Norman Francis On 45 Years At Xavier's Helm

Xavier University of Louisiana has a number of distinctions. It is the country's only historically black, Catholic University. Plus, it's one of the leading universities when it comes to sending African-American students on to medical school. And at 45 years, no other university's president has served longer than Xavier's Norman Francis.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, when activists talk about food deserts, they usually mean urban neighborhoods where it's hard to find nutritious and affordable food. In a minute, though, we are going to hear about what some consider the first food desert. Those are areas where most new mothers are not breastfeeding and we'll hear what one writer and activist is trying to do about that. That's ahead.

But, first, it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we hear from people who've made their mark through a lifetime of work and service. The mission of our next guest has been to help young people build their futures through education.

Norman Francis is believed to be the longest-serving university president in the country. He took on the top job at Xavier University of Louisiana back in 1968, just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the president of the nation's only historically black Catholic university, he has steered Xavier through stormy times, from the upheaval of the civil rights movement to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, through the historic recession that's left many historically black colleges and universities reeling. And Norman Francis is with us now to talk about all that he's learned and hopes to teach us through those 45 years on the job, and he's with us now.

Mr. President, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations.

NORMAN FRANCIS: Well, thank you very much and I'm so happy to be here. I have NPR on my radio from work to school, then back.

MARTIN: Oh, I'm glad to hear that, that you could squeeze us in with all your many obligations. I wanted to ask to start, for those who don't know your story. I understand that neither of your parents graduated from high school.

FRANCIS: That is correct.

MARTIN: How did you find your way, not only to college but also to leading a university?

FRANCIS: Well, my parents did not graduate from high school, but they knew education - meaning by that - that was the road to success and, though they did not have it, they and the other parents in our neighborhoods in the South always told us, you are as good as anybody and you've got to work hard at it, but the primary thing you have to do is use your talents, be educated and prepared to compete. And it was a lesson that we all learned and we followed and that's how I got to where I am.

MARTIN: Most people don't grow up, though, wanting to be a university president, especially...

FRANCIS: I didn't.

MARTIN: ...people who are not - right - immersed in an academic environment. I mean, you know, a university president. What's that? So how did you - what did you want to be when you were growing up and how did you get the idea that maybe you could have a career in the academy?

FRANCIS: Well, it's a strange story, but it's a true story as it's true of many of us. Fortunately, a nun who taught me through high school called Xavier and said she had someone who she thought could do very well in college with - get a chance. Now, my father was a barber. I had no idea that I'd ever be able to go to a private school, let alone a state school, but I got accepted to Xavier and got a work study job and I worked four years through school and I was really a math major in college and wanted to - I thought I wanted to teach and really thought that that was going to be my route.

However, I became the first black to be admitted to Loyola's law school and that was sort of a commitment that some of us made that if we were called and our name was called to do something that hadn't been done before, we would accept. So law school was then my career.

Got drafted to the Army, came back right in 1957 when Governor Fawess(ph) was standing in the schoolhouse door and I was asked by Xavier would I spend two years working as the dean of men? And I did, and I figured two years - I owed Xavier a lot, so I'd give two years. Well, the two years turned into now 44 as the president.

But you heard me say my father was a barber and my father had great respect for lawyers. In my little hometown, there wasn't a black lawyer. He was proud that, here, he had a son who was a lawyer and so forth. And I have to tell you the quick story that he never forgave me for not practicing law. He saw a millionaire lawyer and what he got was a poor college president in a nonprofit organization that had to struggle every day for a dollar.

MARTIN: I still want to hear one more story, though, about your years at Loyola when you were the first African-American student admitted to Loyola Law School and I just wondered what that was like.

FRANCIS: Well, let me just tell you. That was probably the greatest days of my life. I met young men who had never gone to law school with an African-American and, today, they are like brothers. They grew up in the - so did I - in the segregated South and what they learned was that we were all human. I say to my closest friend, who was a mayor of the city in New Orleans and then became Secretary of HUD, Moon Landrieu, whose daughter's a senator now and whose son, Mitch, is the mayor of the city. He and I go around now and talk about the '60s and his conversion and my conversion in the sense of being in a place where these young men saw the South with a promise that it was not going to achieve unless they gave it leadership.

