Prescription For Success
Norman Francis’ Xavier commitment
cheryl gerber photograph
Success stories often hinge on pivotal moments, and the story of Xavier University’s transformation from an obscure, liberal arts college overlooking the Palmetto Canal in New Orleans to a nationally recognized university contains many such ones.
One occurred in 1968, when the school’s founding Catholic order, The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, decided to appoint a layman university president in defiance of Catholic tradition.
President Norman C. Francis, who spent most of his adult life at Xavier in some capacity, ranging from math student in 1948 to top administrator, retired the end of June after 47 years directing Xavier’s rise to prominence.
As early as the mid-1980s, Xavier had earned a reputation for excelling in getting black students into medical schools. Now that recognition as expanded even further. A 2015 National Science Foundation report says that Xavier ranks third in the nation for graduating black students who eventually obtain terminal degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
In recent years, the university’s relatively small enrollment of about 3,000 has included a significant number of Vietnamese and foreign students from as far away as Cameroon, West Africa. Its school of pharmacy, one of only two in Louisiana, has graduated thousands of pharmacists since its opening in 1970.
The pharmacy school has been so successful that Francis says that people don’t ask New Orleans area pharmacists if they graduated from Xavier. They ask, “When did you go?”
Then in 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of Xavier’s wood-framed buildings, opening the way for constructing a modern-looking campus to match its cutting-edge academic performance. Francis describes the past decade as the Renaissance Period, a time that FEMA money and private donations led to major infrastructure improvements. The new buildings expanded the school’s green rooftop theme, creating a signature skyline that brightens the scenery along Interstate 10 heading toward downtown New Orleans. This swathe of green is also the basis for the school’s catchy marketing phrase “beneath the green roofs,” which literally describes the campus and figuratively describes the nourishment that happens in the classroom.
In the spring, Francis says he traveled to six cities around the country raising money for scholarships. Along the way, he talked with hundreds of Xavier alumni who are now doctors, lawyers, social workers and health care administrators.
“For me, it was just a reaffirmation of why we were founded,” Francis says. “They are all doing what Xavier set out to do – to create a more humane and just society. That’s our mission.”
Founded by Saint Katharine Drexel, a wealthy nun canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000, Xavier’s focus 90 years ago was to provide higher education for black students in the South, who were not allowed to attend white schools. As the only historically black Catholic college in the nation, it always had special standing. But after the Civil Rights Movement opened a path for a more inclusive society, Xavier was in the right place at the right time with the right leadership to carve out a much-needed niche in higher education.
Francis remembers the defining period when Xavier expanded its focus to emphasize the sciences. He says that he and his team of faculty and staff were troubled by a report that showed a dismal application rate for blacks to medical school. With the dedicated efforts of chemistry professor J.W. Carmichael, who still advises pre-med students, Xavier committed itself to encouraging black students to major in the sciences. The school held summer science programs for high school students that drew promising students from New Orleans and other communities.
Perhaps the most critical academic decision came in the early 1980s, when the university instituted common testing for all sections of similar courses such as biology, chemistry and algebra, Francis says. Instead of professors devising their own exams, departments created an exam to be taken by all students taking the same course. This action was designed to ensure that students would be taught the same material at the same level of challenge.
“It forced the teachers to keep on their toes,” he says. “That’s how we built this science machinery.”
Students who enroll at Xavier know that they aren’t entering a fun-loving atmosphere. “Xavier is a not a party school,” Francis says. “They come knowing that they are going to be challenged.”
Another contributing factor in academic success, according to Francis, is maintaining some out-of-fashion ideas about lifestyle. In contrast to the dormitory rules that govern most public universities today, Francis says that Xavier still enforces curfews, some of which allow students to be out “too late” in his view.
Francis, now 84, has led a rich life. A native of Lafayette and son of uneducated parents, his career included being the first black graduate of Loyola University Law School and the nation’s longest serving college president. He has met three popes, every president since John F. Kennedy and countless celebrities. George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for civic service.
In retirement, Francis plans to spend more time with his wife, Blanche, who was an active partner in his academic journey until she began suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He made a vow to love and cherish Blanche immediately after graduating from law school, just before being drafted and shipped to Germany to serve in a medical unit of General Patton’s peacekeeping force. After finishing military service, he committed to spending at least two years at Xavier as Dean of Men.
“Nobody can say I didn’t live up to my commitment,” Francis says. “But that [marriage] vow trumps a commitment. I’m going home now.”