Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

The Mark of a Leader: Longevity, Strategic Planning and Vision Bring Academic and Financial Success to Xavier

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

The Mark of a Leader: Longevity, Strategic Planning and Vision Bring Academic and Financial Success to Xavier

Article excerpt

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How much has his longevity as president of Xavier University contributed to the success of Dr. Norman Francis? In what ways?

Higher education leaders say his 43 years at the Catholic HBCU in New Orleans is an increasingly rare example of the benefits possible from a lengthy presidency. It takes time, they say, for a president to build good will and confidence on campus, solidify relationships with faculty members and implement a vision for the institution, all accomplishments of Francis.

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"He's an icon in American higher education," says Dr. Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education.

Dr. Karl W. Reid, senior vice president of academic programs and strategic initiatives at the United Negro College Fund, dubs Francis "the North Star" for the current generation of leaders at private HBCUs.

H. Patrick Swygert, former president of Howard University, agrees with Reid and also compares Francis to the pantheon of long-serving Black presidents from the 20th century, including Dr. Benjamin E. Mays at Morehouse College and Dr. Mordecai Johnson at Howard.

As reflected in Francis' leadership at Xavier, an extended tenure can produce advances in academics, fundraising, enrollment and other measures of a college's or university's strength, the higher education leaders say. Conversely, they add that turnover in the president's office can hinder institutional progress.

Fewer campus executives are getting the chance to stay in office long enough to accomplish what they set out to do.

A 2005 survey by the American Council on Education found that the average tenure of college presidents nationwide was seven years, eight years for African-Americans. In 2009, another survey the UNCF did of nearly all its 38 members put that average at seven years.

Francis has guided Xavier for more than six times the average length of a college presidency. The leaders interviewed for this article attribute his success also to the quality of his leadership, which they describe as steady, energetic, dynamic and shaped by his faith and the power of education. Still, they say longevity does matter.

"It takes time for university presidents to build good will among university constituents, and it can be difficult to keep it over a long period of time, given conflicting interests within an institution," says Dr. James T. Minor, an expert on HBCUs who directs higher education programs for the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta. "Dr. Francis' ability to keep an 'approval rating' for more than 40 years, accompanied by support and buy-in, is a remarkable demonstration of leadership."

Broad says Francis kept "a steady eye on the prize, mainly to create a fine university for African-Americans to attend."

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Swygert was president of Howard University for 13 years, making him the school's third-longest-serving leader, after Johnson with 34 years and Dr. James Cheek with 20. Before Swygert arrived, Howard had five presidents in seven years.

When he left in 2008, the school had more than tripled its endowment, completed the largest capital campaign in HBCU history and upgraded campus technology.

"When you have served some number of years, I think there's a kind of rhythm in terms of your administration--the expectations of the trustees, the faculty, the students and alumni--and a kind of confidence that is generated," says Swygert, who has known Francis for two decades.

Reid has visited the campuses of nearly all of UNCF's members, including Xavier, and has tracked the results of the organization's grants to the schools to build their institutional capacity in fundraising, curriculum and faculty, financial management, physical infrastructure and enrollment management.

"What I take away from those visits is a clear correlation--and I have no data to prove this, other than anecdotal--between the longevity of the presidency and the academic and financial success of the institution," he says. …

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