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Catholic College and Universities

X marks the spot

NCR Staff, New Orleans

The Xavier Herald headline tells the tale: “Fewer minorities are going to college; study says number of blacks in college isn’t growing.”

But the numbers are growing at Xavier, the nation’s only university that is both African-American and Catholic.

What’s the draw? High expectations, challenging academic standards, an ambitious student body and something to do with black and Catholic -- though there are more Baptists (35 percent) than Catholics (33 percent).

Xavier is where a young Wynton Marsalis polished his trumpet playing in the junior music school. Almost 40 percent of Xavier’s 2,873 undergraduate students -- 90 percent of them African-American -- are biology majors (a major source of black premedical and pre-dental grads). Twenty years ago the science faculty sat in on each others’ classes for 12 months to more tightly coordinate the curriculum and eliminate overlap.

Xavier is different. The first school bus was not for the sports teams but for the choir. There’s a pharmacy school that produces about 100 PhD pharmacists annually. It’s a campus to which 1956 Xavier graduate and world-class soprano Annabelle Bernard, after 30 years center stage, happily returns this year to teach.

Two other Xavier greats later returned to its classrooms are 1976 graduate, jazz clarinetist Michael White (recipient of the Royal Norwegian National Music Medal of Honor and France’s highest award, Chevalier of Arts and Letters) and 1962 graduate, painter and sculptor John Scott, whose large public sculptures can be seen in cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, New Orleans and Birmingham. Both men are currently on sabbatical.

Xavier’s black students “are not here to avoid racism, they know there’s racism out there,” said philosophy professor Joseph LeFevre. “They’re here because of the university’s supportive educational environment.”

Kim Smith of New Orleans, a junior majoring in physics and engineering, said that Xavier offers a “warm environment and strong teacher-student relationships.” At Xavier after 11 years in “95 percent white” Catholic schools, she knew Xavier would meet her educational needs -- and knew enough about “Catholic” to expect more.

Standards at Xavier aren’t fuzzy; they’re firm. Visiting rap groups are banned unless they clean up their lyrics. Harold Vincent, Arts and Sciences dean, crossing the campus one day heard raucous rap coming from a student’s car stereo. He stopped to talk with the student and explained: Not at Xavier. The student complied and apologized.

“Heck, until maybe 1955-’60, we couldn’t play jazz on campus, and this is New Orleans,” said President Norman Francis, a 1952 Xavier mathematics education major. That was because Sr. Elise Sisson, music department head, said she knew the students could handle jazz -- she wanted them to be able to handle grand opera, too.

Increasing enrollment

Twenty percent more students apply than can be accommodated. Francis, president for 30 years and buoyed by the new dormitory and new science facilities, cautiously increased freshman enrollment from 743 in 1997 to 847 this year.

Xavier’s values, standards and care show up in many ways. No sleeping in class, no skipping class. Deirdre Labat, vice president for academic affairs and for two decades a biology professor, said that students “watch their language, watch their behavior, and if they miss class we go to their adviser and say, ‘What’s going on?’ ”

“A couple of times we’ve been able to save kids from disaster,” she said. “Do all the kids appreciate [close monitoring]? Not especially. They came to university to get away from that. But later we get the letters that thank us. Does it mean we hold a hard line sometimes? Yes.”

Arts and Sciences dean Vincent, a former physics professor who has spent 32 years at Xavier, said “Today’s [Xavier] kids are not rebellious. They know what’s going on in society and where they want to go. They are firm in their commitment to do what it takes to get there.”

Labat said, “The kids today are smarter, more challenging. They don’t accept everything you say just because you say it, and they’re achievers. They really believe they can do it.”

If these students are ambitious, it helps that Xavier’s values and opportunities were built in at the start. There are 103 historically black colleges and 220 Catholic colleges in the United States -- but only one that is both. And, possibly unique for a Catholic college in that era, Xavier was coed at its start in 1915 (though only this year opened its first coed dorm building). Seventy percent of the students are female.

Xavier was founded in 1915 by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament as a high school, with a teachers education department added two years later. In 1925 came the College of Education and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, including a premed program, with a College of Pharmacy in 1927.

Founder had great foresight

President Francis said, “Katherine Drexel and the sisters had great foresight in choosing what they wanted for Xavier. They looked at where African-Americans could always find employment. Traditionally it was preaching, teaching or healing.” Drexel founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in 1985 to work among Native Americans and African Americans.

“The sisters started opening elementary and high schools in the South, realized they needed teachers and opened the normal school. They attracted so many eager and bright students, they said let’s do a broader education -- that’s when they founded the College of Arts and Sciences. They built in the sciences early on -- imagine having a small school, enrollment maybe 400, with a College of Pharmacy,” Francis said.

Today the doctor of pharmacy program attracts black and white students. While Xavier is still a liberal arts school, there’s been a dramatic tilt toward the sciences in the past two decades. Too far a tilt, suggests Bernard McGhee, Xavier Herald editor in chief and a mass communications major.

“It’s an issue with me that sciences get more of the attention,” he said. “It even rubs off on the attitudes of the [science] students.”

The science emphasis in a college where business and education had traditionally been preeminent majors came not from U.S. anxieties about Russia’s sputnik in the 1950s, or similar technology-lag worries, but because the faculty took a magic show on the road after a spate of articles on the lack of minorities going to graduate school in the health sciences. “African-American kids were not getting the exposure they should have had,” said Francis.

