On a mild Saturday morning in April, Xavier Cole is standing in what would be his future office at Loyola University in New Orleans. The windows overlook a quiet campus, certainly different from the usual bustling of a weekday with students and faculty. 

Cole is taking it all in. This is his future.

In March, Cole made history when he was named the 18th president of Loyola University New Orleans. On June 1, he assumed the role, becoming the first African American, first person of color and second layperson to lead the university. 

A native of Biloxi, Mississippi, Cole received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Mississippi and earned a master’s degree from Miami University in Ohio.

His trajectory into a career in higher education began when he was a resident assistant at Ole Miss, he said. Cole received a scholarship to the school, where he majored in history. His goal was to be a high school history teacher and band director (he plays trombone), but working as an RA, Cole said he realized he “really liked working with young people in their formation process.”

Cole was selected to lead Loyola following the 2022 departure of Tania Tetlow, the Jesuit university’s first woman president and the first who was not a priest. 

Cole has a long history of working in Jesuit institutions, including 20 years at Loyola University Maryland. While there, he received a doctorate in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania.

He later went on to work for Washington College in Maryland. He’s spent the past seven years at Marquette University in Milwaukee — another Jesuit school — where he served as vice president of student affairs before moving to New Orleans for his new job in May.

Shortly after his selection, Cole sat down with Verite to discuss his upbringing, ascent to Loyola’s top leadership position and his hopes for the student body.

Xavier Cole attends Loyola’s annual scholarship reception with his wife, Susan DeBerry Cole. Credit: Kyle Encar for Loyola University New Orleans

Verite: You’re the first person of color elected to lead Loyola University New Orleans in the school’s 111-year history. How does that feel?

Cole: It feels like a great privilege and a privilege that I understand. I’m a person who’s been in Jesuit education for the majority of my career, 26 out of 28 years. So, because of my long relationship with Jesuit Catholic education, I’m committed to its mission. It’s a mission of educating our students in “care-ism” — to be persons for others.  Also, holistically educating them — mind, body and spirit — so they can go back out into the world and be leaders with a moral compass who make decisions that are person-based and could do a lot of good in the world. 

Verite: Tell me about growing up in Biloxi, Mississippi? What was it like? 

Cole: Growing up in Biloxi in the ’70s and ’80s was very different than it is now. Now, it’s much more touristy. Now, with the addition of the casinos and more tourism, it’s a much more bustling place. But what was good about growing up in Biloxi is that it was a diverse environment for Mississippi. There was so much inflow and outflow of people and families with Ingalls Shipbuilding, Keesler Air Force Base, the naval base. There was much more, I think, diversity of people who were not necessarily from Mississippi coming through. 

And so, it gave me a relatively diverse upbringing. But growing up in Biloxi … was not so different than growing up around New Orleans. The cultures are very similar. It’s a very Catholic strip of land between Mobile and New Orleans. The people are extremely friendly and welcoming, with great hospitality. The foodways are deeply based on seafood. I didn’t actually … have my first steak until I was probably 18 years old. I grew up on shrimp and crab and rice and fish, mostly seafood. And I was thinner as a result. But growing up was good. I had a good upbringing with a solid family around me, lots of friends and their families that poured into me and cared about me. 

Verite: What did your parents do? 

Cole: My folks were not together. I lived with my mother, so a single-parent family. My mother was a professional singer on the coast, relatively well-known across the coast. And that’s how she made her living, Rose Wallace. And she was an extraordinary woman. I lost her many years ago in the early 2000s to cancer. But she was not just a performer, an excellent singer and mother. She was also a strong advocate for education for me and my sister Tia. And that was a large reason why I leaned into school.

I was always encouraged because my mother saw potential in me to be a very good student. And she encouraged that. And I would read the newspaper, the Sun Herald, from a very early age, cover to cover because that was what my mother expected of me. She wanted me to understand current news and politics and what was going on around me, to make me a little bit more worldly, even though it was only the news of the Gulf Coast. 

When I was a young boy, I remember the church, our church home, being a place where I had opportunities to publicly speak, to kind of stretch my wings and not be afraid of leading, even at an early age. So, there were lots of seeds planted around the value of education. There was never a question of whether or not I would go to school. It was just a question of how we paid for it. And so, getting a scholarship to Ole Miss was a blessing and I enjoyed my time there.

