Katrina & Beyond

Xavier University Hopes for January Reopening

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Renee Montagne talks with Norman Francis, president of Xavier University, about how the school fared after Katrina and what resources it has to bounce back. He says the school will be ready to reopen in January.


When the levees broke in New Orleans, the historically black Xavier University turned into a lake, with laboratories underwater, library books soggy and now mold everywhere. Dr. Norman Francis has been president of Xavier for 38 years. We called him at his Xavier University in exile office in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, where he's vowing that the school will be back and soon.

Dr. NORMAN FRANCIS (President, Xavier University): We were serving young people and families that were not well-off, but who were very bright. There's just no connection between being bright and being poor. And so we were serving very bright kids who were very poor. And we did a very good job at it. We have produced 25 percent of the black pharmacists in this country, and now are number one in this country producing young people going to medical school in the nation with all the institutions out there.

MONTAGNE: How widely are your students scattered?

Dr. FRANCIS: They are all over the place. I'd say they are the four corners of the United States. The institutions in this country have called, have accepted the students and have promised them free tuition if they didn't have it, and they are educating these youngsters now, and getting credits, so that when they come back, they will not have lost a big beat in their education, and...

MONTAGNE: And do you have any indication, though, if they will or even can come back when you're ready to take them back?

Dr. FRANCIS: Well, the way I can describe it is, we're getting little notes back from youngsters who are calling us and sending messages to their friends and saying, `We are so pleased at what we're getting now, but we definitely want to come back home. We want to come back to Xavier.' We know they will come back, but the critical thing for us is the timing of when, and we are shooting for middle of January, and...

MONTAGNE: What's it going to take to do that?

Dr. FRANCIS: Obviously, money. What we're faced with now is, one, reconstructing the campus, and then getting students whom we know are eager and ready to go, the financial aid that they're going to need when they come back. Eighty-five percent of those youngsters were on financial aid before Katrina, and you could imagine now that their fathers and mothers have lost homes, have lost jobs and the like, their need for financial aid is going to be greater than ever. It's going to be a massive effort, but there are people in there now using the blowers to sort of dehumidify the buildings and the like. We're using portable generators and so forth, and if the city comes back with electricity, which I pray God is any day now, and water, we have people waiting to get in on the campus, clean the campus up.

MONTAGNE: Do you have a number that you're shooting for?

Dr. FRANCIS: Well, we know that if we were to add what it'll cost--if we get the insurance that we should have, that gap will be somewhere between $15 million and $18 million, between what the insurance will cover and what we will need. And the flood damage is normally a FEMA responsibility, but we've learned that the Congress five years ago took private colleges and non-profit organizations out of support from FEMA for flood damage. State institutions can get it. So that's why we have to go to the Congress and say, `OK, you've got to give us a special allocation of funds where you've taken us out of the FEMA allocation.'

MONTAGNE: Dr. Francis, you sound pretty optimistic. Have you woken up any morning in this last few weeks and thought to yourself, `We're not going to make it'?

Dr. FRANCIS: No. Let me put it this way, I don't sleep as long as I have slept in the past, and that wasn't long then. And I'm not naive. I know this is going to be difficult. I know that it's going to take a lot of work. But if you don't have faith, believe me. Every day we have opened our doors in the 38 years I've been president has been a miracle, and so we believe in miracles, and if we get the support, we will be back.

MONTAGNE: Norman Francis is the president of Xavier University, an Historically Black College in New Orleans. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. FRANCIS: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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