Dominic Massa / EyewitnessNews| Twitter:@DMassaWWL

Dr. Norman Francis, whose 46-year career as Xavier University president makes him the longest-tenured current leader of an American university, has announced his decision to retire.

Francis, 83, made the announcement on campus this morning and spoke to reporters at 12:15 p.m. He said the university's Board of Trustees voted to accept his retirement, effective June 30, 2015.

Francis has served as Xavier's president since 1968.A native of Lafayette, he graduated from the university a decade earlier, in 1952.

'For nearly 47 years it's been an honor and a privilege for me to lead this great university,'he said Thursday afternoon. 'I know 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.'

Xavier's board members hailed Francis as a leader on campus and citywide.

'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,' said Michael Rue, chairman of the Xavier board, in a statement.

'Dr. Francis has led Xavier University to forge ahead on the noble path that was blazed by Xavier's founder, Saint Katharine Drexel and he has built sustainable momentum over decades that will continue moving Xavier forward far into the future,' Rue said, adding that enrollment at the university has tripled during Francis' tenure, and the university endowment grew from $20 million to more than $160 million.

A longtime leader in local civic, educational and cultural affairs, Francis also led the school through an extensive rebuilding and recovery process after Hurricane Katrina, which inundated the Gert Town campus with some six feet of water.

Since the storm, the university, with an enrollment hovering at some 3,000 students, has seen a building boom and expansion of its well-known health and sciences programs.That includes its College of Pharmacy, which grew thanks to donations from around the world, including the nation of Qatar.

'I look back after Katrina and I'm often asked how we made the decision to come back in January 2006.I don't know.I just knew that we couldn't stay out,' Francis said in a 2008 WWL-TV interview with Eric Paulsen.

'I didn't know how much water we had.But I said we can't stay out, we're going to come back.

There's something about adrenaline and you don't think about all the little details.All you know is to set yourself a goal and you do it.'

Francis and his wife Blanche, like many Xavier students, faculty and staff, lost his home to the Katrina levee failures.He was appointed by Gov. Kathleen Blanco to serve as chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state agency in charge of planning the state's rebuilding response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

For his efforts and lifetime career in education and public service, in 2006, he was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor, by President George W. Bush.

'These are the sorts of things that happen in one's lifetime that you never expect,' Francis said at the time. 'I accept it for all the people who made this possible, whose shoulders I'm standing on and who helped me be encouraged to work hard and to serve the career that I chose. They all are part of this award. It's not for me alone.'

School officials said that during Francis' tenure as president, Xavier has become first in the nation in the number of African-Americans earning bachelor's degrees in biology, chemistry, physics, and physical sciences. Xavier is fifth in the nation in producing African-Americans who earn science and mathematics PhD's and the first in life sciences. Xavier is the number one undergraduate source of African-Americans who earn medical degrees and third in the nation in producing African-Americans who earn Doctorates in pharmacy.

A native of Lafayette, Francis attended Xavier on a work scholarship and became president of the student body.After graduating, in 1952, he was one of two African-American students selected to integrate Loyola University's School of Law.In 1955, he became the school's first African-American graduate.But since he was not allowed to live in a dormitory, he bunked at Xavier, where he worked at the time.In 1961, he let Freedom Riders live in a Xavier dorm after their bus was bombed in Alabama.

He served in the U.S. Army from 1956 to 1957 and then briefly joined the U.S. Attorney's office to help integrate federal agencies.As a leader in the local civil rights movement, he also offered legal representation to Xavier student body president Rudy Lombard, who was arrested for trying to integrate a Canal Street lunch counter.

Two of his friends and colleagues at the time, fellow lawyers Ernest 'Dutch' Morial and Moon Landrieu, went on to become mayors of New Orleans.

Francis would soon return to the Xavier campus.The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who founded and run Xavier, offered him a position of dean of men.He rose through the ranks to hold other administrative positions, before being named president in 1968.

During his 46 years at the helm of the university, Francis has grown the university into a nationwide leader among historically black colleges and universities. He has also become a nationally-respected education leader, serving as president of the United Negro College Fund and chairman of the board of directors of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and Educational Testing Service.Those are just a handful of the more than 50 boards and commissions he has served since his career began.

He has also been chairman of the New Orleans Aviation Board, the Metropolitan Area Committee education fund, and the board of directors of WLAE-TV.

He and his wife, who met on the Xavier campus as students, have six children and a host of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Read or Share this story: