On April 4th, 1968 Dr. Norman Christopher Francis was appointed President of Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana. This day marked the end of one era, but not the end of the fight, and the beginning of a new one. Norman Francis would achieve beyond his own expectations and make history in many ways. He was the first male, first layman (non-clergy) and first black man to be appointed President of Xavier University of Louisiana. By the time he retired in 2015, after 47 years of service, Dr. Francis had become not just the longest sitting university president in the history of Xavier University, but also the longest sitting president of any university in the United States.
Family and early years
Norman Francis was born in March 1931 into a poor family in Lafayette, Louisiana. His father was a hotel bell hop who would later open his own barber shop. His mother was a homemaker. Neither parent, as devoted as they were to the value of education, had finished high school themselves. His parents ensured that Norman, his brother and three sisters, attended Catholic schools and Mass every Sunday and were punctual in their religious duties.
Dr. Francis recalls: “I spoke to what we call, in the legal profession in the south, the Fifth Court of Appeals. This is the toughest court of appeals in the country and a very, very conservative institution. I had to address them in the only way I knew, directly and honestly,” “Let me tell you”, I said, “who I am and where I come from, and where my values have been derived from. My values I received from my mother and my father, who did not have a high school education. No, they did not know chemistry or biology or other subjects, but they were as smart as anyone of you in this room. My folks knew what it was going to take for me to be a professional and a good person. They taught me essential life lessons; what was right, what was wrong, why you had to be honest when you deal with people. They taught me to have faith in myself and in God. This teaching, which was so important, they instilled in me from when I was eight years old, right up to and until I left home to go to college. It wasn’t just words, but my mother and father led by their actions and the way they lived their lives”.
Growing up in the time of “Jim Crow”
After Abraham Lincoln had brought an end to slavery in the United States in 1865, it was essential to reconstruct the Southern states from a social and economic standpoint to be more aligned with the North, the victors of the civil war. But change was taking place too swiftly for the white establishment of the South. The 1892 Apartheid-type law that created ‘separate but equal’ conditions for blacks and whites in the South of the United States came about in Francis’s view, as an attempt to deconstruct the reconstruction of the South:
“I wonder many times, how those men in 1892 could be such monsters to write an 1892 separate but equal document. But what is more amazing, is that the Supreme Court of the United States confirmed that the act would become the law of the land. But if you don’t know the past, you’re likely to repeat it.”
“I lived in a small town (Lafayette) that was totally segregated. I was 11 years old when World War II started. I lived in this new marginalized world where for 34 years I couldn’t go into a restaurant in the front door, couldn’t go into a hotel. I never had a brand new textbook all through elementary and secondary schools. So, in my speeches, and again, back to that fifth circuit with all those judges, what I said, ‘Louisiana never intended me to be standing in front of you, telling you what I’m about to tell you.’ And when I said, I never lost faith in my country, it shocked them. Because for any rational individual who had to go through what I went through with my family, and all my classmates, and all of African Americans, was no question, we were living in legal slavery!”
Dr. Francis believes: “Education was and is the pathway out of poverty.” He recalls: “My daddy who was a barber, who carried the bags as a bellhop before he became an entrepreneur as a barber. He carried the bags for the famous Governor Huey Long in Louisiana and many others. When I was first admitted to Loyola Law School, a very prestigious law school in Louisiana, he just knew I was going to graduate from law school, go back to that little small town (Lafayette) and be a multi-millionaire.”
Norman Francis graduated from St. Paul High School in 1948, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1952 from Xavier University of Louisiana before starting law school at Loyola University in New Orleans. He was among the first African-Americans to enroll at Loyola Law School from which he graduated in 1955.
“At 21, I was the youngest and first African American to be admitted in that school (Loyola Law School). I have to say it, that it was the greatest time in my life, in school. I met young white men who had just finished pre-law. Now some others hadn’t had pre-law, but I came with a degree. I had an undergraduate degree in math. Coming from Xavier, I had, oh God, 12 hours of philosophy, 12 hours of religion, I had everything, I think I graduated with 150 hours from Xavier University, I should have had but 120. What struck them is that they were going to school for the first time and mingling and being with an African American. They realized that I put on my pants the same way they did! I was confident in myself, I respected them, I liked them. I am certain that my presence changed those men. At that time there were no women in Loyola Law School, it changed their lives.”
