When you drive down the I-10 freeway in New Orleans, before you reach the Superdome, Canal Street, or the French Quarter you see beautiful buildings with the emerald green roofs. These rooftops are a fixture in New Orleans, but more importantly they let you know you have reached Xavier University of New Orleans. But the one thing that stands out more than the rooftops is Xavier’s long standing President Dr. Norman C. Francis.
Dr. Francis is not just the longest sitting university president in the history of Xavier University, but he’s the longest sitting president of any university in the country.
“I know some universities that don’t keep their presidents long enough,” he says. “And I know one that has kept theirs too long.”
Dr. Francis’ leadership is celebrated and legendary.
Norman Francis is completing his 47th year as the President of Xavier University of Louisiana and at the end of June, he will retire.
During his tenure, he guided Xavier through the best of times and the worst of times, all with an undeniable commitment to ensuring that every student receives a quality education and an opportunity to succeed.
“Our children need a chance, a chance to succeed, a chance to overcome the challenges of poverty that have been plaguing our communities and our people,” he said.
Two Legacies Converge (taken from New Orleans Tribune interview)
The school that would become Xavier University was started as a high school by St. Katherine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in 1915, just 16 years before Francis was born. St. Katherine Drexel used most of her own money—an inheritance from her father, a Philadelphia banker—to support the school. A few years later, a training program for teachers was added. By 1925, a college of liberal arts and sciences was formed; and Xavier University came into existence. In 1927, the pharmacy school was opened. In 1929, land in the Carrollton area at Palmetto and Pine streets was purchased and construction of the school’s administration building was completed four years later.
In many ways, Xavier’s story is Francis’ story. Just 23 years after Xavier was established as a university, a young Norman Francis—a poor Black kid from Lafayette—would enroll. As he often says, he was poor; but he didn’t know it.
“My khakis were always pressed, and I had a pea jacket daddy bought from the Navy store.”
Yet, the fact that he was there at all was a testament to both everything the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament must have envisioned when they started their school and to the value his parents placed on education. His father worked as hotel bell hop and later opened a barber shop. His mother was a homemaker. Neither finished high school; but they sacrificed to send Francis and his siblings to Catholic schools in Lafayette. And after he graduated from St. Paul High School in 1948, he got a work study scholarship to attend Xavier University. He graduated in 1952 with a B.S. degree and then it was on to Loyola University Law School. He was one of two African-American students to integrate the law school that year. The other was Ben Johnson, a fellow Xavier graduate. After earning his juris doctorate in 1955, Francis was drafted into the Army.
“I earned my law degree on a Saturday; got married on Monday; and was drafted two weeks later.
He served in Frankfurt, Germany, where he says he spent a lot of time “counseling young 18-year-old Black males (about the value of getting an education).”
“Most of them were from the South and here they were in Frankfort, Germany.” After his Army tour, Francis returned to New Orleans. He worked as of counsel for the Black firm of Collins, Douglas and Elie, formed by noted civil rights attorneys Robert Collins, Nils Douglas and Lolis Elie. As of counsel, Francis represented the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Later as president of Xavier University, he would house Freedom Riders in a campus dormitory. Also after returning from the Army in 1957, he got a call from Xavier University. His alma mater was in need of a dean of men. In his mind he owed a debt to Xavier; and serving for a while as the dean of men was a fair way to pay it.
“More people graduated from Xavier without paying a dime in tuition, because (St. Katharine Drexel) paid for everything.” He served the school in various administrative capacities for almost 11 years. After dean of men, he was director of student personnel services, assistant to the president of student affairs, and assistant to the president in charge of development. In 1967, he became the executive vice president. In April of 1968, he was promoted to president of the university. He says he turned it down twice. But when he finally said “yes”, his career track as an educator and administrator as oppose to the law, was no doubt set.
Dr. Francis says that there are great Xavier Alumni throughout the country and Los Angeles has no shortage of outstanding Alumni. “Every October I come to Los Angeles and participate in an event at the Proud Bird. When you come to this event there are alumni from Xavier who work in every field you can imagine. I love attending this event because when you listen to the jazz music, taste the food and visit with the people you would you were in New Orleans.” Most of them worked as teachers, doctors or pharmacist but they also represented almost every field or profession in the country.
Dr. Francis has not only been instrumental in building Xavier, but he was the catalyst for the re-birth of Xavier University after Hurricane Katrina devastated all of New Orleans and Xavier was in no way less impacted by its devastation. “Katrina was a disaster! But, we have comeback. After Katrina I appointed by the governor to chair the recovery effort, I had lost my home, and Xavier was in shambles. But there is something about adrenaline. I called the staff together in a little town right outside of my home, I met with the staff and they asked: Mr. President when are we coming back? I told them right there, we are coming back January 17th” That was the day Xavier was scheduled to start the second semester and by the grace of God and a determination and vision that few had Xavier re-opened and began classes again on that day. Dr. Francis not only gave them a target date, but he gave them inspiration. He told them “we are going to come back, not like we were, but like we should have been. Better than what we were.” Today, if you visit the campus it is one of the most beautiful campuses anywhere in the country and Xavier is set to compete for the best and brightest students in the country and provide them with whatever they need to succeed.
Dr. Francis is coming to Los Angeles this Monday, June 15, 2015 to host a fundraiser for the school. The focus of the fundraiser to create an endowment for the university in the name of Dr. Norman Francis to insure that every child has the opportunity to attend the university without being denied access to a quality education because of a lack of funds. “The endowment is named after me, but it is not about me it’s about these kids. I have never seen the degree of young kids who are coming from young families who can’t afford the tuition we are charging. We are still under $20,000 in a city where Loyola is charging $38,000 and Tulane is at $46,000 and were giving discounts and scholarship but you can’t reduce the tuition much lower and still pay the water bill and keep the lights on.” So just like in the recovery of Katrina Dr. Francis went to work. He is traveling around the country meeting with some of the largest Xavier Alumni Associations in the country, motivating and inspiring them to give to give back from once they came and to help these young people.
Dr. Francis understands the challenges that face our young students today he says “Poverty is at epidemic proportions in major cities throughout this country”. The attrition rate for students is alarming, not because they can’t academically compete but because they can’t afford to finish. This has to be addressed. Dr. Francis says “The attrition rate the government uses to track Black and Brown students graduation rate is a “bad math formula” and gives numbers that appear to be the worst, but he also knows that if you take a chance and invest in a student his opportunity for success rises exponentially.
Dr. Francis has an undeniable belief and vision for the future of our young Black students. He wants young Black students who want an education to have the ability to receive it at Xavier to receive scholarships to help pay for it and he is confident that Xavier will remain the #1 school in the nation for graduating African American Students throughout the nation.
Dr. Norman Francis is a rock star in the New Orleans community. As he walks the campus in his final days as President of the university students literally jump out of moving cars and run from all over campus just to take a picture with Dr. Francis. “Everyone wants to take a “selfie” with me”. The students complain that he won’t be at their graduation next year, but Dr. Francis assures them that he will be back. He says “I think the new President will allow me to come back for the 2016 graduation ceremony”. There is no doubt about that. Dr. Norman Francis the longest tenured college president in the nation has certainly that seat.
This article was done through a one on one interview with Dr. Norman Francis along with excerpts from a previous interview from the New Orleans Tribune (which is owned by the family of LAUSD School Board Member Dr. George McKenna also an Alumnus of Xavier University) published earlier this year.