Xavier University of Louisiana president, Dr. Norman Francis, celebrates 40 years at the helm of one of the nation’s top HBCUs.
If President Norman Francis of Xavier University of Louisiana had done nothing more than put his campus back together in an astonishing four months after Hurricane Katrina, he would be listed among the Xavier great. But he has done that and so much more in his 40 years as shepherd of this historically Black school in the heart of New Orleans.
His amazing longevity has made him the longest serving college president in the land, Black or White. And what has made Francis extraordinary has been his dedication to education issues generally, even beyond the borders of his small university, and his holding up the banner of math and science preparation.
I met Norman Francis 37 years ago when I interviewed him for a Fortune magazine article titled, “Black Colleges Are Worth Saving,” published in October 1971. He was fairly new on the job. It was an historic appointment, because Francis, an attorney, was the first African-American to head Xavier, the only Catholic-founded HBCU. Back then, Francis, now 77, had a clear vision that resonates even today. In his 1971 interview he said:
“Black kids still have a very basic reason for going to college — to get a job. There is a lot of economic pressure on them to make a buck. I feel that Black colleges can harness the anger and frustration of Black students with their desire to make a living. Xavier has to show them how the system can be changed without them becoming poverty-stricken … .”
And that is what Xavier has done.
The school, with a normal enrollment of some 4,000, ranks first in the nation in the number of Black students accepted into medical school annually. In this year’s Top 100 listings, for example, Xavier ranks No. 1 in graduating the most Black students in the biological/ biomedical sciences as well as in the physical sciences (see related charts). For nearly a decade it has regularly produced more Black pharmacists than any other school. Though enrollment is now down to about 3,000, a casualty of the Katrina interruption, it is climbing back to normal.
What is it about the school that makes it special, in aura, atmosphere, and in the results it produces?
On a visit one overcast spring day this year, I found that Xavier looks unique. At the noon hour the young men and women, which included Asian and Hispanic students as well as Blacks, moved briskly to the student center for lunch. The male students are not sporting baggy pants. Everybody seemed to be about business. It is no accident, no happenstance, students say.
“From the time we go through orientation, we get focused on goals, and that is how we conduct ourselves as students,” says Allison B. Hudson, a senior who is editor of the biweekly Xavier Herald. Though she is the editor, Allison is a specialist in graphics and wants to pursue that area of journalism. It is an example of how tightly focused many Xavier students are.
The focus comes from the top and from Xavier roots. Focus was a hallmark of Katharine Drexel, the Catholic nun born into an aristocratic Philadelphia family. Drexel, the first American-born person elevated to Catholic sainthood, took on the cause of the poor as a young woman. She and the Sisters of Blessed Sacrament founded Xavier in 1915, and in her wisdom she decided to make science and careers in the medical field an emphasis for the school. She established the school of pharmacy in 1927. And as fate would have it, the medical field and pharmacy are thriving as the need for medical care grows.
“We just happen to be right in the headlights of what America is looking for, right now,” says Francis. “Mother Drexel was a true visionary.
“Students graduating in pharmacy can make $100,000 a year, right out of college — that is the level of demand,” he says.
Maybe the boldest stroke of leadership by the nuns who ran Xavier was to turn the presidency over to Francis, who would become not only the first Black president, but also the first lay leader as opposed to a cleric.
Francis was no random choice. He is from a family whose allegiance to the Roman Catholic church in his native Lafayette, La., goes back generations. He attended Catholic preparatory schools, attended and graduated from Xavier, and earned his law degree across town from Loyola University of New Orleans.
He worked on several assignments at Xavier after military service, including dean of students.
“When the sisters decided it was time for a change in leadership, they surrendered the keys to the kingdom to me, so to speak,” says Francis.
“Even when I took office, many larger Catholic schools like St. Louis, Notre Dame and others, had not gotten to the point of trusting lay people with senior leadership. But the sisters of our order went all the way — made me president, and allowed me to have a board of trustees separate and apart from the leadership of the order. They ceded complete control, and bestowed complete confidence in us.”
