America's Longest-Serving College President Has More to Do

Ted Jackson, The Times-Picayune

Norman C. Francis
January 14, 2013

Forty-five years ago, still reeling from the news that his icon, Martin Luther King Jr., had been assassinated that day, a rising star at Xavier University of Louisiana accepted the presidency of that institution. He vowed to use his new pulpit to advance the cause of civil rights.

It's a battle that Norman C. Francis, the nation's longest-sitting college president, is still waging at age 81. During his tenure, the historically black, Roman Catholic university has earned the distinction of graduating more African-American students who go on to complete medical school than any other university.

And at a time when colleges are struggling to attract minority students to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics majors, more than 60 percent of Xavier's undergraduates are in STEM fields. Many are recruited through a summer bridge program for talented high-school students who then get extensive tutoring and peer mentoring.

Mr. Francis is proud of those successes, but it's the financially strapped students Xavier isn't reaching who seem to motivate him to continue.

"It strikes me that there's been no change in the struggle to get those young people into college and keep them in college," he says. "We lose them, not because they can't make the grades, but because they can't afford the price of attendance."

Xavier's $18,000-a-year tuition is lower than that of many private colleges but still out of reach for the overwhelming majority of Xavier's students without the hefty subsidies the university struggles to maintain.

Enrollment is down 800, to 3,400, since Hurricane Katrina destroyed Mr. Francis's home and flooded his university in 2005. Since then, he has helped bring in millions of federal dollars to rebuild the campus. He even opened a new chapel last year designed by César Pelli.

But the problems caused by Katrina were compounded by the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, last year's Hurricane Isaac, and new, tougher standards for Parent PLUS loans, federal money that parents can borrow to pay for their children's college expenses.

Because of those and other pressures, Xavier could face its first operating deficit in the 45 years he's been president, Mr. Francis says. What it says to him is that his job at Xavier isn't finished.

"I know about the history of where we've come from, where we need to go, and what it will take to get there," he says. "I still have the energy. I still have the passion. I still believe in these young people and in my country. Something tells me it's not a good time to leave."

'Extraordinary' Leadership

Despite his infectious enthusiasm for the job, Mr. Francis says he might not have accepted it back in 1968 if it had come with the regulatory and legal headaches presidents face today. Monday morning in a president's office "would scare the bejesus out of you," he says with a laugh.

His advice to a young president "would be to delegate to someone you trust, go in with your eyes open, have a passion for your mission, and don't compromise your principles."

John S. Wilson Jr., who has been executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities since 2009, has worked with Mr. Francis as part of that role.

"His leadership of Xavier has been extraordinary, especially in terms of getting that institution branded for producing world-class medical students," says Mr. Wilson, who will become president of another historically black institution, Morehouse College, this month.

Karen Watkins, a 1969 Xavier graduate, has been the president's administrative assistant for 39 years. Keeping Mr. Francis, whose many civic posts include leading the Louisiana Recovery Authority after Katrina, from overextending himself is a constant battle.

"He puts his heart and soul into everything he does, and it's hard for him to say no," she says. "I'm amazed at his vigor and enthusiasm with the start of every school year."

Mr. Francis says he doesn't worry about what will happen to Xavier after he leaves because he has built a strong team, including administrators who have worked with him for decades.

His biggest challenge remains keeping Xavier affordable, he says.

"There's a human capital out there that we have not totally harnessed. That may be part of what keeps me going," he says. "It's like mining gold. It's there, we need it, and we can't afford to lose it."