When Norman C. Francis became president of Xavier University in 1968, he was a trailblazer. Before him, Xavier had never had a Black president, or a male president or one that was a layperson. In him, it got the first of all three. And when he officially spends his last day as the leader of the 90-year-old university, he will leave it bigger, stronger, better than he found it—a suitable legacy to St. Katharine Drexel and the order of nuns that created the secondary school that would eventually become XU.
When he accepted his first job there in 1957 as dean of men, it was with a sense of gratitude, indebtedness even. A scholarship student whose tuition was covered by his work-study job at the library, Francis says he owed Xavier University something and promised to pay it back.
Almost 58 years later, there is no doubt his promise has been fulfilled.
by Anitra D. Brown
Dr. Norman C. Francis sits at the head of the Xavier University Board Room table on the sixth floor of the Library Resource Center. He is comfortable. He is loquacious. He tells stories. And he jests.
“I know some universities that don’t keep their presidents long enough,” he says. “And I know one that has kept theirs too long.”
While the 84-year-old Francis cracks a joke at his own expense, it is probably impossible to find anyone that would actually agree that he has served as the president of the nation’s only historically Black Catholic university for too long. His leadership is celebrated and legendary. He was the subject of a dissertation. No, really. The dissertation titled The Development of Xavier University under the Leadership of Norman Francis: 1968-2005 was written by a education doctoral candidate at Clark Atlanta University. And when Dillard University’s President Dr. Walter Kimbrough arrived in July 2012, one of the things he said he couldn’t wait to do was spend some time with Dr. Francis to get insight on how he created Xavier University’s identifiable brand, especially when it came to developing the university’s stronghold in academic programs like pharmacy and the sciences.
Still, here are the facts: Norman Francis is completing his 47th and final year as the president of Xavier University of Louisiana on June 30, which makes one thing true—he has led Xavier University for what can only be described as an incredibly long time. No other college president has served as long; but the span of his presidency is only part of the story.
On Sept. 4, 2014, the day that Francis announced his retirement, he tweeted (yes, Norman C. Francis tweets…at least sometimes): “A Proud President for 46 years, I’m convinced that Xavier will soar after my retirement June 30, 2015.”
If Francis is right—and there is no reason to believe he is not—the reason Xavier University will continue to fly high after he has left the helm, is because he gave it wings.
Two Legacies Converge
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.
“I believe my father went to his death bed mad at me for not going back to Lafayette and practicing law.”
Francis says that had he returned to his hometown and opened a law practice instead of serving as dean of students at Xavier, he would have been Lafayette’s first Black attorney; and his father, who had surely carried the bags of many white lawyers and politicians as a hotel bell hop, would have been proud.
Despite imagining that his father was miffed at him for not following a career in law, Francis says he figured he could help far more people working in education than he ever could as a lawyer.
The Francis Era
The Francis era at Xavier University has not only been marked by longevity, but is also known for success, immense change and growth, triumph, challenges and opportunities. When Francis became president in 1968, Xavier University’s campus consisted of five permanent buildings. As president of the university, Francis oversaw a massive physical expansion of the school that also spurred the redevelopment and change the face of the Gert Town community of which it is a part. It began slowly, but surely in 1969, when the dormitory named in honor of St. Katharine Drexel opened. Then the College of Pharmacy building opened in 1970. The Norman C. Francis Academic/Science Complex opened in 1988. The Library/Resource Center and College of Pharmacy addition was completed in 1993. A new dorm for women, Peter Claver, opened in 1994. In 1998, the Living Learning Center and the Norman C. Francis Science Complex were completed. Also in 1990, a six-story building on Jefferson Davis Parkway was purchased and renovated. Called Xavier South, the move expanded the footprint of the compact campus.
In 2003, Xavier opened its University Center and a new residence hall, St. Martin DePorres. In 2010, the school completed a 60,000-square-foot addition to the College of Pharmacy. The expansion is called the Qatar Pharmacy Pavilion, named in honor of the nation that donated $12.5 million for the construction as a part of a larger donation it made to the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina.