Faculty began going to local high schools with predominantly black student bodies and offering to perform scientific “magic” tricks for chemistry and biology classes. They added science to Xavier’s existing summer programs.

Then came the summertime Stress on Analytical Reasoning -- SOAR -- course. Francis, who has served on the Educational Testing Service College Boards governing body, watched as SOAR enabled youngsters with Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of 700 (out of a possible 1,600) to improve by 150 to 200 points, enough to qualify for many colleges and universities.

Soon there was a Big Daddy SOAR for science students, SOAR I for engineering, SOAR 2 for computer sciences, open to youngsters in the summer of their junior year in high school. They stay on campus for a month.

‘How are you doing this?’

Then the Xavier faculty reached down into junior high with Math Star, Chem Star, and Excel for those interested in writing. Educators began coming to Xavier and asking, “How are you doing this?” Now, for two days every summer, Xavier’s faculty is available to “anybody who wants to come and talk about it,” Francis said. Much of the information is on the Internet: www.xula.edu.

In effect, said Francis, “we extended the school year for high school kids an extra four weeks. It ought to be more than a nine-month year.”

Each summer now 1,400 students come in from all over the United States. Those under junior year cannot stay overnight on campus. They must stay with relatives in New Orleans.

To bring in the high school students, Xavier went out for money. Two four-year Howard Hughes Foundation grants, one for $1.8 million, one for $1.4 million, footed much of the bill. “And we make the students pay a little something,” he said.

“As we look back,” said Francis, “I attribute what happened in the sciences solely to a very devoted faculty.” Dean Vincent smiled. When asked if he’d had a couple of week’s summer vacation, Vincent replied, “I got a few days. Dr. Francis finds more ways to get you to do things during the summer than you’d believe.”

As an indication of how competitive Xavier’s summer programs are, Francis said, “You know, I might be able to lean a little on admissions to get your student into Xavier, I could never get one into the high school program.”

Xavier has 203 faculty for 2,600 undergrads. Like most schools, it has its internal legendary names. “I got here [as a student] in 1948,” President Francis said. “Chemistry professor Peter Paytash was educating young people to go on to medical and dental school. Great art students under Sr. Lurana Neely -- many going on to graduate programs.

“Attendance at the annual grand opera production was mandatory for 25 years. The voices were unbelievable. These sisters who came from the East! Sr. Elise’s family was part of the opera stage. She ran music and got what she wanted,” Francis said.

She wanted a junior music school. Sr. Marie Cecilia Allwein ran it for 6-, 7- and 8-year olds. And Wynton Marsalis was one of them.

A more modern Xavier legend is J.W. Carmichael, chemistry and premed professor, a white Arkansan with red hair and wide suspenders who in the 1970s initiated the programs that made Xavier science teaching so cohesive. Carmichael, chosen by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education as a national teacher of the year in 1990, wore his first tuxedo when he went to New York that year to accept the Charles A. Dana Award for teaching excellence.

‘We’ve standardized’

Vice President Deidre Labat said, “We’ve standardized. Xavier doesn’t suit every faculty member, just as it doesn’t suit every student. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong and we’re right.”

Francis comments that some would say that’s telling the teacher what to teach and interfering with academic freedom. The Xavier president takes that in his stride.

Eighty-seven percent of Xavier’s faculty have earned doctorates, 35 percent are female, 36 percent black, and the student-teacher ratio is 14 to one. Xavier premed graduates report that in medical school their colleagues are surprised at how much hands-on lab experience Xavier students get as undergraduates.

Xavier doesn’t just aim for the best for its students, but also for its teachers. Philosophy professor LeFevre, a chemistry professor before gaining a philosophy doctorate, was well placed to coordinate the implementation of Xavier’s new $3 million Kellogg Foundation-funded high-tech Center for the Advancement of Teaching, directed by Todd Stanislav, a biology professor.

Projects in the electronic classrooms, accessible to Xavier’s faculty, range from familiarization with the Worldwide Web, to collaborative learning, to networked teaching, to faculty orientation. Professors Schifa Cheng and Bryan Klassen, for example, will develop organic chemistry Web sites that include course introductions, teaching philosophies and study guides -- Web tools for learning organic chemistry.

Four years ago the National Science Foundation started looking around to see who was doing what and discovered two things about Xavier. 1) It ranked first in the number of black students receiving undergraduate degrees in the physical sciences and first in the life sciences -- even without having a medical or dental school.

2) “NSF found out they weren’t funding us,” Francis said. Now Xavier has a $10 million-over-five-years grant for equipment, renovations and scholarships.

“We’re going to do with this NSF grant what we did in medicine -- increase the numbers in the graduate programs. Look at the number of minorities getting PhDs nationally -- 16 in math and computer science. That’s pitifully poor.”

“Our bottom line,” said Francis, “is we want to improve the number of students going on to graduate and professional schools. We want to so structure their Xavier experience that they have the option to go work or graduate school when they leave.

“We have six grads at Microsoft’s headquarters,” he said. “They went straight there. Some corporations encourage kids to go on to graduate studies. Computer science majors -- that’s a growing department.” The first floor of the new science building is already operational, he said.

“We’re not looking to be a large institution. The virtue is in whether we’re a quality institution,” said Francis. Then his enthusiasm got the better of him.

“Seen the new library yet?” he asked. “When I was here, Xavier students used to go to libraries all over New Orleans for what they needed. Now,” he said, with a touch of pride, “other people’s students come to our library.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998