As more and more students have fulfilled their public service graduation requirements, however, the effectiveness of these programs has come into question.

Nate Koch, a sophomore English major and Service Learning Assistant at CPS says the relationship between the class a student is in and the service they complete is complicated. “Sometimes they pair well, and other times they’re disjointed, which can frustrate some students.”

Take the example of ‘Mechanics of Materials’ in which engineering students studying “formulations for axial stresses applied to unsymmetric beams” fulfill their service requirement by producing educational videos.

It is unclear if CPS officials consider video production to be better suited for students taking ‘Video Production 1.’

Clumsy classroom arrangements aren’t the center’s only difficulties. One of the most well known events of CPS is “Outreach Tulane,” an annual display of service in which around 1,000 Tulane students disperse through New Orleans to participate in a variety of service projects. With unsurprising optimism, Outreach’s website claims that through Outreach, Tulane students can “impact New Orleans in a positive way like no other.”

With so many participants and individual experiences, however, it can be difficult to determine whether this language is an accurate description or hyperbolic self-praise.

Sophomore Elissa Grace Todd, who participated in Outreach on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, described her experience beautifying a local graveyard as “really cool; I got to see a beautiful hidden historical gem in the city and help to preserve it for future generations to appreciate.”

Such an experience seems a perfect example of the CPS’s goals; both the student and the city benefited from an encounter with New Orleanian culture and a provision of free labor.

Yet the sheer quantity of labor provided by Outreach may be beyond the city’s needs.

Freshman Michael Lavine participated in Outreach 2016 by helping to clean up a local church. He enjoyed the encounter with Louisianian culture and felt the program “definitely makes a difference in New Orleans” but also claimed “it wasn’t planned out in the most efficient manner. . . we had maybe 30 people at our site, when no more than 15 people were truly needed.”

Similar anecdotes of service-site inactivity are well known to most Tulane students. As Koch points out, “The reality is that there are already a lot of systems in place to help this community that have been around for decades” and “first-year students have a very specific and limited role to play in those systems.”

Free labor helps out, yet the problems still persist. Why is that? Partly because Tulane focuses its work on remedying symptoms, not the disease.

If the university wants its students to be compelled to live lives of service, CPS needs to provide “education on the larger, structural issues that cause the need for service in the first place,” as Koch suggests, and motivate students to ask the tough questions.

If CPS can trim out its less effective programs and keep students questioning the foundations of the issues that cause service learning to be necessary, then it may indeed incubate “the world’s next great leaders.” That is, if they realize that not every problem can be solved overnight.

CurrentLara Miloslavsky