In three decades, Norman C. Francis has led Xavier University from local fame to national acclaim
At a time when most college presidents would consider retirement,
Norman C. Francis, who is sixty-seven, continues to thrive by finding
the energy and motivation to excel where others would be content to
call it quits. For the past thirty years, in what many higher education
observers consider an unusually long tenure, Francis has led Xavier
University of New Orleans.
During his reign, the small Catholic, liberal arts school has gone
from being locally regarded as a strong, regional Black institution to
one that enjoys a national reputation — particularly for its science
education and professional pharmacy training programs. Since 1985,
applications for admissions to the school have risen 450 percent,
according to Xavier spokeswoman Connie Jackson.
“Years ago, Xavier was not known outside of New Orleans and the
state of Louisiana. The difference now is that the school is known
nationally. They know it in New York, in Florida, and in California,”
says Dr. Alvin Richard, dean of the graduate school at Xavier.
In 1968, Francis became the first Black, the first male, and the
first layman to hold the presidency of Xavier. Until then, Xavier
presidents had come from the ranks of the Sisters of the Blessed
Sacrament, the order of nuns who established the university in 1915.
A native of Lafayette, Louisiana, Francis has devoted his entire
professional career to Xavier. He received a bachelor’s degree from the
school in 1952, and earned a law degree from Loyola University Law
School in 1955 — becoming that school’s first African American
After law school, Francis returned to Xavier and held a succession
of administrative jobs — including dean of men, director of student
personnel services, and assistant to the president — before becoming
In addition to the Xavier presidency, Francis has served as
president of the United Negro College Fund, and chairman of both the
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Educational
In the past few years, the main achievement that has brought Xavier
to the nation’s attention has been its record for having the highest
number of graduating Black students accepted into medical school. In
1997, seventy-one Black Xavier students gained admission to medical
school. It was the fifth consecutive year that Xavier led the nation in
that category. The next closest institutions were Howard University
(with forty graduates earning admission to medical school), Spelman
College (with thirty-four), and Duke University (with twenty-five).
As of late April, Xavier officials say they are already ahead of
last year’s achievement, with seventy-six students having gained
admission to medical school so far.
In addition to its pre-med program, Xavier graduates more Black
students with majors in physics, biology, chemistry, and pharmacy than
any other institution in the nation. The pharmacy college trains a
quarter of the nation’s Black pharmacists. For its success in science
education, the National Science Foundation awarded Xavier a five-year
grant of $12 million in 1995 to create programs for improving math,
science, and engineering education for underrepresented minorities.
The success of Xavier’s science and pre-med programs has many
crediting Francis with guiding their rise to prominence by obtaining
the support of government agencies and organizations, Observers praise
him for a legendary ability to scour the nation to acquire financial
and institutional support for Xavier programs.
Since 1968, Xavier’s endowment has increased from $2 million to
$19.4 million. Annual giving by alumni has grown from $10,000 to a
record $372,000 in 1997, according to school officials. In thirty
years, Xavier enrollment has gone from fewer than 1,300 to 3,500
Currently, the school — which is bounded by two major
thoroughfares, an interstate highway and a canal — is on a building
spree. Last month, Xavier officials dedicated a $9.2 million dormitory
— the Living Learning Center — that will house 435 students. This
fall, school officials expect to dedicate a $20 million wing to
Xavier’s main science building.
Fund-raising for the science building expansion, which is expected
to double the building’s space, has reached $15 million. Xavier
officials believe it’s likely the school may raise the full amount of
the construction cost by the time the wing opens this fall.
Strolling across campus with the convivial Francis is like walking
through a wedding with an incumbent politician. Not a student passes
without him pausing to extend a handshake or a greeting. Nothing
appears feigned about his congeniality and students respond warmly.
“He’s a very personable individual,” Richard says. This vivacity
is, in fact, one of the characteristics Francis effectively employs
toward achieving his goals for Xavier.
“He’s a master fund raiser. He knows how to tell the Xavier story
and to get people to believe it,” says Dr. Everett Williams, chair of
the Xavier board of trustees and former superintendent of New Orleans
“I did not know Norman before I came to Dillard, and I had very
little experience with Xavier,” says Dr. Michael Lomax, president of
Dillard University. I credit Johnetta Cole with telling me to get to
know Norman and I’ve tried to do just that.
“This is the kind of job, which is gratifying and rewarding, but it
has the capacity to burn out even the best of people. Only a handful of
people could serve as a college president as long as Norman has and
remain at the top of their game. This guy eats, drinks and sleeps
… From a Man of Vision
Colleagues and supporters of Francis do not shy away from calling
this energetic man a “visionary.” Dr. Marcellus Grace, dean of the
Xavier College of Pharmacy, says Francis excels by knowing how to read
the seismic shifts and broad trends in higher education.
“He manages to keep his finger on the pulse of where higher education is going,” Grace says.
Francis attributes his longevity at Xavier to the satisfaction he gets by witnessing the success of his students.
“You thrive on successes, growth and the feeling that you’ve
accomplished something. There’s nothing like seeing a student come in
as a freshman …. see [him or her] go out as a senior and meet later
on, and see that growth.”
COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com