“I graduated on a Saturday, I got married on a Monday, and the selective service said the government wants you. So, I spent two years in the military as a lawyer and a private”, Dr. Francis recalls.
When he was drafted in 1955, Francis was stationed in Fort Knox, Kentucky, for the first year, before being transferred to Frankfurt, Germany. Francis was serving as a private. One day, the chief warrant officer, who happened to be an African American, discovered that he was a lawyer, yet Francis had been assigned to a medical battalion. The warrant officer proposed to Francis that he should be a commissioned officer in the Judge Advocates office. However, Francis turned it down.
“The warrant officer said: ‘Well, I’m going to make you a commissioned officer, because we are going to apply and you are going to go to Judge Advocate General.’ I said, ‘Hold on. For how long are you going to put bars on my shoulder and not that little stripe?’ He replies, ‘Well, it’s a three-year commitment.’ I responded, ‘Well, I’m going through my math. I’ve already stayed one year with you as a private. So, how many more years I’ve got to stay as a JAG officer?’ He replied, ‘Two.’ ‘Oh, no. Oh, no,’ I said, ‘I’m going to stay one more year, I’m going to salute, and then I’m going home to my wife and child.’ ‘What!? You’re not going to take this offer”, said the astonished chief warrant officer …’ ‘No!’ I replied emphatically
“My mother taught me humility. I can wash, so I did. I washed pans, pots, everything a private did in the Army. I counseled more young guys who are 18-year olds, I was in a group where they had a lot of the 18-year olds, I counseled them. Many African American young men who had crossed the Atlantic for the first time in their lives were sent to Frankfurt, Germany. They would all come to me for advice and support. They weren’t in any trouble. They just wanted to know about the things I’d seen and I’d talk about it to them.”
Xavier University, Louisiana
In 1915 a Catholic sister by the name of Katharine Drexel, from the Order of Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, opened a high school in Louisiana, using the money that she had received as an inheritance from her father, who had been a successful Philadelphia banker. In the 10 years that followed its establishment, Sister Katharine Drexel and her staff expanded their programme to include teacher training, liberal arts, and taking the high school to college status.
Prior to going to Germany, when he was drafted into the military, Francis had been offered the position of Dean of Men and Women at Xavier University.
“I accepted Xavier’s offer before I left for Frankfurt, Germany. At that time, you had a Dean of Men and a Dean of Women. The Dean of Men who had been there during my time was retiring.
“It was such an act of commitment by Katharine Drexel, who gave them all her money to found Xavier. This enabled you to actually go to school, and you never had to pay money, almost. Perhaps a down payment or something. I came from a poor family. I didn’t know I was poor. My khakis were always nice and pressed and my shirt was clean and so forth. I had been taught by example what was good manners and being respectful. What was so important for me was to follow that respect. So, I accepted the Dean of Men position with what I thought was going to be a two year tenure.”
Of course, it turned out to be much more, 58 years to be exact. During the day Francis would work as a Dean of Men. At night he was working with the law firm as legal counsel, getting young men out of jail, arguing, negotiating and representing those who had been arrested for misconduct in restaurants, for demanding their civil rights.
“We were involved in making the changes and helping the civil rights groups with the legal advice they needed.”
Dr. Francis believes that his father never forgave him for not continuing to practice law.
“He went to his deathbed without forgiving me for not coming back to that little hometown and practising law. He knew I was going to be a millionaire. But see, God is good, and God is good, always. My father went to his deathbed with a bishop, my brother, not a lawyer. The story about that, is that there are different professions from which one has to choose. I made my choice: education.”
