Timothy P. Ryan

Age: 58
Born: New Orleans (Christmas Day)
Family: Wife, Louise Schreiner; two daughters: Rebecca, who attends Emory University, and Katherine, who attends nursing school at Louisiana State University.
Resides: Lakeview
Education: Graduate of Jesuit High School; bachelor of arts in economics from University of New Orleans (then called LSUNO); master’s and doctorate in economics from Ohio State University.
Favorite book: Catch-22
Favorite movie: Dr. Stranglove
Favorite food: Shrimp etouffee (that I make)
Favorite restaurant: Commander’s Palace
Favorite music: My daughter says I’m “100 Top 10 Songs.” My iPod is mostly 1960s rock songs, Rolling Stones … my favorite is “Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison.
Favorite TV show: Of all time, it was Cheers. Today it’s hard to find a show that develops but I admit to watching Boston Legal – you can’t beat William Shatner.
Hobby: Used to have more time to play golf. I have about a 12 handicap.
Favorite vacation: Jamaica. My wife and I are sort of beach people. For a week I can go and forget it all, do nothing, but after that I start getting nervous.

Timothy P. Ryan, Chancellor of the University of New Orleans, has been a part of your life and you probably never even knew it. An economist by education, Ryan was (and still is) the go-to guy for many an international, national and local reporter looking for a good quote and explanation about New Orleans’ economy – and no doubt a quick lesson in economic theory. Ryan has had 25 articles published and has made a number of presentations focusing on a variety of local industries – gambling, maritime, tourism, transportation, taxes, even universities including UNO – and their economic impact on the city, thereby indirectly formulating public opinion and government policy for more than 20 years. As a member of the faculty of UNO since 1976, when he was hired as an instructor of economics (the lowest rung on the academic ladder, he says), Ryan has also educated – formed, you could say – the minds of hundreds upon hundreds of students.

A native of New Orleans (both sides of his family go back many generations in the city), and himself a graduate of UNO (then called LSUNO), Ryan has a personal and professional stake in the health of the city and its citizens. As the Chancellor of UNO, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall, he’s determined to broaden – and make the public more aware of – the university’s reach, which like Ryan, has subtlety through the years permeated though New Orleans a number of ways, whether it be through education, the arts (film and museums) and overall industry. (UNO currently has approximately 8,900 undergraduates and 3,000 graduate students enrolled for fall 2008-’09.)
Could Ryan be a propagandist in a bespoke suit? It is up to you to decide, but he would have made economic theorists John Law and Adam Smith (Milton Friedman, perhaps?) proud as he has influenced the economy (and by association, people) – though Ryan does say, “the economy is too complex to produce the response you want.” But, human nature being what it is, you can sure try to nudge in the right direction.

Tell me about UNO – how many colleges does it have and what type of programs?
We have five colleges – education, business administration, engineering and liberal arts and sciences.

We have international summer school programs in Jamaica; Paris, Grenoble and Montpellier, France; Prague, Czech Republic; Rome, Italy; Costa Rica; and Innsbruck, Austria, which is the program UNO is probably best known for. The program in Madrid is moving to Mexico City. Each program has a different mix of UNO students, U.S. students and students from the host countries and offers different classes.

We have a couple of executive MBA programs where we send our faculty to teach. Kingston, Jamaica – our oldest – is an executive MBA program. The Jamaican students love to learn but they’re the hardest that I’ve taught as they like to challenge you, they want you to show it. We also encourage the students to come to UNO, because they are UNO graduates [they receive diplomas from UNO], to see the campus and the city. And we just started an MBA program in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, a university-affiliated museum, and the National World War II Museum, were both founded through the university. The WWII Museum was started by UNO faculty member, distinguished professor of history [the late] Stephen Ambrose.

Why all the international programs?
It’s important for students and UNO faculty to have an international experience.
When you talk to students, they often tell you it was a life-changing experience.
I primarily started the [international MBA programs] for our faculty to get exposed to international business first hand.

What message is UNO’s 50th Anniversary celebration trying to send?

The whole purpose of it is to try to increase the awareness – the people of New Orleans primarily but the state and the country as a whole – about what the university has gone through, what we’ve accomplished in spite of – I don’t think anyone will say about this university that we were given a silver spoon. UNO has always had to fight and claw for everything we’ve gotten – and that continues to be the case. UNO wants to show what a unique place it is, how we served our mission of providing basically a middle class for New Orleans.

Do most graduates stay here?
Most UNO graduates – about 75 percent – stay here; most Tulane and Loyola university students are from out of state and end up going back. UNO had made a significant impact on the city from a whole point of view.

What is the university’s mission?
. Historically it was to provide an opportunity to sons and daughters of New Orleanians who couldn’t afford to go out of state or to private university to get a good college education, and to allow those working adults, who for whatever reason didn’t have a degree, to get one. Now things have changed … the analogy is that UNO needs to develop into what UCLA is, which started as a community college and evolved into an urban university.  