In 2012, the St. Katharine Drexel Chapel opened and later that same year the 4,100-seat Convocation Center and Annex opened as well. In addition to serving as the setting for Xavier’s basketball and volleyball programs, the Center offers space for staff offices, educational and community activities, academic assemblies and commencement services.
The school has also grown financially and increased its enrollment significantly under Francis’ leadership. Enrollment has tripled since 1968. Before Katrina hit, Xavier welcomed the largest number of students in its history, with an enrollment of 4,100. At the start of fall 2014, almost 3,000 full-time students were enrolled—nearly 75 percent of the pre-Katrina total; and as local colleges and universities still work to reach their pre-Katrina enrollment numbers, it is an accomplishment of which Francis is proud.
Meanwhile, the university’s endowment has grown from $20 million to more than $160 million.
With Francis at the lead, Xavier has earned a national profile because of its academic programs. It continues to rank first nationally in the number of African-American students earning undergraduate degrees in the biology and the life sciences, chemistry, physics and pharmacy. Xavier has been especially successful in educating health professionals. It is first in the nation in producing African-American undergraduates that complete medical school; and the College of Pharmacy is among the nation’s top three producers of African-American doctor of pharmacy degree recipients.
Now do this math: add the four years he spent as a Xavier student from 1948 to 1952 to the nearly 11 he spent in various administrative positions at XU. Now, throw in the epic 47 years as president, and the number easily astonishes. For nearly 62 of the 90 years that there has been a Xavier University of Louisiana, Norman C. Francis has been right there.
To be sure, Francis’ impact has not just been felt at Xavier University. He has been a regional, state and national leader for decades in every arena imaginable—education, economic, civic and cultural affairs. For instance, he was one of the local forces in the early 70s that saw the need for New Orleans to have a Black-owned bank to focus on the banking and financial needs of historically under-served populations, and he encouraged Alden McDonald to take on the challenge. But he didn’t just urge McDonald to open a bank. Francis pledged his leadership by serving on Liberty Bank’s board. Today he remains chairman of Liberty Bank’s board of directors, a position he has held since the bank opened in 1972.
In 2006, when New Orleans and other portions of the state were limping back from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Gov. Kathleen Blanco called on Francis to serve as the chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the governmental entity created in the wake of the storms to strategize the recovery and rebuilding of the state by addressing both long-term planning and short-term needs.
And he has held a number of other appointments and positions, including serving as a member of the state planning commission. He has served as president of the United Negro College Fund and as a member of its board. He has been chairman of the board of directors of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the Educational Testing System, and of the Southern Education Foundation. He has received numerous honorary degrees and in 2006 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
He was named New Orleanian of the Year by Gambit in 2007, was the winner of The Times-Picayune’s Loving Cup in 1991, and has been recognized, celebrated and honored by The New Orleans Tribune on numerous occasions, most recently in 2012, when he along with Alden McDonald were named The New Orleans Tribune’s People of the Year.
Why Not Sooner?
Francis says he has considered retiring before; but if he was ever going to do it before now, it would had to have been some time long before August 29, 2005. After Hurricane Katrina hit, he knew he had to stay.
Just about every building was submerged under four to six feet of water, with damage estimated at about $100 million.
“There was no way I could leave, Francis says. “We had to put it back together in hurry. If we had stayed out more than a semester, we would have lost more students and faculty.”
When Francis finally left the city after Katrina, he made it to Grand Coteau, a small town south of Opelousas, where his sister’s husband was the first Black mayor, he says, and where she still had house. Once there, he found an office space and called on four of his chief staff members, including his longtime executive assistant Karen “Kay” Watkins and chief financial officer Calvin Tregue, who retired in 2013 after 44 years of service to the school., to meet in in Grand Coteau
Eventually, Francis says he managed to get three-fourths of the staff to Grand Coteau for a meeting, where he announced that Xavier would reopen on January 17, 2006.
“I told them that’s when we’re going back,” he says. “You do things when your adrenaline is pumping and you know it’s got to happen.”
Francis says there were some doubters—some were in that room during the staff meeting in Grand Coteau. And another was President Bill Clinton, who was in the city after Katrina as a part of fundraising efforts for the Bush-Clinton Katrina Hurricane Fund. Clinton was being escorted around New Orleans by Xavier University alumnus and Alexis Herman, who served as U.S. Secretary of Labor in his administration. She insisted they stop at Xavier.