Freedom Fighters & Civil Rights Movement
“When I started at Xavier, the Civil Rights Movement was just happening big time. Rosa Parks had already sat on the bus in ’56. Martin Luther King and his group of ministers were concerned that the marches that were being staged in Montgomery and Birmingham were going to lead to a very chaotic situation. So, they had to control it. The story goes, Martin Luther King did not want to accept any violence. It was the beginning of what could have been a new civil rights war rather than, what we would call, a sane way of approaching it. We decided we would take the punishment but earn the victory.”
Early in his tenure, Dr. Francis accommodated the civil rights Freedom Fighters on the first floor of the male dormitories of Xavier University. This was a potentially volatile situation as there was hostility towards this group from the southern white establishment.
“I had the privilege of making the decision to house the Freedom Riders when they were warned out of Bessemer, Alabama. Two young civil rights activists approached me (one was the head of the student body at Xavier). They were part of the core student movement. I said, ‘Well, what do you want me to do?’ They explained, ‘Well, the people who had already bombed Freedom Riders vowed that they were going to follow the Freedom Riders wherever they went. The bombers had promised that they were coming to New Orleans even if they had to crawl.’ I said, ‘OH.’ They said, “Well, we want you to put them up, at least half of them, well, eight of them, in the dormitory.”
But first he ensured that he had the approval of the sisters who ran the college.
“I approached the Sister, ‘Sister Nun, we have a request to house some Freedom Riders.’ The sisters had seen the news as well. The Sister Nun looked at me and then in exasperation she exclaimed loudly, ‘Oh my God!’ I said, ‘You remember that time when that little baby was born and his mother had nowhere to stay, and wound up in a place where the cows were and where the mother had that baby?’ She understood, ‘I know what you’re about to say. Well, you make the decision.’ I did.”
“I did not put a plaque up during my 47 years. Maybe I’ll be able to talk the Board into placing a commemoration on that dormitory where the Freedom Riders stayed. It was an extremely significant event. When present students learn of that, they are so proud.”
Dr. Francis feels that it was critical during the civil rights movement that certain tactics were used. Everyone had to do their part. They had to work together in a partnership.
“The public or the nation started to see the cruelty of what was happening. That partnership was important. Even John F. Kennedy had to be persuaded into making the decisions that he made. He was running against Nixon and he was asked to send a letter to King when he was in the Birmingham jail. It was that letter that Nixon refused to write. He might have, but Kennedy beat him to it. This galvanized the black community and the partnerships.”
President of Xavier
Francis’ appointment as President of Xavier University of Louisiana in 1968 followed a considerable track record he had already established within that institution. Appointed Dean of Men in 1957 by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, he advanced to become Director of Student Personnel Services in 1963, and Assistant to the President for Student Affairs in 1964, until becoming Executive Vice President in 1967.
“We rewrote the whole charter. This is the only time a catholic university in the United States, in which a religious order had literally turned over to a lay-governing body, with a lay-president. all property, everything, and say, ‘Here, we’ve done as much as we can, now it’s your turn.’ No other catholic college has done it in that totality. Only in the last maybe 15 years, have you seen lay-presidents in catholic colleges. Georgetown is an example”.
Accolades to Norman Francis refer to his interventions at Xavier University as an “era” in which immense change, growth, opportunities and challenges were par for the course. The campus initially comprised 5 permanent buildings. Francis would lead major physical plant expansion first by building more student dormitories. This was followed by the erection of a separate College of Pharmacy, a Library and Resource Center and a Science Complex. In 1990 Xavier South campus was opened on Jefferson Davis Parkway in a 6 – story building.
Yet, despite his focus on expanding the accommodation and facilities of Xavier, it is the quality of teachers, the content of teaching and the role of education that were foremost and where Francis placed the highest priority.
“My form in life as a president was to work with people who believed in what our mission was. I would not ask anybody to do what I wouldn’t do. I shall answer the question that is asked so many times, “How did you stay as a president for 47 years?” “The answer’s simple. I was able, with my team of faculty and staff, to hire people smarter than me and get out of their way. I chose faculty members who were teachers, who were smarter than I was and displayed their passion and intelligence and commitment to teaching.”
