SANTA FE On the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament hired Norman Francis as president of Xavier University of Louisiana.
Forty-five years later, Francis is still running Xavier, making him the longest-serving president of an American university. He is 82 now, happy that he gave up his original dream of being a small-town lawyer and chose Xavier instead.
Since Francis has been in charge at Xavier, the University of New Mexico has had 12 presidents and New Mexico State University has had 11, including those who served on an interim basis.
NMSU is about to hire another president. Five finalists are coming to the campus in Las Cruces this week. Three of them were presidents whose most recent stays in office ranged from 58 days to three years.
Francis said research shows that a university president averages about eight years on the job. "Ten years and you've done well," he said.
He has surprised himself with his longevity at Xavier.
"I never thought I would spend the rest of my life here," he said in a telephone interview from New Orleans.
His management style is simple, yet bold.
"Always hire people smarter than you are, then get out of their way. No president can make every decision," he said. "You have to have enough courage and confidence to understand that."
With his style he created great expectations.
"I slept well at night.
A great delegator also has to make decisions, sometimes in a flash.
"Faculty members search for the truth," Francis said. "But no decisions are made at faculty meetings."
And so, he said, he also must be decisive to keep steering Xavier ahead.
Xavier is only university that is both historically black and Catholic. Francis sets it apart in other ways, but he never seeks the credit.
"I have great people around me. I work with them. They don't work for me," he said.
He calls Xavier a small school. Its enrollment is a shade under 3,200, down 25 percent from the high point before Hurricane Katrina.
Francis said one of the advantages he has over presidents of bigger universities is that he meets at least six times a year with everybody on the faculty.
E. Gordon Gee, probably the best-known university president in the country, is the antithesis of Francis.
Gee's given first name is Elwood. He is frail and he wears bowties. Gee enjoys playing the rube, but he is country slick.
At 69, Gee has been president of five universities since 1981. All the while, he promoted himself more than his schools.
Gee went from West Virginia to Colorado to Ohio State to Brown to Vanderbilt and back to Ohio State. Campus life in Columbus, Ohio, does not take all his time. Gee jet-sets on other people's money to raise money for Ohio State. He also pads his $2 million salary while those he supposedly serves try to pay down their students loans.
Gee received $2.2 million between 2006 and 2010 in director fees and stock awards for serving on corporate boards, according to Forbes. He was a director of Bob Evans Farms Inc., Hasbro Inc., Limited Brands Inc., Massey Energy Co. and Gaylord Entertainment.
I bring up Gee mostly because too many university executives use him as an example when they make excuses for heavy turnover among campus presidents. Too bad we have to search for a new president every three or four years, but those are the times we live in, they will say. Just look at Gordon Gee.
By itself, longevity by presidents is not the answer to improving universities.
Graham Spanier had a 16-year run as president of Penn State. He now stands accused of concealing the rapes of boys by Jerry Sandusky, for 30 years an assistant football coach under Joe Paterno.
Paterno arrived at Penn State in 1950. He became the head football coach in 1966 and remained until his firing in 2011, at the height of the Sandusky scandal. Paterno pushed around presidents, none of whom had the guts to fire him.
Gee and Spanier are big names in higher education, but universities ought to be emulating Xavier and hiring presidents like Francis.
Francis does not glorify his work. He says running a university can be lonely.
"You hear the voices of your critics and the silence of your friends," he said.
Here's hoping NMSU's next president hears more than that and stays around long enough to make a difference, the way Francis has.