Xavier is #1 in the nation in African American graduates who go on to complete medical school.
Editorial, Times-Picayune, New Orleans (May 9, 2015) — Around 8 a.m. Friday morning, Xavier University’s campus was quiet, and except for a few groundskeepers, seemingly empty of people. Friday was the day before graduation. There were no classes scheduled, and so there was no reason to expect to see many faces. But there was one face a driver navigating the campus could see over and over and over again: that of Norman Francis, the beloved president of Xavier University who will soon be retiring after 47 years as leader of the campus.
The campus was saturated with signs bearing the departing president’s likeness. One sign shows a much younger president – no gray hair, no glasses – looking up from the work on his desk. Another shows him in December 2006 after President George W. Bush has placed around his neck the Presidential Medal of Freedom. There’s one sign that shows him alongside Blanche Francis, his wife of 60 years. And one sign that shows him wearing his president’s robe and mortarboard. Saturday, May 9, was expected to be the last time Dr. Francis wears those items as the president of Xavier.
No matter the image used, all the signs on Xavier’s campus were printed with the same message: “Thank You Dr. Francis.” Indeed, Xavier’s campus, the city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana and the country as a whole has reason to thank Dr. Francis.
When President Bush awarded Dr. Francis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our country’s highest civilian honor, he summarized the recipient’s life work this way: “He achieved early distinction as the first African-American to graduate from the Loyola University College of Law. In 1968 he became president of his alma mater, Xavier University, in New Orleans, and he is today the longest-serving university president in the United States. Dr. Francis is known across Louisiana, and throughout our country, as a man of deep intellect and compassion and character. He’s an Army veteran. He led the United Negro College Fund. He was chairman of the board of the Educational Testing Service, and he holds 35 honorary degrees.”
President Bush then mentioned the work Dr. Francis did after Hurricane Katrina, not only quickly re-opening the doors of his campus after a catastrophic flood, but also helping to accelerate homecomings statewide as the leader of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. In that role, he helped persuade Congress and the Bush administration to provide $13.2 billion in block grant money for housing, infrastructure and other rebuilding needs in Louisiana.
Because he’s been so heavily laden with awards and because he has walked and talked with governors and heads of state, one might expect Dr. Francis to be distant and inaccessible to the students who’ve come to study at Xavier. But according to Antanious White, a 22-year-old sociology major who was scheduled to receive his degree Saturday morning, Dr. Francis has walks among the students, too.
“He’s a celebrity on campus,” Mr. White said. “People are always trying to take pictures with him now.” And Dr. Francis, he said, always obliges them.
It’s significant enough to just be graduating from college, said Mr. White, a native of tiny Baldwin, La., but to be walking out with Dr. Francis is “a pretty big thing, too.”
Dr. Francis is 84-years-old now, well past the age when most people retire. Still, Mr. White said he and his classmates didn’t think they’d ever see the day when Dr. Francis would leave. “He is Xavier!”
And look what Xavier has become under the leadership of Norman Francis. The enrollment of the nation’s only black Catholic university more than doubled during his tenure.
According to the university’s website, Xavier is “#1 in the nation in awarding bachelor’s degrees to African American students in the biological sciences, and physics.” It is “#1 in the nation in the number of African American graduates who go on to complete medical school,” and it is “among the nation’s top four colleges of pharmacy in graduating African Americans with Doctor of Pharmacy degrees.”
Nearly a quarter of the nation’s 6,000 working African-American pharmacists graduated from Xavier.
A graduation is the time for us to celebrate students who have typically dedicated four years to a course of study and are being rewarded for their efforts. But this weekend, Xavier is also celebrating a former student turned president who has been studiously dedicated to improving the campus since the Lyndon B. Johnson administration.
Friday morning the “Thanks Dr. Francis” signs could be sighted in some places that are not on Xavier’s campus. That’s only fitting. The contributions Norman Francis has made have transcended geography.