And I say this to you - that they gave the leadership to certainly New Orleans and the state that was totally different from what it had had in the past and, if we did make a difference - I'm talking about coming out of segregation. It took a long time to do so and, remember, I had already graduated from law school, spent two years in the Army and I couldn't walk into the front door of a restaurant or a hotel until the civil rights acts of '64, '65.

But the point is we all kept our bearings in a sense of making progress where progress needed to be made and I was so blessed to have been in law school with these gentlemen. I mean, it was a walk in the park.

Now, I must say, when I went in, there was all kinds of talk about - well, you know, law school is going to go to hell in a hand basket because they had admitted an African-American and so forth. I never thought about failure. In fact, Moon and I, when we do this duo on the '60s, I always remind him. I say, Moon, you remember now, we studied together and my statement always was, well, gee whiz, I'm not the smartest in this law school, but I sure am not the dumbest.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANCIS: So it was a kind of community we lived in that was different from what was happening outside of the law school but that we all agreed we had to make it to change.

MARTIN: So you decided to take that job at Xavier. You were the dean of men.

FRANCIS: Right.

MARTIN: And you had various posts in the administration and, at one point - this was in 1968 - I understand that you, at first, turned the job down as president of Xavier.

FRANCIS: Well, it wasn't that I was ambivalent, but I was being asked to take an institution that I had admired even before I'd gotten to Xavier and that's a big issue. How do you accept something that you have had great respect for? And then I was encouraged. Well, why not rethink it? And I did and I accepted and people ask me, what is the greatest reward? It's standing on that stage with a diploma in my hand looking at the face of the next recipient and to see that expression, which says, in fact, I've made it.

One young lady two years ago - I raised - took my hand to shake it. She says, I need more than that. She said, I want a hug. I said, we'll give you that, too, so...

MARTIN: A president who hugs. If you're just joining us...

FRANCIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...we're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with Norman Francis. He is the president of Xavier University of Louisiana. He is believed to be the longest-serving university president in the country. Xavier also has the distinction of being the only black Catholic institution of higher learning in the country.

As I mentioned, you know, Xavier has had many challenges over the years. I mean, first of all, many colleges and universities are struggling with the...

FRANCIS: Right.

MARTIN: ...recession, particularly those that serve people in our population who are not the most well off. That's thing one and then, of course, there is Hurricane Katrina. You reopened...

FRANCIS: Right.

MARTIN: ...the university just literally months after that storm and all that came with it. Of all of these things, what do you think your greatest challenge has been over the years that you've been leading the institution?

FRANCIS: Well, I have to say that everybody would say money. What I have found over these years, which is absolutely correct: mothers and families will struggle to get enough money to send their child to Xavier for one year with the hope that we will find the other three or four years of dollars that would make it so that they can graduate. I mean, it's - again, I see my mother and father struggling to make sure that I got a college education, and the same thing is happening today.

If, as a nation, we are going to crawl back up in the world scene, we're going to have to educate these youngsters and many of them, of course, are coming from families - whether black, white, Hispanic - from families that don't have the funds.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, I mean, there is one bit of calculus that I don't think you'd quarrel with. Well, two. One is that, at a time when there's been a lot of discussion about whether or not this country can remain competitive - or is remaining competitive - in the STEM fields, more than 60 - that means science, technology, engineering and math - more than 60 percent of Xavier's undergraduates are in STEM fields. Why do you think that is? Given all the challenges that you've discussed, you're still doing that. How is that possible?

FRANCIS: These youngsters come to us because they know that statistic, they know what we expect and so we hold them to that. We hold them to high expectations, but we provide the resources for what they need, whether it's more time in the lab for math or for reading, for English or what have you, just to make sure that they are prepared to be competitive.

But, 35 years ago, we started a summer high school program that I would - and I have over the years - encourage other schools to do. We take youngsters in the summertime from seventh - what we call the middle school, before they go to high school. And they can take a course called Math Star. They get descriptions of what it is you need to know and how you need to know it and they are ready to take algebra their first year. The second course we teach in the summertime is a Chem Star; that they're going to take chemistry in their second year, they can come for their four weeks and get Chem Star.

And these youngsters improve their standardized test scores in ways that most people say, gee, how did they do that? Well, they came to a summer school and they spent four weeks - or three weeks, depending - and that means from eight in the morning till eight at night, and they get prepared to go to college knowing what it is. You hold kids to high expectations. You give them support they need. You encourage them.

