Xavier prez celebrates 40 years at the helm
Former Xavier students, professors and administrators and luminaries who have crossed paths with Dr. Francis over the past four decades attended a star-studded gala featuring legendary singer Gladys Knight and comedian Bill Cosby held Friday, Nov. 21, at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in his honor.
As president of the nation’s only historically Black, Catholic university since 1968, Francis has guided Xavier’s growth both in size and dimension. During his tenure, the University has more than doubled its enrollment, broadened its curriculum, expanded its campus, and strengthened its financial base. Its tradition of academic excellence has been further enhanced.
He is credited with being the catalyst for nearly every building constructed on the campus during the past 39 years. The campus itself has been physically enlarged with the acquisition of the adjacent properties to the main campus.
In addition to being the longest-tenured current leader of an American university, he is also the chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state agency in charge of planning the recovery and rebuilding of Louisiana after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Among the major accomplishments of Francis’ tenure has been the successful completion of Xavier’s first two capital campaigns. The Forward Fund drive netted more than $19 million-enough to build the new academic/science complex and renovate existing areas. A second campaign -the Future Fund-netted $51 million, which funded the building of the Library/Resource Center and College of Pharmacy addition and tripled the University’s endowment to more than $54 million. [It is now $80 million]
Alumni contributions have increased dramatically, surpassing more than $1 million. Student enrollment prior to Hurricane Katrina had surged to 4,000. [It is now 3,100].
All of this growth has not been at the expense of academia, however. Through his leadership, the University has instituted a core curriculum and mandatory comprehensives, and has become nationally recognized as a leader in minority education.
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. Francis was born March 20, 1931 in Lafayette, La., 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.
Francis earned pocket money by shining shoes on Lafayette’s main street and thought he had everything in the world he needed.
His parents thought differently. They thought 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,” said Francis.
His parents also made certain that the children attended Mass on Sunday, and were punctual in their religious duties.
After he graduated from St. Paul High School in 1948, Francis turned his interest toward the military, but because of the interest of one of the teaching sisters at St. Paul High School, Norman found himself with a work scholarship to Xavier University in New Orleans.
The “work” part of this scholarship landed him in the university library, where he repaired damaged books. By his senior year he had worked himself up to night supervisor of library services.
Francis was an honor student and was elected president of his class all four years. In his senior year he was chosen the president of the student body.
After earning a bachelor degree from Xavier in 1952, the 21-year-old Francis was one of two Black students chosen to integrate Loyola University Law School in New Orleans, La., and became the school’s first Black graduate, earning his Doctor of Jurisprudence with honors in 1955.
He feels that one reason he was accepted was because he had been active in the National Federation of Catholic College Students. In that organization he became acquainted with several of the Jesuit fathers on the Loyola University faculty.
Not long after beginning to practice law, Francis decided that the legal profession was not for him. “I could have made a great deal of money,” he said later, “but I could help only a few people. The future belongs to those who are educated, so I turned to education.”
Francis served in the U.S. Army from 1956-57, and then returned to Xavier as Dean of Men. After holding several other positions at Xavier including director of student personnel services in 1963, assistant to the president for student affairs in 1964, assistant to the president in charge of development in 1965 and executive vice president in 1967, he was appointed president in 1968. He was the institution’s first lay, male and Black president.
It was during the turbulent times preceding the Civil Rights Movement that he returned to Xavier University to begin his climb up the administrative ladder. In 1961, while serving as dean of men, Francis played a key role in Xavier’s decision to house the Freedom Riders – an integrated group testing application of the Supreme Court decision banning discrimination in interstate rail and bus travel – in a campus dormitory after they were flown to New Orleans by Federal Marshals after having been attacked in three Alabama cities (Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery).
He recalled those days and the courageous young people who rode those buses and trains earlier this month in The Clarion Herald, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. “They vowed they were going to come to New Orleans if they had to crawl,” Francis, who agreed to house the Freedom Riders on the vacant third floor of Xavier’s St. Michael’s Hall, told The Clarion Herald. “When they got out of the car they were bloody and beaten. I remember there was one white minister of very slight build who got beaten very badly. He sued, and do you know his case wound around for about 20 years and it had to be seven or eight years ago whey they ruled in his favor. He died six months later. It was like he was living to win that case.”
About that same time, Francis acted as counsel for the Xavier student body president – Rudolph Lombard – who had been arrested for attempting to integrate the lunch counter at McCrory’s on Canal Street in New Orleans.
Francis’ legal training came in handy when he had to deal with the social and political upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s that found its way onto many U.S. college campuses.
One such incident involved a sit-in at Xavier in which students sat on the steps of academic buildings, blocking access to campus classrooms. By doing so, they violated an agreement with Francis that allowed them to sit on the first two steps but to move aside if someone needed to enter or exit a classroom building.
“When that happened I called a meeting and brought everybody into the gymnasium,” Francis told The Clarion Herald. “There’s a picture of me at the mike, and all the activists are sitting in the front row. I said, ‘We’re not going to walk out of this gymnasium until you understand there will be no anarchy. If that has to happen, I know what I have to do, plain and simple.”
Several nights later, Francis met again with students in a cramped basement room with no windows.
“I walked in the front door and they showed me where I had to sit,” Francis told The Clarion Herald. “I sat down, and a guy handed me a list. ‘This is our list of non-negotiable demands.’ I put the paper down and got up and started walking out the door, and somebody hollered, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘Look, I know y’all didn’t go to law school, but unfortunately I still remember what a non-negotiable demand means. It’s non-negotiable, so there’s no sense in my wasting your time or my time.’ They another guy said, ‘OK, they’re negotiable.'”