Education! Education! Education!
“Our parents drummed into us, well you might want to be a singer, you might want to be a dancer, you might want to be all that, but make sure you prepare yourself to teach. So I prepared myself to teach. I had no choice, but I proved that I could. No matter what the circumstances were, and they could be cruel, as the government and the system intended not just to keep us poor but did not even provide sufficient money to raise a family. Despite the tribulations we came through all of that. We did not get depressed, we did not give up. As a 17-year-old, when I walked into college, I knew I had an education. Maybe not as good as I should have had, but I had the potential for being a better individual and to do service to my life and my family and the community.”
Over a two-year period (1981-83), during the Ronald Reagan administration, Norman Francis would undertake a leadership role in the research on teaching and teachers in the United States. This major study which on its culmination would be entitled “A Nation at Risk” explored what makes a good teacher, recognizing that the quality and standards of the profession had been seriously eroded in the decade and more prior to the study. Of his work in this study, which emerged in a 48-page pamphlet, Dr. Francis would comment:
“Every student can look in the face of a teacher and tell whether that teacher believes he or she can learn.”
In poor nations and communities that have grown, Dr. Francis would observe, it was education that has enabled growth. The South of the United States has been one of the poorest regions, as African Americans were prevented from gaining an education. In his opinion, however poor one is, there are always talents which need to be developed and the vehicle for that development is education. This starts in a school and is fostered by a teacher.
Teaching, he held, was an essential profession that: “Keeps going and must keep going. Education is the legacy that we pass on to our children. While Professors, basketball players, footballers, and entertainers earn millions, teachers are not paid sufficiently.” Referring to his own university, he was concerned that in earlier days, Xavier produced far more teachers than it does today, bemoaning the fact that fewer young people are going into teaching:
“It is unacceptable to believe that there are students out there who could be anything they wanted to be with their talents, but they never got the chance to do it. The road out of poverty is education.”
The Grand Tour: Visiting Xavier graduates
Towards the end of his tenure as President of Xavier, Norman Francis undertook visits to six major American cities in which graduates of Xavier University of Louisiana were known to be working. In most cities a dinner was held in his honor, by Xavier alumni for him and each dinner would have no less than 200 graduates in attendance. Francis would ask the graduates about their history and hear the role that the university played in enabling them to be the professionals they had become. Some of the stories would bring tears to his eyes. From one graduate he heard:
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it were not for Xavier University of Louisiana. I couldn’t afford it, my mother couldn’t afford it, but Xavier took me in. And Xavier gave me an opportunity to fulfill my dreams.”
The exercise of the right to vote had also become an issue about which Francis felt strongly. He used the opportunity of addressing these alumni dinners on his six-city tour to emphasize that politicians want and need people to vote for them. College students were not voting as they felt that they could not make a difference. He stressed that the right to vote is an obligation of each citizen, and that without exercising the right to vote, nothing will change:
“My strong feelings are, we’ve got to educate young kids from the bottom up. Among the most important things in life are teaching, learning and voting. Nothing is impossible if you believe in yourself, have faith and you’re committed to what you’re doing. More than anything else, respect yourself, and respect other people. That’s my message.”
Joseph A. Francis, brother of Norman Francis, was the fourth Black Bishop named by the Pope in 1976. Of interest is the fact that within the little conclave where Joseph and Norman grew up, of the first 10 that were named, seven were from the same order, Bay Saint Louis the Society of the Divine Word. They came from Lafayette, Lake Charles, Slidell, etc.
“That’s an amazing story because Corpus Christi Parish was the largest black Catholic parish in the United States. It showed the strong religious values these families had. My father and mother were so proud to have a son who was named a Catholic bishop, the fourth in the country, and another son who was a president of a Catholic university. This has occurred only twice in the history of the United States. First in Georgetown in the 1800s when two brothers were born to a mixed family. The mother was white, and the father was black. One son was a president and a priest of Georgetown, and the other was a bishop. This was repeated over a century later, when I was named President of Xavier University, a Catholic university, in Louisiana, and my brother a Bishop of the church”.
