Norman Christopher Francis arrived at Xavier University in the wake of World War II, a 17-year-old barber’s son from Lafayette who grew up shining shoes and reached New Orleans “full of dreams and more than a little bit of fear.”
He is leaving the school next summer, more than six decades later, confident in his legacy as the longest-tenured university president in the country and a civil rights pioneer who grew, shaped and diversified the historically black Catholic university into a prolific producer of doctors, pharmacists and scientists.
His reputation would have been settled even before Francis engineered the university’s resurrection in 2006, getting the flood-torn Gert Town campus back up and running just five months after Hurricane Katrina.
Francis, 83, announced his pending retirement Thursday morning to a hushed convocation of students, where professors and students honored the outgoing president with a rendition of Xavier’s alma mater, some dabbing tears. Later he waxed nostalgic at a noon news conference.
His resignation, which he presented to Xavier’s board of directors on Tuesday, is effective June 30. Board of Trustees Chairman Michael Rue announced no chosen successor for Francis, who has served 46 years as Xavier’s president.
“There’s no good time to die, and believe me there’s no good time to leave,” Francis said. “Once you’ve made that decision, you just got to know when it’s time to go.”
Francis declined to elaborate on his decision to leave now. But he noted that his wife of 59 years, Blanche Francis, has Alzheimer’s disease. She was absent for the announcement.
Francis began racking up accomplishments decades ago, integrating Loyola Law School as its first black graduate — a career path he soon left for academia, to the lifelong chagrin of his father, he said.
A half-century later, in 2006, President George W. Bush hung the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, around his neck.
In between, Francis took what he acknowledged was a bold step in opening Xavier’s doors in 1961 to the Freedom Riders after segregationists had bombed their bus in Alabama. At the time, Francis was executive vice president at the university. He knew the Freedom Riders were targets for violence.
He recalled his conversation at the time with Xavier’s then-president, telling her, “ ‘No room at the inn? We’re a Catholic school. We got to open the dorm.’ And we did.”
Francis assumed the university’s presidency in 1968, on the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Over the next four-plus decades, Xavier’s enrollment would more than triple. The campus would expand from a handful of buildings and Army surplus trailers to 16 buildings across dozens of acres, with green rooftops that would give the campus its nickname, “The Emerald City.”
The university’s endowment has grown from less than $20 million to more than $160 million under Francis, Rue said.
Today, Xavier is known for topping the ranks of colleges awarding black students degrees in the sciences.
Amid the chaos that followed Katrina, Francis organized an evacuation of stranded students and staff, then launched a campaign to reopen by the start of the next semester on Jan. 17, 2006. He served as chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, appointed by then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco to help plan the rebuilding after the storm.
As an educator, Francis is credited with contributions to the modern education reform movement, having served three decades ago on the National Commission on Excellence in Education. In 1983, the commission produced a report called “A Nation at Risk,” a call to arms for rethinking K-12 schooling that has produced far-reaching and often controversial changes in school districts across the country.
Francis was born in Lafayette in 1931. He attended Catholic grade schools and enrolled at Xavier on a work scholarship, graduating in 1952.
He served in the U.S. Army for two years and attended Loyola Law School before returning to Xavier in 1957 as dean of men, rising to the top post in little more than a decade.
Praise for the departing university president poured in from every quarter on Thursday, from City Hall to the White House.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said she counted Francis as a close family friend and “one of the most admired and respected leaders not only in New Orleans and Louisiana but in our nation today.”
U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, described Francis as “an exemplary man, champion of civil rights and one of the finest educators in this nation.”
In a letter dated Wednesday, President Barack Obama too congratulated and praised Francis.
“As part of a generation that broke down barriers and challenged our nation’s conscience, you have devoted yourself to ensuring the doors of knowledge and opportunity are open for all Americans,” Obama wrote. “You guided the university and your community through extraordinary and uncertain times, and your leadership has played an important role in vesting students not only with a sense of history, but also with a sense of self.”
Eamon Kelly, the former Tulane University president, said Francis made Xavier “a household word in higher education” and was “an important force locally and an important force nationally.”
Rue, the Xavier board chairman, listed the notable “firsts” that Francis has accumulated: first black graduate of Loyola Law School, first black New Orleans civil service commissioner, first lay president at Xavier.
An adviser to former mayors Dutch Morial and Moon Landrieu — both old college or law school friends — Francis more than dabbled in the political sphere.
But he’s best known for building and broadening programs at Xavier that have produced thousands of doctors, scientists, pharmacists and dentists. According to the university, Xavier is first among U.S. schools in the number of black graduates who go on to complete medical school and first in bachelor’s degrees awarded to black students in biology, chemistry, physics and the physical sciences. It also stands near the top in pharmacy degrees.
Dr. Leonard Weather, a Shreveport doctor and former president of the National Medical Association, said Francis’ contributions are well-known outside Louisiana.
He described his accomplishments this way: “He created an enormous, affable highway for African-Americans to navigate and complete the journey to be health professionals in the New Orleans community, Louisiana and certainly the country and the world.”
Francis was late to his retirement news conference, saying he got held up in a parade of students who had left classes to congratulate him.
Maya Mann, 18, a freshman biology pre-med major, said she was shocked by the announcement.
“I grew up in Maryland, but I had heard about Dr. Francis, and he was one of the reasons I chose Xavier,” she said. “He was so dedicated to service, I felt as though anybody who needed any help, he would help.”
For some, it was a somber occasion.
Marlene Robinson, the school’s director of graduate admissions, recalled how “in the older days,” when the college was smaller, Francis knew most people by their first name. He still was a constant presence “out and about on campus,” talking with students, hearing their stories. “It’s going to be a change,” she said.
Rue gave no timetable for picking a successor for Francis, saying only that a new president would be in place on July 1, the day after Francis plans to step down.
While known for a lack of airs, Francis made clear Thursday that he considers the university — with an enrollment of 3,121 mostly Louisiana, mostly black and mostly female students — on solid footing.
“Xavier’s in good shape. If you want to give me credit for anything, I’ve set the table,” he said, “and anybody can run it.”
Francis, a father of six, was vague about his future.
And he lamented an apparent step back on the civil rights front, remarking at length about the dismay he felt over the response to the recent shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
“I never thought that, at 83 years of age, starting as I did, what I went through, that I’d see the country be in as discombobulated a state that it is today,” he said. “All the things that we fought for, all the things we believed in, all the things we preached about respecting people. It disturbs me. It disturbs me. I don’t know if I have the energy to start all over again.”
Francis, who grew up under segregation, wasn’t the only one in his family to take up the civil rights cause.
His older brother, Joseph, became a Catholic bishop and was among the first black priests in the Roman Catholic Church to speak against racism. He died in 1997.
Mostly, Francis recalled his past accomplishments and his pride in the students who eagerly wrested their diplomas from him on graduation day.
“I would hope that when it’s written, that I made a difference for young people who had dreams they never thought would get fulfilled,” he said.
Two years ago at Xavier, the Norman C. Francis Leadership Institute was launched. According to its website, it was formed “to educate and prepare professional men and women for consequential civil engagement and purposeful social responsibility.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.