This week, the spotlight shifts at Xavier University.
Last year, President Norman Francis retired after leading the nation’s only historically black Roman Catholic university for 47 years. He was honored with countless plaudits and galas.
On Monday, Xavier kicks off a five-day inaugural celebration for its new president, C. Reynold Verret, on its Gert Town campus. The daily events will be capped by an investiture ceremony Friday during which Verret and his office will be blessed by Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
The celebration will be the city’s first public introduction to Verret, who started work in July without much fanfare.
Verret, 61, was already familiar with New Orleans, having lived here in the early 1990s while working as an assistant professor of chemistry at Tulane University. In May, 25 years after he’d first lived in the city, the Xavier board of trustees asked him to return, electing him to succeed Francis, the revered educator and civic leader who had become the country’s longest-serving university president by the time he retired.
Today, Verret talks often with his predecessor, relying upon him for history and context, or what he calls “the how and the why” of Xavier.
At least for the near future, comparisons are inevitable for Verret, as they are for anyone who steps into the shoes of a giant.
As board members noted when they chose Verret, he and Francis have much in common. Both came from humble beginnings and are men of deep Catholic faith and intellect.
Still, Verret is distinctive in a way that should help him to shape his own image as Xavier’s president. After emigrating from Haiti as a young child, he excelled in school, then earned science degrees from Columbia University and MIT.
He’s also spent his career trying to bridge science with the humanities, which he calls “social glue.” He can recite poetry, loves the theater, grew up singing in church choirs and even plays the clarinet — “badly,” he says.
He also is deeply curious, in a way that has defined his career.
After college, he worked in labs, moving from the Howard Hughes Institute of Immunology at Yale and the Center for Cancer Research at MIT to teaching posts at Tulane, Morehouse School of Medicine and Clark Atlanta University, where he rose to chair the chemistry department.
Then he altered his path, moving into administration at three colleges including Savannah State University, the oldest public historically black university in Georgia, where he worked until last year as provost and chief academic officer.
As a researcher, Verret studied cytotoxic T-cells in the human body to determine how they find and eliminate cells that cause cancer and other diseases. As a college administrator, that same curiosity drives him to try to understand what makes his students tick.
“He’s not the kind of president you have to sit in awe of. He wants to know what his students are thinking, what they’re researching and what their greatest challenges are,” said an MIT classmate and longtime friend, the Rev. Gregory Chisholm, who will travel to New Orleans from his church, St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Harlem, to give a homily at Thursday afternoon’s inauguration Mass.
Friday’s investiture ceremony will employ all of the office’s traditional symbols, including a presidential chain engraved with the college seal and the names of Verret’s five predecessors. As the service begins, a grand marshal will walk in front, carrying the university’s 27-pound mace made of copper, brass and carved mahogany. Verret will follow, wearing his red and gray MIT robe.
When he walks back up the aisle after the ceremony, he will be wearing the black and gold Xavier presidential robe and cap, with the presidential chain draped around his neck.
‘Driven by curiosity’
A proud Monique Verret will fly into town to watch her older brother assume Xavier’s presidency.
In primary school, Reynold watched Monique after school while their mother was at work.
She remembers vividly how, when he was about 10, he got a refraction microscope and needed material from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to put under its lens. “After he got his microscope, we went to the Botanic Garden every day, even if it was 10 degrees outside,” she said. “He couldn’t leave me at home, so he’d take me with him to pick up samples of pond scum or some mud.”
His passion for science — “driven by curiosity,” Monique says — seems a perfect match for Xavier, which produces more black students who graduate from medical school than any other college in the nation and ranks first nationally in graduating students with bachelor’s degrees in biology and physics.
His experience growing up in a household that struggled financially allows him to better understand the barriers facing his 3,000 students, half of whom are from low-income families.
For instance, the Botanic Garden’s free admission was crucial, his sister said. “That biochemist who you see today was formed by the samples available to him at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden,” she said, explaining how the admission fee the garden now charges would have been a deal-breaker for them.
“We were poor; we were struggling until my mom got her nursing license,” she said.
The family left Haiti under assumed names in 1963 after the country’s longtime dictator, President Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a medical doctor, became convinced that his colleagues in the medical community were trying to kill his son. He sent his personal police force, the infamous “Tonton Macoutes,” to arrest and kill a number of doctors including Verret’s father.
Their father was not at home. But their mother, Lorraine Verret, a midwife, was arrested and sent to the notorious Fort Dimanche dungeon, not knowing the fate of her husband or her children, who were left behind in the house alone, though the Tonton Macoutes had threatened to kill them too.
An aunt rescued the four Verret children, hiding them in a friend’s house, where they had to lie silently under a bed when soldiers came looking for them.
Their mother was released after about a week, thanks to politically aligned friends, but “she was in bad shape,” her son said, so their father arranged for visas to the United States for her and the children. There, in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, she started a new life as a single mother with four young children. She worked as a practical nurse while she learned English.
The family moved to Carroll Street, near where the Brooklyn Dodgers used to play. The children, who spoke Haitian Creole and French, soon began to learn English. Still, Verret remembers struggling with both emotional trauma and a new language; he ended up repeating sixth grade.
The nun who taught him saw his potential and refused to pass him, he said. “She told my mother, ‘He’s not working at his level.’ ”
The mother was emphatic about the children’s schooling, even as she worked during the day and took English classes and nursing-certification classes at night. “My mom always said, ‘Education is the only thing I can leave you with,’ ” Monique said.
An ‘esprit de corps’
Though a large wave of Haitians later moved to the area, the Verrets were among the first Haitian families to join the nearby Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. A priest fluent in French suggested that the Verret sons become altar boys, duties linked to scholarships at the highly selective Brooklyn Preparatory School, also run by the Jesuits.
After high school, the children attended college, thanks to New York state’s Regents College Scholarships.
“People stepped in and made a way for me,” said Reynold Verret, who sees “removing the barriers” to education as a big part of his new job.
The Xavier community already has an “esprit de corps” that he didn’t see on other campuses, he said, noting how students motivate each other, pushing those who miss a study group or skip class.
He views his role as helping those students to think bigger, he said. So whenever he meets a new student, he quickly dispenses with the usual questions about classes and majors before getting to his point.
“My real question is: ‘What do you want to do? What are your aspirations?’ ” he said.
Often, students headed to grad school tell him they are only looking at in-state schools or that they’ve ruled out Northern cities because of the cold.
“Be more ambitious in your dreams,” Xavier’s new president will tell them, thinking back to his early days in Brooklyn, when he fell asleep in a house where finances were tight and English was halting. But thanks to those who made a way for him, he was still able to dream big, in Creole.