Xavier University President Reynold Verret last week announced the most extensive fundraising campaign in the institution’s history. The “Press Forward and Fear Nothing” campaign’s goal is to raise $500 million in three years, leading up to Xavier’s centennial in 2025.
Verret noted four strategic goals as the university approaches its historic 100th year. Through this campaign, the university seeks to allocate $250 million, half the total goal, to increase affordability and access to financial aid, invest in the student body with a holistic approach, expand academic programs, and improve the campus infrastructure.
Verret became Xavier’s sixth president in 2015 after a unanimous vote from the board of trustees. The native Haitian immigrated to New York in 1963 at age 8, where he found his passion for science.
Verret received his undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Columbia University, graduating with honors. He received a doctorate in biochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and did a postdoctoral fellowship at the Howard Hughes Institute for Immunology at Yale University and the Center for Cancer Research at MIT.
Verret said his goal is to continue to elevate Xavier students’ academic experience. He also wants to make sure the only historically Black catholic university in the country is recognized globally.
Verret sat down with Verite this week to give an in-depth look at Xavier’s centennial campaign and his vision for the future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Verite: The role of Xavier has evolved and changed over the last century. What is the role of Xavier today and for the next 100 years?
President Verret: The vision may have evolved, but the mission has not changed. I want to be clear about that. Vision means that we look, we discern where we are needed and what is required of us. To use a very Christian expression: Read the signs of the time. Where is our education needed, who needs it, and what are the barriers now as well as asking what the barriers to students assessing and taking advantage of the education we offer? So those are things that we look at very clearly. As we’re looking at this capital campaign, it is very much looking at what we need, to be relevant and competent for the future so that Xavier can continue being a service, not only to its students but to the community that they go to serve and also to the region and nation as well.
Verite: One of the campaign’s goals is to invest in the well-being and success of the entire student. What does that mean to you?
President Verret: It means they’re intellectual, and their minds are important, but when we speak to entire students, it’s mind, body, and soul. “Mind & Body” means that students’ well-being is a word that’s much deeper than happiness. It’s much deeper than economic success. It’s satisfaction [around] what I’m doing, and I have the wherewithal to persevere and to go on and continue serving. “Well-being” means the capacity for leadership where leadership is required. But what keeps you going is that joy of what we are doing.
Verite: The centennial campaign handout emphasized Xavier’s commitment to support the holistic student. Explain what that means.
President Verret: One of the important issues today is mental health. The challenges of coming of age at this time differed from when I was growing up. Many of our students have come with certain challenges, and we need to support them. And mental health means mental well-being. It’s not just a means for clinical diagnosis. It means to be able to manage our stresses, to be able to persevere, to manage all the difficulties and means of just being young today. And there are a few. It also means the capacity to be of service. Our students not only serve inside, but also you see them in the community differently. So how do we facilitate those as well? It also means the spaces for that to happen — the gathering space for our students, great cafeterias, the libraries, and the performance spaces that make this campus a place you want to be and where you can spend a good time growing and developing here. That’s important. So a very old expression in Latin called “Mens sana in corpore sano,” [which means] Healthy mind, healthy body. You want to keep the two together.
Verite: The campaign material also talks about being founded on the idea of “What if?” Can you elaborate more on that?
President Verret: Well, going back to the mission given to us by Mother Katharine, [which was to] contribute to a more just and humane society and surely educate the students of the underserved, Blacks at the time, and Native Americans. In that mission, if you read between the lines, it is just that we should be open to those students who need them. You read the bio of Dr. Norman Francis that was recently published, Leo Sams, and others who came here and how they were supported. Not all of them were ready and able to pay. Xavier had to make it happen here. So others stepped in the way to make it happen for them. We need to be able to do that.
It’s important that we make Xavier affordable so that no young person, woman, or man who comes to Xavier is denied a Xavier education if they’re willing, able, and have the passion to do it. Now we are not there yet. The point is that that mission calls [us] to be there.
Verite: One thing ingrained in me when I was a student was the idea, “Leave ready. Leave ready.” ‘How will this new funding continue to further that idea of “Leave ready?”
President Verret: We have two dimensions. One is what we do with our faculty and key staff and also what we do with the facilities on campus. The faculty is the essential that made you and others leave ready by having high expectations, also giving you what you need, and getting you to discover the skills and the gifts you have not developed yet, and to make sure that by the time you have them, you have them so that you can put it to play. We need to be able keep these faculty here by giving them the space to grow as educators, teachers, and mentors for our students. That’s important. Xavier’s not a school one learns from class; it’s about doing.
The other piece is the spaces. We need to teach, and we need the classrooms, but we need the studios and laboratories. We need the space that is there so that our students can apply themselves with the faculty. The space, physical spaces are important as well.
Verite: Speaking of the physical space, are there any plans to improve the neighboring community in any capacity or partner with them in any way?
President Verret: Yes, there are. Those are evolving plans. We just finished our master plan. We asked what we needed to do in the regional community. But that partnership is different from another decision made just at Xavier. It needs to be made together. For example, our most immediate community, Gert Town, we need to be speaking with the residents of Gert Town. Some of the things that we want to do in Gert Town, for example, is actually build community. For example, if we built a playing field, I would like it to be used at night by youth schools so that it’s a place for families.
Verite: You grew up in Haiti. Did you ever see yourself as a president of a university?
