Xavier University announced Thursday that C. Reynold Verret, the provost and chief academic officer at Savannah State University in Georgia, will become its next president.
He will succeed Norman Francis, who will retire next month after 47 years at the helm of the historically black Catholic university.
Verret, 60, is a trained biochemist. A native of Haiti who immigrated to the U.S. as a political refugee in 1963, he got his undergraduate degree at Columbia University in 1976 and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982.
Verret also has ties to New Orleans, having worked as an assistant chemistry professor at Tulane University for four years starting in 1989.
Before arriving at Savannah State in 2012, he was provost at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania and a dean at Philadelphia’s University of the Sciences.
Verret was chosen from among more than 300 candidates considered for the post of president, said Michael Rue, chairman of Xavier’s board of trustees. Late last year, a search committee began cutting down the list, first to 30, then to six and then three before making its final recommendation.
The small pool’s credentials were impressive, according to Rue, who said the group was largely dominated by candidates who — like Verret — have held high-ranking academic positions at universities across the country.
Xavier’s board unanimously approved Verret’s hiring last week.
In Verret, the university is getting someone with a lengthy background in math and science and someone who — from Rue’s perspective — shares many of the same character traits as the man he’s replacing.
Verret has pushed to increase the number of minority students pursing degrees in science and technology, and he has worked to provide extra training for high school math and science teachers.
Both men are drawn to helping students who show potential but “haven’t necessarily been well-prepared in high school and grammar school to compete at the college level,” Rue said, based on the belief that a quality education can be a means for someone to move from where they are in life to where they want to be.
Verret put it this way: “To whom gifts are given, you have to return gifts, was something that I would say, even in high school, I was thinking.”
Verret’s story — “kind of an improbable journey” of emigrating from Haiti, being raised in New York City and later pursuing a career in chemistry — is one that Rue said has prepared him to lead Xavier, known for topping the ranks of colleges that award degrees in the sciences to black students.
“I’ve always lived off the kindness of strangers,” he said of growing up in Brooklyn and Queens. “I think there were many people who stepped in to help.”
Growing up, Verret had an early Jesuit-led education, and he enjoyed being in the city. “We lived in Crown Heights, and in that melting pot, you learned to live with many different people as neighbors and friends,” he said.
Early on, he decided he wanted to be a scientist.
He has two college-age sons, one of whom was born while he was teaching at Tulane, and Verret said he developed a lasting relationship with the city.
His experience living in New Orleans and getting a feel for the city’s unique culture carried weight with the search committee.
“We loved it,” he said of New Orleans. “It became home. What stood out was that there were the communities and neighborhoods where people actually remain and families remain, and there are connections that went very far.”
He said that Xavier — like the rest of U.S. higher education — faces challenges, notably trying to contain the rising cost of a college education and improving students’ graduation rate. But Verret said he has no plans to change things dramatically right away. He will meet with faculty and students in the coming months to gauge their views on the university’s direction.
While math and sciences are certainly key, he said, he stressed that the humanities are also critical to facing societal problems such as climate charge or understanding the ethics of medicine.
“New Orleans has gone through many changes since I was here, and so there is some learning to do on my part,” he said.
In his free time, Verret enjoys listening to music like calypso and jazz, cooking, playing soccer — though he hasn’t had much time for that lately — cycling, and sitting on his porch with friends.
In the two months since they met, Rue said, he has been impressed with Verret’s intellect. He said the search committee interviewed more than a dozen of Verret’s references, who spoke highly of him and made Rue’s job a little easier.
“I’m a businessman, and I know that I’ve made a lot of hiring mistakes based on an hour or two-hour interview of someone,” Rue said. “For me, references are far more important. I want to know what people who have worked with somebody for years think of that person, and you get a lot more insight from references.”
In July, Verret will officially take over for Francis, who — after 47 years — is the longest-serving university president in the nation. He took the helm at Xavier the same day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
The son of a Lafayette barber, Francis was a Xavier graduate himself who returned to his alma mater in 1957 to serve as dean of men, rising through the administrative ranks and eventually taking over as its leader.
Half a century later, Francis has cemented a legacy as a civil rights trailblazer who turned Xavier into a prodigious molder of doctors, scientists and pharmacists. In 2006, President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
As he presided over his final commencement ceremony last weekend, Francis told graduates that his dealings with high officials and celebrities over the years — former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson sat nearby as he spoke — “pale in comparison to the deep joy I feel each year as I hand out diplomas.”
On Thursday, Francis said he knew the day would eventually come when his successor was ready to take over. He said he’s still comfortable with his decision to retire.
As he has met with Xavier graduates recently, he said, he continues to be struck by how many of them tell stories of successful careers that kicked off once they finished school. “The fact that they’re doing things that we prepared them for, and they’re very happy in what they’re doing, and I think that underscores my being at peace,” he said.
“This has been my whole life, but I was at peace when I made the decision, and I knew June 30 was going to come at some time,” he said. “It’s very shortly going to be here. Maybe after that, I’ll start thinking about what a good life I had.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.