When Francis told Clinton when he planned to reopen, he says the former president wasn’t convinced that the January 17 date was realistic; but Herman quickly cautioned her former boss not to underestimate the university president. She was right.
“We came back on January 17,” he says. “We had 75 percent of the student body. We lost freshmen, but every class graduated on time—including the class of 2006, whose commencement speaker was a young U.S. senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.
“He gave the best speech you’d ever want to hear.”
Francis says he got a little help getting Sen. Obama as the commencement speaker from his Xavier classmate, friend and fraternity brother John Stroger. A native of Helena, Ark., Stroger moved to Chicago after earning his degree from Xavier in 1953. Like Francis, Stroger was a scholarship student who earned his way through Xavier working in the convent kitchen. When he moved to Chicago, he became an active member of the Democratic Party and was a major leader in politics, especially on the city’s South side. In 1968, he was elected 8th Ward Committeeman. In 1970, he was first elected to the Cook County Board of Commissioners, and in 1994 he became that board’s first Black president.
“When we came to Xavier, neither one of had a dime in our pockets,” Francis says. “Just enough money to register.”
The Legacy Tour
Even as he spends his final weeks as president, Francis’ schedule hardly appears to have slowed. As Xavier University continues its capital campaign to raise $100 million that will endow the Norman C. Francis Endowed Scholarship Fund, he has embarked on a multi-city tour in addition to meeting with a number of groups and organizations that convene in New Orleans.
The first stop on the Legacy Tour was Atlanta in March. In April, Legacy Tour cities include New York and Chicago. He will speak in Houston in May. And the tour wraps up in June with hometown audience in New Orleans and a trip to Los Angeles on June 15—just two weeks before he retires.
When he talks to the crowds that gather to see and hear him, he says his narrative is the same, whether they are Black or White. He talks about the value of education. He talks about the need for equity.
“I say it to White audiences. I say it to Black audiences: Race, creed, color, gender—all still matter in this country. There is still a gap in quality of life issues, health, housing, employment and economics, and the gap is widening. But the bottom line is still education. That’s the one thing I know best. The road out of poverty is education. We have to close the gap in all of those quality of life issues; and we have to distribute the educational water equitably.
There are probably plenty of reasons Francis chose the end of the current semester to retire from Xavier. Nearing the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, he has successfully guided the school through its return and recovery effort. So maybe he is certain he can leave now and know that XU will be okay. Perhaps, he thinks the university is ready for new, fresh leadership. Then again, maybe after 47 years as president and a total of almost 58 as an administrator, he is just ready to do something else.
And then there is this. While Norman Francis was running a university and helping to lead a community, his wife Blanche Francis was the backbone of his family, he says. Married now for 60 years, they have four sons, two daughters and 11 grandchildren.
He was leading Xavier’s physical, financial, academic and enrollment growth. She was raising their children, driving carpools, and being the family’s pillar of strength—giving him the assurance he needed to forge on in his career, knowing that his family was fine. It was commonplace, he says, for Blanche Francis’ station wagon to be packed with any one of her sons and his teammates as she ferried them to this park or that park around the city to play a game. Add to all of that the important job of being the first lady of Xavier University.
She is also a Xavier graduate with a bachelor’s degree in physical education; and Francis says his wife was fixture at Gold Rush basketball games. He recalls that whenever a player would get injured on the court, Blanche Francis would hurry to the locker room to check on them, often beating the doctors there.
So if there is one particular motivation that has pushed him to retire from Xavier University now, Francis divulges that his bride, who is battling Alzheimer’s disease, is it.
“I remind people that when I came back from the Army, I made a promise to give something back to Xavier; and nobody can say that I didn’t fulfill that promise,” he says. “But I made a vow with a lady 60 years ago. And it is time for me to spend more time with my wife. She needs me now more than ever just as I needed her when I was doing all those things at Xavier. She raised six children in New Orleans, and it’s not easy raising children in New Orleans. Blanche was the wind under our sails—all of us.”
Editor’s Notes: Jacques Morial provided valuable assistance in facilitating this article. His efforts are greatly appreciated.