A son of Haiti rises to leadership at Xavier Univ.
Dr. C. Reynold Verret has been serving as the sixth president of Xavier University of Louisiana since last summer, when he assumed the reins of the only black Catholic university in the U.S.
But it wasn’t until Feb. 26, inside the shiny convocation center built by his revered predecessor, Dr. Norman Francis, that Verret officially was installed in an inauguration ceremony that paid homage to his hard work, Catholic faith and Haitian roots.
“My mother Lorraine gave me my first call to serve,” Verret told hundreds of Xavier students, faculty, administrators and alumni, recalling his mother who was briefly imprisoned by the Haitian government during the early years of dictator Francois Duvalier’s regime. “As a child, I would often hear her tell me, ‘You have to be useful. You have to be of service.’ Those are the words I see lived by the students of Xavier.”
Verret, who came with his mother and siblings to the U.S. in 1963 at the age of 8 to escape the government’s political oppression, became a shining student at a Jesuit high school in Brooklyn and later earned advanced degrees in biochemistry from Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It was Verret’s bootstraps background and personal story of success, which led to administrative roles in higher education, that drew the Haitian ambassador to the United States, Paul Altidor, to the inauguration. Altidor described Verret’s achievements as a point of pride for “the Haitian government, the Haitian-American diaspora and the people of Haiti.”
“Your inauguration today is a testament to the Haitian-American community,” Altidor said. “What you’ve done paves the way for others. Far too often, the media focuses solely on what doesn’t work in Haiti. My mission as ambassador is to shed good light on the many great things happening in Haiti and within our community. Today is one of those events.”
After receiving a blessing from Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who asked the crowd to join in the blessing by raising their right hands, Verret said his personal story is the mission of all “Xavierites.”
St. Katharine started it all
Xavier was established in 1925 by St. Katharine Drexel, who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, and used the inheritance she received from her late father’s banking estate to fund the building of schools and churches for African Americans and Native Americans across the U.S., but particularly in Louisiana and the Southwest.
Xavier graduates, Verret said, are not attaining higher education solely as a means of getting a better job or making higher salaries but using their training to serve others. “Xavierites are serving and leading, they are healing and repairing, they’re empowering the disadvantaged, they are bringing justice,” Verret said. “They are making the world a better place for everyone. Xavier was founded as a gift to the future. Our calling is to take this gift into the future and give it to the world once again.”
Verret quoted from a poem written by Warsan Shire, a Somali-British poet: “I held an atlas in my lap, ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered, where does it hurt? It answered, everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.”
“That’s where Xavierites have been since the founding tradition of St. Katharine – they are everywhere the world hurts,” Verret said.
For nearly two decades, Xavier University of Louisiana has placed more African-American students in medical schools and in doctoral programs involving the sciences than any other university in the country.
“But at Xavier, career success is not an end in and of itself,” Verret said. Education is not solely utilitarian. Education at Xavier has always been education with a purpose, an education to service.”
Verret said one example of Xavier raising up leaders was his predecessor, Francis, who served for 48 years as the school’s president and was the longest-tenured college president in the U.S. when he retired last June. At the inauguration ceremony, Francis, a 1952 graduate of Xavier, helped Verret slip into his ceremonial gold-and-black robe and gave him the ceremonial “chain of office.”
“(Francis) was a steward of this university, a servant of Louisiana and of the nation and a leader as a statesman,” Verret said. “He is a living embodiment of the mission of Xavier. He is the quintessential Xavierite.”
Verret said it would be vital for Xavier to respond to the challenges of the times in higher education, searching to see where it could provide new tools for students in a changing world.
He mentioned cross-disciplinary efforts and expanding opportunities for adult learners who either want to complete their bachelor’s degrees or go on for advanced degrees.
“No matter how hard we strain our eyes, we can’t see what 10 years or thereafter will ask of us,” Verret said. “But it’s important that we give students the tools to define that world. Our role is to be instruments of grace for New Orleans and Louisiana. That’s what Mother Katharine did.”