It is noteworthy that 1968, the year Francis was appointed, was a tumultuous year. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated. Student revolts, first at Howard University, then at Columbia University, overthrew established leadership. Many Black students were more interested in the trappings of Black power than traditional education. And the nation’s streets were wracked with large demonstrations against the war in Vietnam.
Against this backdrop, Francis charted a careful course. He selected two trusted and experienced Xavier administrators as his lieutenants: Clarence Jupiter as his chief of development, and Anthony Rachal as executive vice president. They worked together for decades.
Looking back over the last 40 years, the question remains: How does Xavier manage to excel in teaching math and science, and turn out such successful students, when many other educators fret over ways to teach such subjects to Black students? Is it done by careful, selective recruitment? Special teaching? Or by employing some fancy elixir cooked up in the pharmacy labs to imbue students with science proficiency?
“All of the above,” Francis responds with a wink.
Ever the planners and strategists, the faculty at Xavier years ago decided to experiment by sending some of their best instructors into public elementary schools to do some science teaching, using attention-getting demonstrations to catch the youngsters’ fancy. They demonstrated to kids, their parents and their teachers that math and science could be exciting — and accessible.
“I mean no particular criticism of elementary schools,” says Francis. “But, we as a nation have been woefully inadequate in training good science and mathematics teachers for the grade school level. Sometimes youngsters are introduced to arithmetic by teachers with no math education at all. As a result, many youngsters not only have little achievement when they reach middle school, but many have been turned off by the subject.”
Returning to Normalcy
For all the management and organizing success at Xavier, nothing has been more impressive than the rapid recovery from the Katrina flood that saw virtually the entire campus under five feet of water when a canal adjacent to the campus poured over its banks.
Even as the campus stood under water in September 2005, Francis vowed the school would reopen in January; on Jan. 17, 2006, it did — and 80 percent of the student body reported.
As part of the recovery effort, many Xavier alumni and friends pitched in to help the school and also help their beloved, besieged city of New Orleans. Many students fanned out across the country to do their studies on campuses elsewhere during the cleanup and rehabilitation. Students still in New Orleans pitched in and helped with the campus cleanup.
But the true Xavier miracle was that the school managed to reopen in January as Francis predicted.
Dr. Myron E. Moorehead, chairman of the board of trustees, expresses admiration for Francis.
“His performance during Katrina is an excellent example of his leadership,” says the Louisiana physician. “Any other school suffering the same kind of damage would have [been] closed much longer, suffering a far bigger setback than we had.”
Two keys to the successful recovery, Francis says, were the decision to offer “golden handcuffs” to the faculty in the form of guaranteed salaries for the year, so they would not wander off; the other key was just plain luck.
“We were in the midst of new building construction when the flood hit, so we had a ready-made work crew on hand to launch right into the rehabilitation,” Francis says. The work has cost an estimated $60 million, he adds, and though he has been in an ongoing struggle with the insurer he is confident that fundraising and a proper settlement will leave the school in decent financial shape.
“All signs point to a full incoming class this fall, and a return to normalcy,” says Francis.
Serving the Community
Francis’ service to education has reached well beyond the Xavier campus, and he has been recognized for it. So great is the community- wide respect for him that he was named chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority in the Katrina aftermath. He has served on many panels working to improve education.
Francis has chaired the Educational Testing Service, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Southern Education Foundation, and served as president of the American Association of Higher Education and the United Negro College Fund. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received 35 honorary degrees.
In recognition of his service, President George W. Bush has presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to civilians. President Bush described him as “a man of deep intellect and compassion and character.”
In short, the lawyer from Lafayette, La., who took charge of his alma mater 40 years ago, has come a long, long way. On the job for four decades, Francis does not have an exact timetable for his retirement. “Certainly not before I have seen the school fully recovered from the Katrina problems,” he says.
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