NEW ORLEANS — Eight years ago, Xavier University took a heavy blow from Hurricane Katrina and its floodwaters. But while the public University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans have struggled to rebound, this private, Catholic institution has made a dramatic turnaround, increasing its enrollment and expanding its campus since the storm.
Founded in 1825 by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the small liberal arts college has built a reputation as the place to go for Blacks seeking medical careers. Katrina drowned the campus in floodwaters up to 8 feet deep and administrators estimated losses at more than $90 million in storm damage, lost tuition and scholarship revenue.
Since then, the university’s footprint has changed tremendously.
There’s a new pharmacy building that bears the name of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, which helped build it with a $12.5 million donation. There’s also the new $10 million, 450-seat chapel designed by world-renowned Argentinian architect Cesar Pelli.
A storm-ravaged dormitory that was scheduled to be demolished is now a $7 million haven for health and academic services, and a new $25 million Convocation Center replaced the 76-year-old, storm-damaged gym known as The Barn.
University President Norman Francis, at the helm for the past 45 years, beams when he discusses the academic and physical recovery at his school.
“What we’ve done at Xavier is enhance our capacity for teaching and learning, and we’ve enhanced the experiences for young people so they can go as far as they can go,” said Francis.
According to a report by the National Science Foundation, Xavier ranks fifth in the nation in producing Black graduates who go on to receive science and engineering doctorates. It’s first in the nation in producing Black graduates who receive life science doctorates and seventh in producing Black graduates who get physical sciences Ph.D.s.
“We’re going to dance with the girls who brought us to the dance,” Francis said. “The STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields helped increase our enrollment and brought us national attention. So we won’t abandon our commitment to those fields.”
The fall semester enrollment is at 3,137, according to preliminary reports, said Kenneth St. Charles, Xavier’s vice president for institutional advancement. Enrollment hit a record 4,190 before Katrina and dropped to 3,013 in 2006.
“My goal would be that we get to between 3,500 and 3,800,” Francis said. “That’s still small enough for us to continue to make sure that everybody is somebody and everyone knows that he or she is cared for and not just a number. That’s been one of our secrets.”
The university also rebuilt 10 homes on land it owned following Katrina and has added 12 other residences to its portfolio that faculty and staff can rent.
As the land-locked campus has evolved, Francis acknowledges that he’s heard grumblings from some in and outside of the community.
“The people who are not happy are those who don’t live in Gert Town,” Francis said of the neighborhood where Xavier stands. “Gert Town can be changed if we can get a consensus from the people, but there are people who have kept it down for their own personal reasons. Those are the ones who complain this big university is taking over.”
Francis said, 30 years ago, he met with community leaders to discuss how Xavier could help the stagnant, urban community grow.
“Out of that meeting, came the idea of getting a swimming pool for the kids. We did that. They wanted Pine and Broadway streets paved so the city buses could run from Fountainbleau to Washington Avenue, which they weren’t doing because the streets weren’t paved. We did that. We also opened a daycare and health center next to the pool. We did what we could.
“The community’s seniors complained about dope in the area. The worst bar and lounge was a half block off Washington. Every Sunday, we would have to sweep up trash, bottles, blood. We ultimately bought that place and tore it down.”
Now, he said, he’s hearing grumbling about zoning changes the university is seeking for parking for the Convocation Center.
“Every time we go before the City Council, they say Xavier is taking over. That’s a tragedy,” Francis said. “Still we are not going to give up on Gert Town. We will continue to help. Our commitment has always been to the community. If there’s any blessing for being president for 45 years, it’s that I know the history. They [opponents] know the history, too, but they’re trying to rewrite it.”