In announcing his plans to retire as president of the historically black Xavier University, Norman Francis acted with the humility that has long defined his service to New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, a grateful nation and the world.
His letter detailing his plans to step down as Xavier’s president after 46 years credited many others with the university’s success.
It was a typically graceful gesture from a man whose selflessness has stood as a sterling example of the Xavier ideal — a life grounded not only in mind, but heart.
Francis’ letter of retirement also celebrated Xavier as “one of those unique miracles which flourishes to this day.” We must also note, because Francis would not do it himself, the simple miracle of his life and career.
The 83-year-old Francis, who grew up as the son of a barber in segregated Lafayette, became a national leader in higher education who dined with presidents and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2006.
Under his leadership, Xavier’s enrollment more than doubled, and the campus grew exponentially, leading the nation in the science degrees it awarded to black students.
His legacy extends throughout the campus, including Xavier’s iconic new chapel, designed by internationally renowned architect Cesar Pelli.
Those bright moments are telling touchstones in the life of Norman Francis, but his quiet resolve expressed itself most eloquently in a dark chapter of Louisiana’s history, when two hurricanes ravaged the state in 2005 and levee failures left New Orleans underwater.
Francis, a senior citizen whose own home was destroyed in the disaster, could have withdrawn from the fray without shame. Instead, he led the evacuation of stranded students, worked tirelessly to rebuild his beloved Xavier and agreed to chair the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the lead agency in directing the state’s response to the storms. As the head of the LRA, his active role in gaining and coordinating federal relief for the state was undoubtedly a historic moment. One LRA staffer worked for Francis for months before learning about the university president’s personal losses in Katrina. In discussing how leaders might relieve the suffering of others, Francis had never thought to mention his own troubles.
His moral stature in New Orleans through decades of civic leadership before Katrina gave Francis the capacity to pull together people across Louisiana after the storm.
Over many decades, Francis helped to broker a long series of advances and sometimes difficult compromises toward overcoming New Orleans’ built-in divisions and social deficiencies. He was ever the apostle of progress in a pre-storm city that too often wanted to settle with the way things always were.
The city and the state owe him a great ovation upon his retirement.
“It’s a huge loss, but he’s served the university, the city and the state superbly over the last 46 years,” said Anne Milling, a civic activist and longtime friend of Francis. “There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Norman Francis. He has a warmth and charm that has endeared him to people across the country and across the world.”
If young people in New Orleans and Louisiana want to make a difference, they ought to look at how Norman Francis made things happen.