Dr. Francis’ time and achievements at Xavier University are truly remarkable. Besides being the longest sitting President of any University in the United States, his career has been marked by success, vast changes, growth, accomplishments, challenges and opportunities. There has been a steady growth in revenue and in the number of enrolled students under Francis’ leadership. Since 1968 enrolment has tripled. Before 2005, when Katrina hit New Orleans, Xavier welcomed the largest number of students in its history – 4,100. The next few years were extremely hard and difficult, but by 2014 Xavier enrolled almost 3,000 full-time students, which was nearly 75% of the pre-Katrina total. In comparison, most local colleges and universities still struggle to reach their pre-Katrina enrolment figures.
By 2018, the university’s endowment has grown from $20 million to more than $170 million. It ranked #25 (tie) in Regional Universities South, #17 (tie) in Best Colleges for Veterans, #1 in Best Value Schools and #5 in Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
President Barack Obama visited New Orleans in August 2010 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. He gave his address from Xavier, complimenting the work of the leaders of the community and affirming the commitment to continue to aid in the rebuilding of the area.
In 2006, the university had bestowed an Honorary Degree on the then-Senator Obama.
Xavier University received the “Katrina Compassion Award” from the US government Corporation for National and Community Service in 2006, for the combined efforts of an estimated 60% of its students in rebuilding the neighbourhoods damaged by the hurricane.
Service to the community
It is not only Xavier University that defined Dr. Francis’ career and impact. For decades, Dr. Francis was involved in regional, state and national projects providing leadership in education, economic matters, civic and cultural affairs.
In the early 70s, Dr. Francis recognized that the historically under-served African-American community needed financial services. In 1972, Dr. Francis approached Alden McDonald to become the CEO of the first Black-owned bank in New Orleans. Mr. McDonald agreed. In November 1972, Liberty Bank of Louisiana, was incorporated with the mission to help the African-American community buy their own homes. By 2018 the bank expanded to 23 offices with total assets of almost $660 million. Today, it offers a large range of services to its clients. Dr. Francis remains the Chairman of Liberty Bank’s board of directors, a position he has held since the bank opened in 1972.
In 2006, in the wake of devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, called on Francis to serve as the chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the governmental entity created to plan for the recovery and rebuilding of Louisiana.
Dr. Francis enjoys a prestigious national reputation, of which Xavier is a primary beneficiary. He has served in an advisory role to eight U.S. presidential administrations – not only on education issues, but civil rights as well – in addition to serving on 54 boards and commissions. In 2006, the then-President George W. Bush, presented Dr. Francis with the nation’s highest civil award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2009 he was named one of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. News Media Group and the Center for Public Leadership (CPL) at Harvard Kennedy’s School of Government.
Dr. Francis received 40 honorary degrees from other universities, and at least 20 major awards in recognition of his leadership in higher education as well as his unselfish service to New Orleans and to the nation.
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, was named The New Orleans Tribune’s People of the Year.
In 2012, in connection with Xavier University of Louisiana, the Norman C. Francis Leadership Institute (NCFLI) was founded. Its mission is to educate and prepare professional men and women for consequential civic engagement and purposeful social responsibility. It was inspired by the life and career of Xavier’s President Norman C. Francis, NCFLI’s core principles are non-partisan and directed toward advancing leadership skills that encompass cultural intelligence, spiritual enlightenment, and a steadfast moral compass.
The legacy of Dr. Francis will remain with the generations to come. When asked what his message to the people would be, he replied:
“Well, the message is that young people MUST have belief in themselves, number one. I am religiously oriented, so I suggest they MUST believe in a God, and that they MUST have faith in their God. Throughout life they’re going to meet obstacles that seem impossible to overcome, but nothing is impossible, if you believe in yourself, have faith, and you’re committed to what you’re doing. And more than anything else, respect yourself, and respect other people. That’s