Why does tiny Xavier University of Louisiana, with an enrollment of just 3,000 students, produce more black doctors than any other university — private or public — in the country? The answer, according to a new piece in the New York Times magazine by Nikole Hannah-Jones, is that the New Orleans-based HBCU is willing to do something that most other institutions of higher learning aren’t: Bring in students who were left unprepared for college by underperforming high schools and then bring them up to speed.
Arguably no journalist covers race and education better than Hannah-Jones. Her recent piece for This American Life on the predominantly black Normandy school district, just outside St. Louis, is a master class on the subject. In the new piece for the Times Magazine, she assesses the legacy of Norman Francis, who presided over Xavier’s emergence as the nation’s top producer of black medical school students and who, after 47 years at the University’s helm, retired earlier this year. As Francis tells it, Xavier’s success is the result of “common sense” measures. But as Hannah-Jones writes in the story’s key paragraph, the strategy adopted by the Xavier faculty is, in academic circles, anything but common:
Francis believed that Xavier should not follow the example of most pre-med programs — ‘‘Look to your left, look to your right; only one of you will still be here at the end’’ — which work to weed out students. To him, that model squandered the talent of far too many students, especially black ones. Instead of compelling students to compete against one another, he said, it made much more sense, both morally and practically, to encourage better-prepared students to help their classmates who weren’t as fortunate to catch up.
Hannah-Jones goes on to describe how peer-to-peer learning, combined with the “fierce” paternalism of program advisers, helped students like Pierre Johnson — graduate of a struggling school district on Chicago’s south side — overcome their academic shortcomings and become practicing physicians. The piece, which also gives a nice rundown of the past, present, and future of HBCUs, is well worth a read.