What challenges does New Orleans face?
I think it’s the same challenge that it always has been and that’s to develop a business climate that makes people want to do business here and to make money. The philosophy in New Orleans, and it’s true for the entire state, has always been that we don’t really have to do anything special, businesses have to come here because we’ve got the [Mississippi] river, oil and gas industry, the Gulf [of Mexico], and ports – we have all these tremendous natural resources.
I heard a talk by a man who graduated from Tulane, so he knew the area, and was the chief economist from the Bank of Boston. This was in the mid-’80s when the first high-tech revolution took place along the Route 23 corridor outside of Boston. He said New England has always succeeded because its chief natural resources are rocks. Basically, New England has no natural resources, so the area invested in its people – and the educational system and the economy prospered.

Here in Louisiana, we have always had natural resources, so we have never really invested in our people – and we have a sinful, criminal educational system in the state. Now, [Hurricane] Katrina has maybe given us hope.

Louisiana has a tax structure that’s punitive to business, and we look at politics as sort of the Huey Long kind of philosophy – that it’s OK to steal money from big business … and a kind of tolerance of corruption.

Louisiana has always had low personal taxes. Remember when Massachusetts, when it was booming, was called “Taxachusetts” – it had one of the highest tax rates in the country but it didn’t prevent them from doing well economically.

The state hasn’t created a climate that is hospitable for business – and that involves public education, infrastructure (ports and airports), tax structure, political corruption – we just never ever did it …we’ve made a few inroads here and pushed a wall back there but never made a commitment large enough to convince the rest of the world that we’re serious about business. 

It’s a variation of the a phrase from old Pogo cartoon strip – one of the classic lines is “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

When the money was coming in during the ’80s from the oil and gas boom, we never diversified, developed education, higher education and infrastructure.

Do you think Hurricane Katrina can help change this – the economy, the perception of the city?
It has given us the opportunity. The jury is still out on whether we will fully take advantage. It destroyed the school system, especially in Orleans Parish, and that was the only way you could have dealt with that school system. It was absolutely corrupt, as well as being one of the worst. All the high schools, other than a couple of magnet schools, were “warehousing” kids – keeping them in school so as to keep them from killing each other long enough before they can legally leave … don’t try to teach them anything, just keep them out of harm’s way. The elementary schools weren’t much better – and meanwhile you had a central administration that was just stealing as much money as you could imagine.
New Orleans has a chance. We have a grand experiment going with charter schools and we’ll have to see if it works.

How many charter schools is UNO involved with?
Right now, UNO has four charter schools that we’re directly involved with their management through our College of Education.
UNO has two – Ben Franklin High School and Hynes Elementary – where we have fundamental partnerships, where we sit on the board.
We had two charter schools before the storm – [Pierre] Capdau and [Medard] Nelson – the other ones were post-Katrina because we felt that we had to expand what UNO did.

There’s all this talk about the 20-somethings that are moving to the city, post-Katrina. How do we keep them here?
New Orleans has always been in an attractive place – some of the things that make it not desirable to large business make it desirable to individuals, especially the entertainment, the restaurants, the quirky atmosphere. New Orleans is a good place to live, whether or not we are from here. It’s an interesting city but not always an easy to city to live in, with a tremendous amount of history and culture.

You got them. But you’ve got to keep them – ultimately, they’ve got to be able make money here. They’ll be able to stay for a couple of years, think of the city as a great adventure and maybe work for less than they could make, but sooner or later they have to feel like they can make a decent living here – maybe not as much as if they lived in Los Angeles, Chicago or New York, but enough. And traditionally, we haven’t been able to do that. And that’s going to be the key for keeping those people here – we have a window of a couple of years. There have to be good opportunities for them – and in the past there hasn’t been enough. obviously there have been some but not enough to make it work.

What are the types of industries that have growth opportunity?
New Orleans still has life left in its traditional industries. Oil and gas industry … the port … and new opportunities in aerospace manufacturing and creative industries. We’ve done pretty well in the film industry – we could do better. Music is a tremendous opportunity. Tourism will always be a viable part – but let’s mix it with other creative industries, especially music – to create an opportunity.

Are you a proponent of John Law, Adam Smith or John Maynard Keynes?
If I had to choose who was the better economist, I would have to say Adam Smith. Though I was primarily trained in the Chicago School of Economics, Milton Friedman.

Do you miss teaching?
I haven’t been able to teach since I became Chancellor but I would love to return to teaching.

True Confession: Up until I was 20, 21 years old, I really believed that I was going to be a Major League Baseball player. I got disabused of the notion while playing semi-pro in New Orleans. I was holding my own in center field until one incident … a big guy was playing left field and someone hit a line drive and he’s going after the ball, and I’m going after it, then all of a sudden something told me to look up and saw him barreling down on me and I just managed to avoid a head-on collision. He caught the ball, hit me and sent me reeling. I thought that maybe my athletic ability is such that I need to find something else to do.  

[Ed. Note: The writer of this article is an employee of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which is part of the University of New Orleans.]