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Norman Francis, the nation's longest-serving university president, receives in 2006 the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

White House Photo Office via Xavier University of Louisiana

The nation’s longest-serving university president, Norman Francis, said Thursday he will retire next summer after 47 years leading a single institution, Xavier University of Louisiana.

He has been associated with Xavier, a historically black and Roman Catholic university in New Orleans, for most of the past 66 years.

Francis, now 83, first arrived there at age 17. He was class president, student body president and then – after time in law school, the Army and as a lawyer tasked with desegregating federal government agencies – university president in 1968.

The average university president is on the job about seven years. Short tenures are “not going to cut it,” he said, though he did not recommend everyone spend nearly a half-century on the job.

“It’s a tough job for a president coming in even now to be able to assess what an institution’s capabilities are and how they fit with where the country’s needs are and how you recruit people who have the compassion as well as the commitment to educate them, so two or three years is not going to be enough,” he said.

To condense his perhaps immeasurable insight into leadership, Francis said presidents have to serve before they can lead; listen more than they talk; hire people smarter than they are; and give subordinates authority but always know it’s the president who must take responsibility.

The changes for Americans, black Americans and New Orleans have been obviously enormous during his life and his tenure. He was the first African-American graduate of Loyola Law School in New Orleans, and not only did he lead Xavier through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, but also the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

The challenges for institutions like Xavier – private, religious and historically black – are perhaps as acute as ever, though he’s said the institution he is leaving behind is strong.

Francis, who was on the federal commission that authored A Nation at Risk, the landmark 1983 study of what the nation’s endemically mediocre educational system, said much of that report rings as true today as it did then.

But there are new challenges and new spins on old challenges, from the disparate educations offered to poor Americans – especially poor black Americans – to the financial aid programs being “strangled” by Congress. Historically black colleges and universities are finding a future that is “not as, quote, bright as it used to be – not to say it was bright, but it’s not going to be an easy row to hoe.”

HBCUs are being "greatly" challenged now as their traditional students are suffering from economic and educational disparities, he said.

That quickly becomes a problem. “Because the families we serve have been hit hard by the economy and [they've] been hit hard by the institutions from which the students are coming – elementary and secondary school," Francis said. "And it’s not going to be easy in the future to recruit students who have been totally and reasonably educated in K-12."

At the same time, the very talented minority students are being recruited (and understandably so) by major non-HBCU institutions. But they are only looking for four or five at a time, Francis said, while HBCUs are looking for 400 or 500 such students a year.

Francis arrived at an institution, the university said, that could have fit on a single city block. He will leave behind one that has 16 buildings, 63 acres and a $160 million endowment. About 3,200 students attend Xavier, three-quarters of them black. Its students have one of the lowest loan default rates of any HBCU, and 34 percent of them graduate within six years.

Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, praised Francis’s tenure.

“Dr. Francis exemplifies Xavier’s mission to not just have students graduate and go on to jobs and careers, but also to contribute to the promotion of a more just and humane society and to take on roles of leadership and service,” Duncan said.

Francis also got other congratulations, including a call from comedian Bill Cosby. 

It was not immediately clear who the nation's second-longest serving university president is.

Among specialized institutions, Southwestern Christian College in Texas, which awards bachelor's degrees only in biblical studies and religious education, has a president, Jack Evans, who has been in office 47 years.

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