Francis said he came back into the basement room and was able to agree to 10 of the students’ 14 demands.
“We couldn’t do the other four, but the deal was made,” he recalled. “After that first year, it was all downhill. It was no problem.”
It was those experiences that led Francis to choose the path of education over that of a law career. Ironically, he accepted the presidency at Xavier on the very day that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968.
As Xavier’s steward for four decades, Dr. Francis has been a “Keeper of the Dream” in the literal and figurative sense. He took over the reins at Xavier the day an assassin tried to kill Dr. King’s dream with a bullet and finds himself still making the dream of a college education come true for thousands of college students of color as the nation witnessed the election of its first Black president of the United States. Through it all, his leadership has been steady and unrelenting.
Although he often credits his dedicated faculty and administrators, Dr. Francis is often praised for guiding the institution as it became the nation’s top producer of doctors, outpacing the nation’s finest universities in terms of graduates accepted into U.S. medical schools, a distinction it has held for 15 years. Xavier can boast of similar success in producing an exemplary number of the nation’s African-American pharmacists.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, Xavier continues to rank first nationally in the number of African-American students earning undergraduate degrees in both the biological/life sciences and the physical sciences. The American Institute of Physics (AIP) reports that Xavier is first nationally in awarding physics B.S. degrees to African Americans.
The acceptance rate of Xavier graduates by medical schools is almost twice the national average, and 92 percent of those who enter medical schools go on to complete their degree programs. The College of Pharmacy, one of only two pharmacy schools in Louisiana, is among the nation’s top three producers of African-American Doctor of Pharmacy degree recipients.
Xavier was one of only six schools chosen to participate in the National Science Foundation’s Model Institutions for Excellence in Science, Engineering and Mathematics program.
Francis has been chairman of the board of Educational Testing Service, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Southern Education Foundation, and 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.
Francis earned further national respect when he led the recovery of Xavier’s devastated campus in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina, making good his pledge to reopen the campus in less than five months. In addition to that challenge, he accepted the role as chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority following Katrina. Those dual roles and the visionary leadership Francis demonstrated in both undoubtedly led to President Bush awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in December 2006.
Francis maintains a national reputation of stature, having served in an advisory role to seven presidents of the United States, including membership on the National Commission on Excellence in Education. He has also served as president of the United Negro College Fund and chairman of the board of directors of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and Educational Testing System.
He is also chairman of the board of the Southern Education Foundation, a member of the National Advisory Research Council of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, and the National Assessment of Higher Education Program.
He has been a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission of Justice and Peace, a member of the Advisory Board of the Society of St. Joseph, a member of the executive committee of the College and University Department of the National Catholic Educational Association, member of the Board of Trustees of the Catholic University of America, member of the Board of Regents of Loyola University, and member of the board of directors of the National Catholic Council for Interracial Justice.
Francis was named among the 100 most effective college presidents in a poll published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He has been awarded honorary degrees by 17 colleges and universities and he was invested as a Knight of Malta in 1991.
Francis shared the spotlight with his brother, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Francis of Newark, who retired from active ministry in 1995, and died in 1997.
Francis is still a dynamo at age 77 who spends long hours on the job and maintains a travel schedule that might easily debilitate younger men. This visionary has served in advisory roles to seven U.S. presidents on the subject of improving education in the United States, including President Ronald Reagan who appointed him to the landmark commission that drafted the famous “Nation at Risk” report.
Alumni, friends and supporters of Xavier University lined up Friday night, November 21, to attend the star-studded “Legacy For a Legend” gala concert honoring the 40th anniversary Dr. Norman C. Francis of Xavier University. The eagerly anticipated event featured performances by legendary vocalist and seven-time Grammy Award winner Ms. Gladys Knight, along with world-renowned comedian, actor and philanthropist William “Bill” Cosby as the evening’s Master of Ceremonies and opening act. The Gala, held at the Ernest N, Morial Convention Center, paid tribute to Dr. Francis’ towering legacy, vision and tireless service and raised funds earmarked to establish a special Norman C. Francis Scholarship Fund.
“Liberty Bank is proud to be the Presenting Sponsor for this Gala, not simply because of Norman C. Francis’ role as Liberty’s Founding Chairman, but also because of his amazing legacy of leading Xavier to tremendous heights all these years, plus always being available to serve his fellow Louisiana citizens,” Liberty Bank president and CEO Alden McDonald said last week.
After four decades of service, Dr. Francis has more than “worked off” the opportunity to expand his mind at Xavier University as a young man but shows no signs of relenting in his commitment to preparing the institution’s young women and men for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Dr. Francis is hard at work these days overseeing a re-accreditation process that is scheduled to culminate in 2009.
“It’s very important for me to make sure it gets done and gets done well, and all of that is part of the succession plan,” he told The Clarion Herald. “People say to me, ‘What’s going to happen when you leave?’ When we get through doing what we have to do, anybody can walk in here because the community will have established where we want to go and how we want to do it.”
Whenever he decides to step down and enjoy his retirement years – something that’s difficult for anyone familiar with Dr. Francis’ work ethic to imagine-the university plans to conduct a national search for his successor.
He attributes his success to identifying and hiring people he could trust and “people who are passionate about their work.”
“I always tell young university presidents to hire people who are smarter than you and then get out of their way,” Francis told The Clarion Herald. “Don’t always be looking over their shoulder. If they’re not smarter than you, you’ve got a problem. It’s like the guy who walks into the doctor’s office and the doctor asks him, ‘What’s wrong with you today?’ And then you say, ‘That’s why I’m here. That’s why you’re the doctor. I want you to tell me.'”
This article was originally published in the November 24, 2008 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper