Francis, Norman C.

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Norman C. Francis



Norman C. Francis has been one of the nation's most respected educators for half a century. As an administrator, and, later, as president, of Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA), he has worked for justice and equality, not only at XULA but throughout the United States. Francis has fought for civil rights and acted as a civic leader, working tirelessly to create fairer political and financial institutions in the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. Moreover, Francis has played an important role in the recovery of Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as chair of the board of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Authority, an agency established by the governor to direct the state's efforts to rebuild areas damaged by the hurricane in the summer of 2005. In each of his leadership roles, Francis has gained respect and admiration.

Norman C. Francis was born on March 20, 1931, in the south central Louisiana city of Lafayette, one of five children of Joseph A. and Mabel F. Francis. His early years were marked by the economic slump of the Great Depression, which made jobs scarce. Joseph Francis supported his family shining shoes and painting houses, while everyone in the family did what they could to help. Norman himself began working at the age of six, milking and pasturing the family cow. In later years, his father worked as a barber, and his shop was a community gathering place for African-American men. When he was grown, Francis remembered that it was while playing checkers with the men at his father's barbershop that he learned how to plan ahead, recognize opportunities, and consider all his options.

Received Work Scholarship to College

The population of southern Louisiana is largely Roman Catholic, and Joseph and Mabel Francis, devout members of the church, sent their children to Catholic schools. When Norman Francis graduated from Lafayette's St. Paul High School in 1948, he planned to enter the U.S. Army because his family had no money to pay for higher education. However, one of the nuns who had taught him at St. Paul contacted a member of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the order that directed Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. The nun arranged a work scholarship for Francis, and he entered Xavier that year, working in the college library to pay his tuition.

XULA is the only historically black Catholic university in the entire Western Hemisphere, as well as the only one founded by a Saint. During the early 1900s, Katharine Drexel, a member of the religious order Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, received a large inheritance from her father. She used the money to open many schools across the country, with the goal of providing a good education for African American and Native American children. One of these was a coeducational high school for black students in New Orleans. By 1925, that high school had grown to become Xavier University of Louisiana. Katherine Drexel's work was honored by the church when she was made a Saint by Pope John Paul II in 2000.

Francis graduated from XULA in 1952. He planned to become a lawyer and entered Loyola University, a Jesuit college that had been founded in New Orleans in 1912. In 1955, he became the first African American student to earn a law degree there. Upon completing his degree, he entered the U.S. Army, joining the Third Armored Division and earning the rank of corporal specialist four.

After completing a two-year tour of duty, Francis left the army and began to consider his civilian career. The civil rights movement was beginning, and Francis was deeply inspired by the cause of justice and racial equality. He wanted to do something to improve the condition of black people in the United States, and he began to feel that working in education might be the best way to do that. He took a job in 1957 as dean of men at his old alma mater, XULA.

Appointed First Lay President of XULA

Between 1957 and 1968, Francis had several different jobs in the XULA administration. He was director of student personnel services, assistant to the president for student affairs, assistant to the president in charge of development, and executive vice president. During this time, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had continued to take responsibility for running the university, but in the late 1960s, the nuns decided it was time for a XULA graduate to become president.

They asked Francis to take the job, and in 1968 he became the first president of XULA who was a layperson, not a member of the clergy. As Francis said in a 2004 interview in The Black Collegian, "My appointment was a major decision by an order of white nuns who thought that it was time for them to step back and let the people they had educated run the institution they had built. That was a big decision, a big decision. Catholic colleges did not have lay presidents, to say nothing of a Black lay president."

Francis has remained president of XULA for almost four decades, becoming the longest sitting university president in the United States. The university has thrived under his administration, more than tripling enrollment and greatly expanding both its course offerings and its campus. By the early 2000s, XULA was awarding more doctor of pharmacy degrees to African Americans and sending more black graduates to medical schools than any other U.S. college. Francis has been awarded 35 honorary degrees in recognition of his academic achievement.

Became Community Leader

In his own life, Francis lives out "the ultimate purpose" of the university that he leads. The XULA Web site states that purpose as "the promotion of a more just and humane society." Francis himself has demonstrated this mission. In addition to working for increased access to academic excellence for African-American students, Francis has continued his work for justice and civil rights in the city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, and the United States as a whole. He has served on dozens of boards, task forces, and commissions on a city, state, and national level and has acted as an advisor to five U.S. presidents.

During the 1960s, as a XULA administrator, Francis supported the civil rights movement by allowing freedom riders to stay in student dorms after their bus was attacked. He continued to work for racial equality by helping to organize black primaries to place more African American candidates in Louisiana elections. In 1972, in order to improve the access of working-class African Americans to financial institutions, he helped found the Liberty Bank of New Orleans, which grew into one of the largest black-owned banks in the country with Francis as chair of its board of directors. He also served on the National Commission on Excellence in Education, helping to write its 1983 report, titled, "A Nation at Risk," which outlined racism and classism within the school system and called for education reform.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, the community once again called on Francis to help. Governor Kathleen Blanco asked him to chair the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA), which had been set up to coordinate the state's massive rebuilding efforts. She also asked him to head the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, which would coordinate funding and donations for the project. Francis was already immersed in repairing and rebuilding the XULA campus, which had been flooded during the storm and suffered extensive damage. However, he readily agreed to take on the additional responsibilities to the community, while still meeting his goal of reopening XULA by January 2006. As reconstruction in New Orleans continued in 2007, Francis remained a high profile leader at XULA and in the community at large. Francis' service to his community earned him respect from a broad range of his fellow citizens.



Black Collegian, February 2004, pp. 79-84.

Black Issues in Higher Education, February 10, 1994, pp. 38-9.

Jet, June 19, 2006, p. 8; January 8, 2007, p.8.

New Orleans CityBusiness, July 7, 2003.

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), December 16, 2006.


"Dr. Norman C. Francis Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom," Xavier University of Louisiana, (January 25, 2007).

"Eleven Awarded Honorary Degrees," Harvard University Gazette, (January 25, 2007).

"Norman C. Francis," Biography Resource Center, (January 25, 2007).

"Students Return To Campuses That Are Forever Changed," Luno Concerns, (January 25, 2007).


Information for this profile was provided by the office of the president, Xavier University of Louisiana.

                                                             —Tina Gianoulis

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Francis, Norman C.

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