NEW ORLEANS — Fittingly, the announcement came inside Xavier University of Louisiana’s sleek convocation center, the newest of many green-roofed monuments that Norman C. Francis, the longest-serving university president in the United States, had built through charisma, prayer and personal witness.
Francis, 83, the patriarch of the Xavier family since 1968, told thousands of students, faculty and staff Sept. 4 that he would step down in June 2015 as president of the only historically black Catholic university in the Western Hemisphere.
“After nearly 47 years, I know the time has come to take the brightly burning torch turned over to me by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and pass it on to new leadership,” Francis said. “I do this with a 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.”
Francis’ tenure spanned generations and overcame many obstacles, not the least of which was restoring a campus inundated by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
When Francis came to Xavier as a 17-year-old freshman on a work scholarship in 1948, the campus consisted of just a few permanent buildings, several small houses and Army surplus trailers in one city block. Xavier’s burgeoning campus today is dotted with 16 buildings on 63 acres, and the endowment has grown from $2 million to more than $160 million.
More importantly, 20,000 students have earned degrees, and Xavier annually places more African-Americans in medical school than any other college in the country. The school also leads the nation in the number of African-Americans earning degrees in biology, chemistry, physics and the physical sciences.
Francis, the son of a Lafayette barber and homemaker, graduated from Xavier in 1952 and became the first African-American to graduate from Loyola University New Orleans’ Law School. His older brother Joseph was the fourth black Catholic bishop in the U.S., serving as auxiliary bishop of Newark, New Jersey.
After serving in the Army, Francis worked with the U.S. attorney to help desegregate federal agencies in the South. He returned to Xavier in 1957 as dean of men and became the first lay president of the university in 1968, getting the appointment from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament on the same day civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
“His assassination was like blowing up the dream,” Francis said. “I think it dulled our senses. We were in shock.”
Francis often reflected on the many “miracles” produced by Xavier, but the biggest miracle of all, he said, is that it existed in the first place. Xavier was founded by St. Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress who entered religious life, formed the Blessed Sacrament Sisters and then used her family inheritance to educate blacks and native Americans throughout the U.S.
St. Katharine opened the university in 1925, building an impressive administration and classroom building out of Indiana limestone. Xavier’s initial focus was to prepare African-Americans, who could not get a private school education in Louisiana, for future careers as teachers.
Francis said he was motivated by the example and discipline imparted by his parents, neither of whom graduated from high school.
“But they were as smart as anyone who had completed college,” Francis said. “I was full of dreams and more than a little bit of fear. Quickly, my fears were allayed and my dreams began to be nurtured by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the rest of the caring faculty and staff, as well as my fellow students, who shared many of the same dreams and fears.
“My experience as a student shaped my personal ambitions and ideas for what my role could be in changing the world. My faith guided me to apply the gifts that God had blessed me with to serve others.”
Francis said he had fleeting thoughts about retiring after Katrina devastated the Xavier campus and flooded 80 percent of New Orleans. But those notions quickly vanished as he pulled together a small core of administrators, faculty and staff in temporary headquarters in Grand Coteau, Louisiana.
“I thought about it, but not for long,” Francis said. “I couldn’t leave, not just because of who I was, but because I knew that Xavier wasn’t ready to give up to a hurricane. We had 80 people who brought us back in four and a half months, and 75 percent of them had lost their homes. That was not easy. There’s something about adrenaline. There’s something about knowing when it’s time to make a decision.”
Francis had lost his home as well, but even in the midst of the recovery efforts he agreed to a plea from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to chair the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state panel that provided guidelines for how the region would use federal funds to rebuild. In 2006, Francis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush.
Michael Rue, chairman of the university’s board of trustees, said there is no true way to measure Francis’ impact on thousands of students and on the New Orleans community.
“There’s not a lot of servant leaders in this world,” Rue said. “This man could have been a politician, a successful businessman, a very successful lawyer. A lot of doors would have opened for him. But Xavier needed him and the nuns needed him.”
Rue said board members hope to have a new president in place by July 1.
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Finney is executive editor/general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the New Orleans Archdiocese.