Retiring Xavier University President Norman Francis wants his legacy to live on through students like DeVon Arandus Pruitt, a 2015 graduate who received a bachelor’s degree on Saturday because of scholarships he landed at Xavier.
Nothing takes the place of such financial help, Francis said after the ceremony as he talked about the endowed scholarship fund that has been established in his honor.
“I can’t think of anything more important for those of us serving young people in America. And I’ve never seen more people looking for help,” said Francis, the son of a Lafayette barber who arrived at Xavier as a student in 1948 courtesy of a scholarship and is now revered as a civil rights trailblazer and the nation’s longest-serving university president.
Under Francis, Xavier has long worked to ensure that no student is kept from higher education because of financial need. “Those who need more should get more,” he said.
Francis has often said graduation is the high point of his year. He told Saturday’s audience that he had dealt with many high-profile celebrities and high officials over the last half-century. “But that experience pales in comparison to the deep joy I feel each year as I hand out diplomas,” he said.
As is his tradition, Francis shook hands with all 550 graduates Saturday, which marked his final commencement as Xavier’s president.
This year, the 52nd diploma that Francis handed out was to Pruitt, who first visited Xavier as a whip-smart student and high school class president from Meridian, Mississippi.
Pruitt, one of five children, was raised by hard-working people of modest means: a mother who worked in home health care and a grandmother who is a retired teacher. So there was little money for him to attend college, much less a private college, he said.
At Xavier, Pruitt’s schooling was covered by two different scholarships plus a Pell Grant.
He said he believes that the level of financial assistance provided to him and his classmates stems from Francis’ leadership at Xavier for the past 47 years.
“He’s like a father working to make sure that his children can pay the bills,” Pruitt said.
Francis presided over his first commencement ceremony in 1969. Saturday’s was his last.
Among the bachelor’s degrees he conferred were those given to Alexis Richards, from Oklahoma City, and Taylor Reece, from DeSoto, Texas. Both were full-scholarship students and both are headed to medical school.
“They’re going to be doctors,” Onita Goldman-Richards said proudly as she waited for Richards, her stepdaughter, and Reece, her niece, amid the throng of happy families gathered outside Xavier’s Convocation Center holding bunches of balloons and bouquets of flowers for the new graduates.
Richards and Reece are part of a proud Xavier tradition: The school has long ranked first in the nation for the number of African-American graduates who go on to complete medical school.
But without financial aid, the two young women would not have been able to earn Xavier diplomas. “They couldn’t have done it without the scholarships,” Goldman-Richards said.
Francis also conferred honorary doctorate degrees on all four of the ceremony’s guest speakers: former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, Carnegie Foundation President Vartan Gregorian, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and basketball superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who called himself “Dr. Magic” once he received the honorary Xavier doctoral hood.
Landrieu, whose niece, Holly Landrieu, became a doctor of pharmacy on Saturday at Xavier, called it “the highlight of my professional life” to receive an honorary degree from a man she has known and admired since she was in grade school. “I don’t know where New Orleans would be without him,” she said.
Holder, the nation’s first black attorney general, lauded Francis as a man who has influenced millions of people by fighting for civil rights, building up Xavier and other majority-black educational institutions and helping to rebuild New Orleans and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, all with an eye to what’s equitable and fair.
Holder said he felt the influence personally. “Without you, Dr. Francis, there would be no me,” he said.