Special to the NNPA from The Louisiana Weekly
NEW ORLEANS (The Louisiana Weekly)— ‘Nothing has brought me greater joy than participating in the growth experiences of innumerable students…’
Dr. Norman Francis, the visionary and scholar who led Xavier University, the nation’s sole Black Catholic university, through the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement, tumultuous 1970s, and witnessed the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the canonization of Saint Katharine Drexel, the dawn of a new millennium and the election and re-election of the nation’s first Black president, announced Thursday that he is stepping down from his post as the longest-serving college president in the U.S.
Francis, 83, broke the news to Xavier students in the Convocation Center Thursday morning.
“After nearly 47 years I believe the time has come to take the brightly burning torch handed to me by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and pass it on to new leadership, Francis said.
“I do so with the passionate confidence and absolute certainty that Xavier is better prepared than ever to continue its educational and spiritual mission, and to build on its tradition of excellence.”
Later that day he held a press conference and told reporters that he will step down at the end of the 2014-2015 academic year.
Francis, a Lafayette, La., native, has held the post for 46 years, longer than other U.S. college or university president.
Norman Francis started out in life as poor and underprivileged, but — as he said later — he did not know that he was poor and underprivileged. He was the son of poor parents, neither of whom had finished high school. His father was a barber who rode to work each day on a bicycle because the family did not own a car. He earned pocket money by shining shoes on Lafayette’s main street. His parents felt that Norman, his three sisters and his brother needed an education. Norman and his brother and sisters attended Catholic schools and his parents saw to it that the children rarely missed school. “I had to have a fever, and really be ill before I dared to try to miss school,” he later recalled. His parents also made certain that the children attended Mass on Sunday, and were punctual in their religious duties, according to Wikipedia. His brother was Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Francis of Newark, who retired from active ministry in 1995 and died in 1997.
His affiliation with Xavier spans six decades, dating back to 1948, the year he enrolled at Xavier as a 17-year-old freshman. He was elected class president every year of his matriculation at Xavier and was elected student body president his senior year.
“As a student, I was challenged — challenged to apply disciplined commitment to my studies,” Francis recalled. “Challenged to care about and consider others in all that I did — challenged to dream of a better world that I could be a part of making.”
After earning his undergraduate degree in 1952, Dr. Francis became the first African American to graduate from Loyola Law School in New Orleans. After graduation from Loyola Law School, he served in the U.S. Army. After being discharged from the Army, Dr. Francis worked on special assignment with the U.S. Attorney General to help desegregate federal agencies. In the early days of his legal career, he worked to fight segregation, forging common ground as a mediator and serving as legal counsel to activists.
Ultimately, Francis decided to forgo a promising legal practice for a career in education, where he thought he could be of greater service. In 1957 he was appointed Xavier’s dean of men and quickly rose through the ranks to become the first African American and first layman to serve as president of Xavier University in 1968.
Before becoming president, Francis made a name for himself by providing refuge on the Xavier University campus for the Freedom Riders after they were attacked by a violent mob in Aniston, Alabama.
That episode and his humble roots helped to shape and define Francis’ uncanny ability to relate to students who attended Xavier.
“This morning, my fellow board members and I accepted Dr. Francis’ request to retire as Xavier’s president, effective June 30., 2015,” Michael Rue, chairman of Xavier University’s Board of Trustees, said Thursday. “We all wish that Dr. Francis could remain as Xavier’s president for at least 50 more years. We take solace in the realization that Dr. Francis will be forever with us through the institution he helped shape.”
“Xavier University has been transformed under Dr. Francis’ leadership,” Rue said.
Rue said that with Francis at the helm, Xavier’s enrollment has tripled, its endowment went from less than $20 million to more than $160 million, and its campus has expanded from just five permanent buildings to 16 permanent buildings situated on 63.4 acres.
Dr. Francis is credited with being the visionary and the mastermind that turned the historically Black institution of higher learning founded by St. Katharine Drexel into an academic powerhouse, the top producer of Black doctors and one of the leading institutions for pharmacists of color.
For more than two decades, Xavier has claimed bragging rights for getting more of its graduates accepted into medical schools than any other institution of higher learning in the U.S. bar none.
“Today, Xavier is first in the nation in the number of African Americans earning bachelor’s degrees in biology, chemistry, physics, and, physical sciences and we’ve held this position at the top for the past decade,” Rue said.
Xavier is currently ranked fifth in the nation in producing African Americans who earn science and mathematics PhDs and ranked first in life sciences; Xavier is ranked No. 1 as the undergraduate source of African Americans who earn medical degrees, easily outpacing prestigious institutions like Morehouse, Spelman, Howard, Stanford, Harvard and Tulane. Xavier is also ranked third in the U.S. in producing African Americans who earn doctorates in pharmacy.
Amazingly, Francis balanced his work in resurrecting Xavier after Katrina with serving as chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. A bit of a rock star and mentor among college presidents and administrators, Francis has served on more than 50 boards and commissions and was awarded 40 honorary degrees.
After Hurricane Katrina and several levee breaks flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, Dr. Francis moved quickly to get Xavier back up and running.
In the nine years since the devastating storm, Xavier has thrived, not only renovating its campus but building a new Convocation Center and expanding its campus. Residents, alumni, elected officials and community leaders have marveled at the president’s tireless, single-minded pursuit of excellence at Xavier.