President Verret: The answer is no for a number of reasons. I grew up in Haiti, and I grew up in Brooklyn because I had two childhoods. I left Haiti when I was less than 8 years old. I knew I wanted to be a scientist very early in my life, even though I couldn’t fully tell you exactly what it took or all the details. And I enjoy teaching. I also discovered that in high school, but surely when I was in college, and that combination as an educator was there. So becoming a president is truly a calling that comes later in life when you’ve done some things, as you said, when you are ready to use that word. And if you had asked me in my thirties when I was teaching at my lab, I don’t think becoming a president was in my mind.
Verite: So when you were presented with the opportunity to be President of Xavier, why did you take it? Why did you choose to be president?
President Verret: I can tell you quite honestly I got a call. I was in my office in Savannah [State University]. And I got an email asking me to call someone. And I called them. And they [told] me I’d been recommended for the search and if I would consider it. It took me five or 10 minutes to answer, and part of that is because I knew Xavier. I knew Xavier for a number of reasons and because I taught at Tulane University in chemistry. I had some of my former students on the faculty at Xavier. We used to come to church to mass in the chapel, now the art gallery. So I knew Xavier very well.
The other piece of Xavier that I knew is also that I had interacted with Xavier students going back, even when I was a graduate student post-doctorate at MIT. We used to invite students from a number of HBCUs and invite students from Xavier. And I would get these students, students would apply, and they would get recommendations from professors. I would get letters from faculty and chairs of chemistry, writing things about students. And then they always stood out for me.
Verite: When you learn about Xavier’s rich history, it’s powerful. One of the biggest things was when the Freedom Riders came to stay [on campus after being attacked during the bus trip in Alabama]. Do you remember when you learned about that? How did that make you feel?
President Verret: Well, I knew about the Freedom Riders. I’m a ‘70s kid,’ so we knew that the Freedom Riders … So we knew the stories, and I knew they came. But when I learned that they had come to Xavier. Xavier stood in the way, the same way Mother Katharine stood in the way, got in the way. That was an impression. It’s part of that continuing mission. Xavier’s been consistently doing that, trying to do the right thing. And, returning to that expression, “Do they not deserve the best?” Not that we always succeed, but that’s what we aim for.
Verite: Is there a plan in the campaign vision to preserve moments like the Freedom Riders [staying] on campus or memorialize them in any way?
President Verret: We memorialize things at Xavier by documenting and telling the story. Because we are narrative people, we are all looking to put a historical plaque in front of St. Michael’s, but the plaque is something that only some people will notice. It’s about telling the story. But it has to tell the story of why Xavier. Also, it is important to tell the story of our past. It’s important to talk about our future. It’s important to talk about what’s expected of us.
I’m sure that when Mother Katharine stepped in, it was about the future of Xavier. I’m sure when Norman Francis became president, it was about the future of Xavier. I just stepped into that role. We have to be focused on the future while looking at the past to say, “Are we faithful to why we were established?” And that’s the Freedom Riders. Xavier never fully bought into Jim Crow, even during the Plessy vs. Ferguson period, and the fact that Xavier managed to establish itself despite being [in] an unwelcoming city. The fact that Xavier’s establishment, in many ways, rescued New Orleans in a significant way. That piece reminds me of why we are here.
One of the pieces we talk about in our strategic plan is our commitment to being present to repair the world. And repairing the world means being involved in helping the conversations that occur and standing for students who are confident to lead and be involved in those great discussions and bring the spirit of service to Xavier. The ethos of Xavier is other-centered, not self-centered. You think about it. That other center is exactly whom are you called to serve. You’ll see this in our graduates. They are needed in the world right now and most especially this time.
Verite: St. Katharine Drexel, a woman, founded Xavier. Wiith the majority of the student population being women, does the campaign have any specific initiatives to support and uplift the women of Xavier?
President Verret: Yes, it does. Xavier was the first Catholic institution in the country that admitted women and men in the class together. That did not occur at other Catholic institutions until after the World War or close to it. So Xavier’s always been committed to that.
Likewise, we have a parallel commitment to our young men because we’ve seen a decline in college aspirations of young men, especially young Black men in this country. That commitment to building the healthy society that we build means that we need to be committed to the education of all students, but also equity, justice, and truly honoring each other — not being so self-centered as to forget the interest of whoever’s sitting next to you. And that’s been Xavier, and I think we need to continue that. I think that’s why we honor young women who lead and serve and put women in leadership at Xavier. And you’re already seeing it. You see it among graduates. You’ll see someone like [former U.S. Department of Labor] Secretary [Alexis] Herman or the Chief Apothecary at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center [Patrice Dupart].
Verite: The most well-known quote from Xavier founder Mother Katharine Drexel was “Press Forward, Fear Nothing. It’s also the theme of the centennial campaign. How do you embody that quote daily?
President Verret: Well, we always live with a measure of uncertainty. Our future has yet to be fully discovered; whoever claims that, I don’t know. So we always make our decision with some level of uncertainty and apprehension. We make our best decisions, and we do our work very well. And when we decide, we do press forward. Fearing nothing comes back from that other important piece in our seal that says, “With God’s help.” So we do it in prayer. I do recall the story of how Dr. Francis [made] his decision to reopen the school [after Hurricane Katrina]. He said, “I was first up on my knees, I prayed, and then I got up and made that decision.” That’s not a story. That’s true. So we are doing this with God’s help. We’re doing this because we are carried in prayer by lots of people.
Verite: Is there anything else that you want readers to know about you, Xavier University or the campaign?
President Verret: I would say that I would like anyone to know that investing in Xavier, given its success and what it will accomplish, is where one can see the great yield for that investment. So a great return on investment would dwarf any other possibilities that what we are accomplishing and what we can accomplish should be a cause of great joy to anyone who joins us. So we look forward to others joining us on our journey.
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