New Loyola University New Olreans president Xavier Cole meets students on campus during an event announcing his selection as the 18th president of the school. Credit: Kyle Encar for Loyola University New Orleans

Verite: You talked about your mother. Who were your other role models growing up and why? 

Cole: My father’s brother, my uncle Jimmy Roy. Jimmy Roy was a community leader. He was a chemist, a professional man. He served his church. He served the city council. I looked up to him quite a bit for his intellect, his leadership, and I wanted to emulate his path. He was educated, well-educated. And I saw him do great things as a leader in the community locally. 

One of the primary things I learned from Uncle Jimmy is that you need to take care of your own backyard first before you can do anything else. You make sure that physically your block is clean, your yard is cut, your property is taken care of, and that the neighbors around you have their needs met. You take care of your close community first and foremost and then, you can branch out to other things. But you have to take care of your base.

And I’ve always held that teaching close to me. And I’ll employ that same commitment to my Loyola base and family. I’ll always take care of them first. I’ll always be thinking of them first. And then, I’ll look to our community to see what needs are here in New Orleans, and how Loyola could serve to meet those needs and move us positively forward together. 

Verite: Why do you want to do this job as president of Loyola University in New Orleans? 

Cole: There’s not many things more important than teaching our young people and educating them to prepare them for the world and for them to make good decisions that impact people in positive ways. I find that the work, as an educator at this level or at any level, is meaningful. I do believe it’s one of the more underappreciated professions at any level, teaching. So, it’s not just any education. It is our Catholic Jesuit education that focuses on the spirit, faith, hope, and love, which is at the heart of spirituality. God willing, when that is spread liberally, many good things can happen. 

New Loyola University New Orleans president greets students on the campus during a March 24 event announcing his selection as president. Credit: Kyle Encar for Loyola University New Orleans

Verite: What do you want students to experience at Loyola? What do you want them to walk away with?

Cole: I want students to experience falling in love with learning, deeply engaging their faculty and [having] questions that are born of curiosity of learning to deeply engage their peers. A lot of the education that they’ll have is how they think about and share knowledge amongst each other. 

I want them to engage the campus and share their gifts and talents with Loyola, and not be afraid to do that, and not hold those things to themselves. We must be willing to reveal our gifts and then share our gifts with our community. And then, I want them to understand and [interact] with this city as a learning laboratory and a place of deep engagement, and think about staying here to leave their talents here to make New Orleans a better place.

What I want them to leave with is an understanding of what it means to be a servant leader and to think of others before they think of themselves. And if that focus is on others and serving others, then other good things will come today. Money will come, success will come, advance will come when you’re really focusing your attention on the other rather than on yourself. 

So I want our students to leave us unselfish and ready to serve the Lord in their communities. 

Verite: As president, what are your goals? What do you want to do during your tenure here?

Cole: Well, first of all, as a leader, it’s presumptuous to come in and name things and goals that you’d like without actually engaging the community about what they feel we need.

So, it first is assessing the needs of the we, not the I. And my first order of business is to know and understand my community, what their thoughts are about where Loyola should go. That means our faculty, our staff, our students, our alumni, our benefactors and board, we all have dreams for Loyola. And then, once I get a sense of where they want to go, I can then articulate the specific dreams that I have. But I want those to be in alignment with their dreams. I can’t do this alone. No leader can. I could come in with a complete agenda of what I think I know about this community before actually studying the community. That would be a mistake.

It doesn’t mean that I’m going to be frozen and nothing happens in the first year. There’ll be clear things among immediate assessments that we can do or should do that should be quick and easy when it’s to help improve the living-learning environment here at Loyola.

So, I know what this should look like and feel like if it’s successful. But then, up beyond that, the longer, more strategic moves need buy-in. One of the things I know I’ll need to do is invest in this community, invest in our students [so] that they can afford Loyola education, meaning raising money through scholarships to create access for those who can’t afford us, and even those who can barely afford us. And also, I need to invest in our people, making sure that they have salary and benefits and compensation that allows for them to have a standard of living that’s more comfortable for them.

We have a story to tell. I will be working diligently as the president to be the chief storyteller — internally, to our community, help making sure they understand where we’re going, and externally in the city to get buy-in and collaboration within our city. We cannot do this alone and will not do this in isolation. We are of New Orleans. We are of this community.

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Lottie L. Joiner, assistant managing editor at Verite, is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience covering issues that impact underserved and marginalized communities. She...