You know, any child can look at the face of a teacher and tell whether that teacher believes he or she can learn, and the difference becomes bringing out and opening the genie that's in that bottle.

MARTIN: Speaking of success and being a part of success, the job of being a university president is one that people talk about differently now than they used to. Long tenures as presidents of institutions was not uncommon in the past, but it's becoming...

FRANCIS: No.

MARTIN: ...rare. People consider this job one of those kinds of burnout jobs where people last...

FRANCIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...maybe three years, maybe five. At most, ten.

FRANCIS: It's six and a half, I think, now.

MARTIN: Six and a half is like the average.

FRANCIS: Somewhere, somewhere.

MARTIN: What do you think - why do you think you've stayed in this position as long as you have?

FRANCIS: Well, let me say the first condition. You hire people smarter than you and you get out of their way. That's number one, yeah, because no president can be chief financial officer, chief academic officer. It doesn't work. For me, that's what's kept me in the university. You know, I don't have to work hard. Everybody else works hard.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Well, we'll keep that to ourselves, I understand...

FRANCIS: But...

MARTIN: Go ahead. We're almost out of time, but you're almost at a birthday. You're almost 82 years old. You're almost there. Can I be the first to say happy birthday?

FRANCIS: Thank you. Wednesday, 82. I feel good. You know, might not look the same, but I feel good.

MARTIN: Do you know that you're the nation's longest sitting president? And does that matter? Do you care? Does that matter to you? Is that important?

FRANCIS: No. I don't know where those years went. You know, that means how great it has been because it's just like yesterday.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, we call this segment the Wisdom Watch and that's because we like to ask our guests if they have any wisdom to share for those who may be listening and, you know, we often think that you'll want to direct your comments to somebody who is in the same field. In your case, though, I'm wondering - gosh, you have such a range of experience. Somebody - I don't know - maybe other people who are in leadership positions like yourself, maybe who've been there for - who aspire to leadership. You know, how about that? Do you have some wisdom to offer?

FRANCIS: Well, sure. Mine is you should - when your name is called and you feel that you can make a contribution, answer. And we're looking for leaders again in every walk of life, wherever you are. If you've got a talent, step up. Step up. Don't walk away and then work hard at it. But more than anything else, listen. Listen to people, respect people. I think the greatest quality, really, is respecting people as you respect yourself and that goes a long, long way. It's so much easier to smile than to frown and all. If you don't have anything to say, don't say it if it's going to be something that's negative. I think, if a leader, quote, or "people wish to lead," that means they have to trust the people with whom they work. They have to respect them, but they always have to be honest. Honesty is so important.

People, I think, around me know that I'm a big boy. You can tell me what it is that has to be told. Don't tell me what you think I want to hear, and, please, don't deceive me. That's the worst thing you can do. You want to have trust. That trust has to be on a completely level playing field, and for those who are out there listening now, please serve your communities, serve your families and lead. Lead so that others may get a chance to lead as well, or taught to develop their own talents.

It's a great - it's a great profession when you think about the quality of life issues out there today and the fact that the playing field isn't equal for everybody and the only way we're going to make it is if leadership starts to distributing the needs equitably. If you distribute in an unequal circumstance only the equal amounts of the water, then the glass will remain unequal. So we have to equitable as we distribute education and if there are some who need it more than others, they have to get it. But it doesn't mean taking it away from others. It means you will be able to achieve it by treating people equitably in the distribution of what they need for their success.

MARTIN: Norman Francis is the president of Xavier University of Louisiana. That is the nation's only historically black Catholic university. He also has the distinction of being the nation's longest sitting college president and he was kind enough to join us today from member station WWNO in New Orleans.

President Francis, thank you so much for joining us and, once again, happy birthday.

FRANCIS: Well, thank you so much. You've been very kind. No curves. Thank you.

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MARTIN: Coming up, the benefits of breastfeeding are well known. It offers complete nutrition, better immunity and time to bond, but it's harder than it looks. It requires support and some moms get that and many don't. We'll talk about first food deserts. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: It's almost time to celebrate New Year's. Persian New Year's, that is. Our guest tells us how he's making the day a little more fly.

THERON VON GOSARI: We blend. We mix the Iranian and the black culture together, so it's like having, I guess, like Kwanza and Nowruz at the same time.

MARTIN: We're talking Persian New Year with comedian Theron Von Gosari(ph). That's next time on TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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