Norman Francis, President of Xavier University.

Norman Francis, 83, the nation’s longest-tenured university president, has announced he is retiring from the helm of Xavier University, a historically Black Catholic institution in New Orleans, effective June 30, 2015.

“After nearly 47 years, I believe that the time has come to take the brightly burning torch turned over to me by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and pass it on to new leadership,” Francis said at university convocation Sept. 4. “I do so with the passionate confidence and absolute certainty that Xavier is better prepared than ever to continue its educational and spiritual mission, and to build on its tradition of excellence.”

The relationship between Francis and Xavier began about 66 years ago, just after World War II, when the 17-year-old barber’s son came from Lafayette, La., to join the university’s student body as a freshman. He quickly emerged as a leader, according to a school press release.  He was elected class president every year of his undergraduate study and student body president in his senior year.

After graduating from Xavier in 1952, Francis served in the U.S. Army for two years before going on to earn his law degree at Loyola University in New Orleans, becoming the first African-American student to integrate that school.

He then returned to his alma mater in 1957, serving 11 years as Xavier’s dean of men.

On April 4, 1968, as the nation reeled from the news of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, Francis accepted an offer to become Xavier’s president. It would not be the first time Francis shepherded the school through difficult times. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, he oversaw the revival of the school’s flood-damaged campus just five months after the natural disaster.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of his legacy. Over four-plus decades, Xavier’s enrollment has tripled and its endowment has grown exponentially from $20 million to more than $160 million. And, a campus of a mere handful of buildings and trailers has now expanded to 16 buildings over 63.4 acres of lush land. Under his leadership, Xavier has also become recognized as a rich ground for the production of Black graduates in the medical and science fields.

Francis’ leadership also went beyond the boundaries of Xavier. He served as chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, appointed by then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco to help plan the rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. He also served on the National Commission on Excellence in Education and, in that capacity, is credited for his contributions to the modern-day reform of K-12 education.

In 2006, then-President George Bush awarded Francis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, for his contributions to the field of education.

Praise and well wishes have been pouring in from many quarters.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., called Francis a close family friend who had “earned” his retirement after 60 years of service. “He is one of the most admired and respected leaders not only in New Orleans and Louisiana, but in our nation today. In an extraordinary career, he took an active and vital leadership role during the tumultuous decades of civil rights battles in Louisiana. Decades later, he helped Gov. Blanco guide our state out of one of its darkest hours after Hurricane Katrina,” Landrieu said in a statement.

Michael Rue, chairman of the Xavier University Board of Trustees, called Francis a quintessential Xavierite. “We all wish Dr. Francis could remain as Xavier’s president for at least 50 more years. We take solace in the realization that Dr. Francis will be forever with us through the institution he helped shape.”

Rue said the board is not yet ready to discuss the search for Francis’ replacement.

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO