C. Reynold Verret was formally installed Friday as Xavier University of Louisiana’s sixth president at an investiture ceremony filled with symbolism, prayers and messages of goodwill.
Most of the ceremony consisted of a series of brief greetings offered by representatives from all corners of the school, the city, the state and Verret’s life.
“This is a momentous achievement for one of Haiti’s own,” said Paul Altidor, ambassador to the United States from Haiti, Verret’s native country.
“What you’ve done paves the way for others,” Altidor said, expressing confidence in Verret’s ability to guide the school through any difficulties.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who followed Altidor at the microphone, welcomed Verret to “this spectacular institution” — Xavier — which, he said, contributes greatly to New Orleans through the doctors, scientists and other solid citizens it graduates each year.
The mayor also said Verret had come to a city with deep Haitian ties. “As we remember where we came from, we would not be who we are without the influence of Haiti,” Landrieu said. “Evidently, now, through Dr. Verret, Haiti is also responsible for our future.”
Archbishop Gregory Aymond offered blessings “in abundance” to Verret and expressed gratitude that New Orleans is home to Xavier, the nation’s only historically black Catholic university.
Other good wishes came from fellow academics, Xavier alumni and Sister Donna Breslin, of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the order created by St. Katharine Drexel, who founded the university in 1925.
The order continues to hold Verret, the university and its students in its daily prayers, Breslin said.
But as is typical at Xavier, the students came first. Student body President Treyvon Merritt kicked off the investiture ceremony, offering congratulations and best wishes to Verret in a greeting that was repeated by five other students speaking five different languages: Haitian Creole, French, Spanish, Arabic and Vietnamese.
Merritt, a senior pre-dentistry major, said he already had seen Verret’s ability to listen and act. Shortly after Verret took the job last summer, he had lunch with Merritt, during which they talked about student concerns, including complaints by studious freshmen that the library was open until 2 a.m. on most weekdays but their dormitory curfew as freshmen was midnight, cutting their study time short. Verret soon shifted the freshman dorm curfew to 2:30 a.m., Merritt said.
Verret said last week that he feels a camaraderie among students on Xavier’s campus that he hasn’t seen elsewhere.
Merritt knows that sense of cooperation well. “I think that people feel accountable for the person next to them. You have to make sure that person is there when you graduate,” said Merritt, who said he felt instantly comfortable on campus. “Xavier is a collection of very smart people who look like you, talk like you — people who are doing well and are black.”
Despite many things in common, Verret brings a different perspective to the campus as a biochemist who left Haiti at age 8 and was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and educated at Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Michael Rue, head of Xavier’s board of trustees, recalled the search for someone to succeed Norman Francis, who retired last year after leading Xavier for 47 years. Early on, he said, board members were intrigued by Verret, a seasoned administrator and fervent Catholic who told trustees he had been “a dangerous boy” — because he had been interested in both science and teaching at a young age.
“I’m very comfortable that we have a man who is really in charge of things here at Xavier,” said Rue, who on Friday declared Verret to be the university’s president “with all the rights, duties and privileges accorded thereto.”
The university’s 27-pound copper and bronze mace led the day’s procession, carried by its designer, art department Chairman Ron Bechet. Though Verret began the ceremony in the red and gray doctoral robe he earned at MIT, he ended it in Xavier’s resplendently gold presidential robe, wearing Xavier’s presidential hood and chain of office, which had been draped around his neck by Francis himself.
Verret also was presented with several documents and symbols that represent presidential authority: the mace, the university’s charter, the mission of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and the biography of St. Katharine Drexel.
In his address, Verret, a poetry buff, quoted the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire: “I held an atlas in my lap/ ran my fingers across the whole world/ and whispered/ where does it hurt?/ it answered/ everywhere/ everywhere/ everywhere.”
“That is where we find Xavierites, in the tradition of St. Katharine Drexel,” Verret said. “Everywhere the world hurts, serving and leading, healing, working to relieve suffering, empowering the disadvantaged, achieving justice, making the world a better place for everyone.”
In closing, Verret asked the audience to join him as he works with students and others to shape Xavier’s future. “We are joined together in noble work,” he said.