Water-damaged Xavier University in New Orleans plans to reopen

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- When Norman Francis was a freshman at Xavier University in New Orleans in 1948, his work-study scholarship landed him the job of repairing damaged books in the university library.

These days, Francis, who has been Xavier's president for nearly four decades, is once again fixing things, although this time on a colossal scale: overseeing the repair of the entire university.

The library books, damaged when the library filled with 6 feet of water in Hurricane Katrina, are just one of his concerns because nearly every campus building was waterlogged during the Aug. 29 storm and the massive flooding that followed.

An early estimate of the recovery price tag, including reconstruction, faculty salaries and student financial aid, was about $90 million. Finding the money to pay for the loss is now the daunting task before school officials.

Xavier, the country's only historically black Catholic university, does not have the large endowment that larger universities do. Instead, it has a $50-million endowment primarily restricted for scholarships. Eighty-five percent of its student body receives financial aid. The school's insurance will cover wind damage but not the extensive water damage on the campus.

Now, floodwaters have subsided, but they left behind layers of mildew and mold along with damaged books, furniture, carpeting and a buckled hardwood gym floor that had just recently been installed. The university's physical plant was destroyed and parts of roofs, including the roof of the newest residence hall on campus, were ripped away.

The campus is closed and currently surrounded by construction fencing while cleanup and repair crews fix rooftops and test electrical systems. Crews were dehumidifying the library and science buildings, tearing out mildew-infested walls and doing whatever else it will take to meet the goal set by Francis -- to be open for classes in January.

"The challenge is monumental; we're taking it one day at a time," Francis told Catholic News Service Oct. 13 in a telephone interview from the administration's temporary satellite office in Grand Coteau, La., one of four temporary locations set up for the university's administrative personnel since the hurricane.

The fiscal affairs office is currently at Grambling State University in Grambling, La.; the registrar is at the University of Dallas, and financial aid and resource development offices are based in Baton Rouge, La.

Even when he is not on campus grounds, Francis does not miss an opportunity to boast about Xavier's reputation, noting that it sends the largest number of African-American students to medical schools and that its pharmacy school is the top producer of African-American pharmacists in the United States.

This year, pre-Katrina, the school's enrollment was 4,100. Francis knows that number of students will not be able to return, but he also knows that many students want to come back and he wants to give them the opportunity.

"I'm passionate about it; we will be back," he said. "It might take time, but we'll be back to where we once were."

Tulane and Loyola universities, both in New Orleans and not as damaged by Hurricane Katrina, have offered the use of their facilities to Xavier if the university is unable to get all of its buildings up and running by the projected date.

Francis said the support from other colleges and foundations has certainly helped, but he would like to see more, especially from the Catholic community which is "very generous in giving to social causes." As he sees it, Xavier, founded by St. Katharine Drexel in 1925, is a "natural cause" for Catholics to help because of the school's role in educating African-Americans to be leaders in the church and the country.

Francis, the son of a barber, is keenly aware of the struggles of African-Americans in this country. After graduating from Xavier, Francis was the first African-American to be admitted to Loyola University Law School in New Orleans in 1952. He was offered the presidency at Xavier, as the university's first lay leader, the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

The 74-year-old president, by his account the longest-sitting university president in the United States, was putting in 13- to 14-hour workdays in his determination to get the school back on its feet. His home was destroyed after being under 8 feet of water in the hurricane. Currently, he and his wife are living with family members in Grand Coteau. Francis was also recently named chairman of the newly formed Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation by Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

Despite his hectic schedule, he shows no signs of looking to retire.

"The board told me from day one, I was on probation; when I learned to do it right, I could leave," he said, jokingly. He gives most of the credit to the people with whom he works, saying his administration and faculty members have made the university the success that it is and he is the "biggest cheerleader."

But behind his optimism Francis does not deny that there are plenty of daily frustrations, especially now.

"I never thought I would face (challenges) at this depth," he said. He noted the Scripture passage about God not giving people more than they can bear, and said in this situation God is "really pushing the envelope."

Francis said he was "calling on all the faith I've had to have, from birth to now, especially from growing up in a segregated society where I couldn't go to Communion until everyone else had received (it)."

He said his parents instilled in him the belief that "no matter what people say, you are a child of God." That belief continues to sustain him, as does the knowledge that the school, founded by a saint, will persevere.

"Our grounds are holy grounds," he said.

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Return to Hurricane Katrina News Feature

An AmericanCatholic.org Web Site from the Franciscans and
Franciscan Media     ©1996-2016 Copyright