“Dr. Francis’ impact on Xavier, on New Orleans, and especially on African Americans stands alone. He has served as president of Xavier University for more than 44 years, growing the institution into a nationally-recognized academy of excellence. He nurtured critical programs in the sciences and established Xavier’s reputation as one of the largest producers of African-American medical students in the country,” state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson said last week. “After Katrina and the levee failures, Dr. Francis was a powerful force in the rebuilding of his university and our community. Xavier University has continued to grow and prosper under Dr. Francis’ leadership since the storm, reaching even greater heights.”
“Some will recall that President Francis was poised to retire a decade ago, just before Katrina hit, decimating New Orleans, shaking the foundation of Xavier University, and displacing the students, administrators, faculty, staff and the Francis family,” Lezh Baskerville, president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, said. “It was while with students on the top floor of the highest building on Xavier’s campus, awaiting transportation to a safe haven out of New Orleans just after Katrina hit that President Francis announced his retirement plans would be put on hold and that he would remain at Xavier to secure and shore up his university.
“Ten years later, with Xavier globally recognized as one of America’s premier universities, President Francis having been honored with the nation’s highest civil award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and having not only restored Xavier to its pre-Katrina greatness, but having built it beyond that marker, the NAFEO Nation anticipates with delight President Francis’ retirement on his own terms.”
“I have always admired Dr. Francis and he was one of my role models,” Dillard University president Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough told Diverseeducation.com. “This was especially true since he worked in student affairs and became a president at 37 as I did. But being in New Orleans with him for two years has taken my admiration to a whole new level because I have watched him in action. He is awesome.”
Former New Orleans Mayor and National Urban League president and CEO Marc Morial described Francis as “one of the most influential Louisianians and New Orleanians of the last century.
“He’s an enormously talented leader with a unique combination of skills that you just don’t see in one person,” Morial told Nola.com.
“Norman Christopher Francis began his service to our community more than 60 years ago as a student and then as its president for 46 years—quite a remarkable achievement,” U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu said. “He is one of the most admired and respected leaders not only in New Orleans and Louisiana, but in our nation today.
“In an extraordinary career, he took an active and vital leadership role during the tumultuous decades of civil rights battles in Louisiana,” Landrieu continued. “Decades later, he helped Governor Blanco guide our state out of one of its darkest hours after Hurricane Katrina. He is one of our family’s closest and most cherished friends, and he has most certainty EARNED his retirement. And as a devoted family man, I know he is looking forward to more time with his dear wife, Blanche, children and growing grandchildren.”
President Barack Obama paused last week to pay tribute to Francis, who has encouraged Xavier students to become politically active and take concrete steps to promote positive change.
“As part of a generation that broke down barriers and challenged our nation’s conscience, you have devoted yourself to ensuring the doors to knowledge and opportunity are open for all Americans,” Obama wrote in a letter to Francis dated Sept. 3. “You guided the university and your community through extraordinary and uncertain times, and your leadership has played an important role in vesting students not only with a sense of history, but also with a sense of self.”
“I could not in words, alone, express my most heartfelt and sincerest gratitude for the rewarding opportunities I have been blessed to have had at Xavier, both as a student and as an administrator,” Francis said last week. “I have witnessed the incredible commitment to its mission and the quality of service of generations of trustees, faculty, staff and members of religious orders. Nothing has brought me greater joy than participating in the growth experiences of innumerable students — who achieved their respective personal and career goals at Xavier. As alumni, these men and women affirm Xavier’s distinction for quality and excellence across the country and around the world.”
Francis has said he is looking forward to spending more time with his wife Blanche, their six children and grandchildren.
Although the university says it has not yet begun to look at candidates to fill the presidency, in alumni circles some of the names being tossed around as a possible successor include Dr. Kenneth St. Charles, Xavier’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement; UNCF president Dr. Michael Lomax and Southern University System president Dr. Ronald Mason.
Alumni acknowledged the immensity of the challenge of finding someone to fill Dr. Francis’ shoes. “That’s a tall order,” Maja Francis, a pharmacist, told The Louisiana Weekly Thursday. “It will be hard to find someone with the level of love for and commitment to Xavier as Dr. Francis, as well as someone with his wisdom, vision and capacity to think outside the box and get things done.”
Rue, chairman of Xavier’s Board of Trustees, appeared to be in no hurry to name Dr. Francis’ successor or even to discuss the process of identifying potential candidates and selecting the school’s next president.
“There will be many questions about who will be Xavier’s next president,” Rue said Thursday. “The responsibility for this decision rests with the Board of Trustees. Having only just approved Dr. Francis’ request to retire from Xavier by the end of June 2015. our sole focus today and over the next few days is on beginning the celebration of the life and legacy of the quintessential Xavierite, Norman C. Francis.”
“I’m a little bit surprised that he is stepping down,” a Xavier graduate who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Louisiana Weekly. “My frat brothers and I used to joke about Dr. Francis being an immortal who would continue to lead Xavier long after our grandchildren’s grandchildren were gone.
“All jokes aside, he was an amazing university leader and statesman who did an amazing job of preparing Xavier students to excel academically and make a difference personally and professionally.”
Additional reporting by Louisiana Weekly editor Edmund W. Lewis.