The Lawyer from Lafayette: Xavier University of Louisiana President, Dr. Norman Francis, Celebrates 40 Years at the Helm of One of the Nation's Top HBCUs

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NEW ORLEANS

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 rifled, "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.

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"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. …