Audio: Educational play, an interview with Xavier's President Dr. C. Reynold Verret
In his adolescence, Dr. C. Reynold Verret enjoyed taking objects apart. He would deconstruct the whole to learn the intricacies and functionality of the individual parts. When he put the item back together, sometimes it would work, and sometimes it wouldn't. As he explains, "Education is play. It is a play that begins in that younger age, and it should still be play at the age of 40."
Dr. Verret's exploratory outlook continues to accompany him now that he has taken the position as the sixth president of Xavier, a Catholic and historically Black university.
"It's a bright learning environment," he says when he talks about the climate at Xavier. When asked to pinpoint one of his favorite stories about the university, he pauses, states that there are so many to choose from, pauses again, and then has to tell at least two stories before ending with a promise that there are many other tales that could have been his favorite.
What is it about Xavier that makes Dr. Verret's eyes light up and his voice sound like it's full of smiles? The camaraderie and collaborative feel that exists on the campus.
As Dr. Verret says, "The success of Xavier is based upon what I would call a culture of expectations." The expectation is not that every student enters Xavier masterfully ready to navigate and conquer every subject and assessment put in their collegiate pathway. Instead, the staff and faculty of Xavier work with the student and say, "We will find a way to get you there and we will walk with you, and that is how students accomplish great things," he says. Without any probing or follow-up questions, Dr. Verret continues to state that, "What we explain as achievement gaps in this country are really expectation gaps."
Dr. Verret acknowledges the importance of standards and benchmarks while also realizing that many minds working together achieve much higher results than all those cliches about bootstraps and sinking and swimming. As a scientist himself--his research interests have included the cytotoxicity of immune cells, biosensors and biomarkers--he knows the importance of working hard individually in order to rethink and relearn when among a group. "You sit around with bright people and you learn from them to. What I discovered today can still be overcome with new knowledge. I always tell my students, 'I was born when there were nine planets. Now there are eight.'"
To be an expert in anything, one must include broader sets of opinions, and Dr. Verret exemplifies this when he talks of the previous Xavier President, Dr. Norman Francis. As he says, "The thing I learned from Norman Francis is that the fidelity and love to the campus is what sustains it. Education is an essential element for elevating people, but you don't just give education. You give it for purpose. You educate people so they can go on and teach someone else. Students who come to Xavier get that environment."
Serious investment in students' successes and cultivating an inclusive learning environment keeps the already positive Dr. Verret optimistically anticipatory for the future. Dancing helps too. Like a true New Orleanian, Dr. Verret knows the importance of being serious when you need to be serious and letting loose when you need to let loose. His dance of choice? Merengue. His instrument of choice? The clarinet, which he is known to play from time to time. "I have always loved words and the the idea of poetry in music," he says.
From being raised in Brooklyn and attending school at Columbia and MIT to working in Savannah and Philadelphia, one could wonder how Dr. Verret is adjusting to the New Orleans style of things. "I'm an urban kid. I grew up in Brooklyn. So being in New Orleans, it is a place where you can go on the street and meet all kinds of people. That creative and welcoming spirit has hope in it. That's the future of people."
Luckily for students and all of New Orleans, that is a future we can look forward to with Dr. Verret as president of Xavier University.
Kelley Crawford is a professor, writer, mentor, dancer, and constant questioner. If you would like to contact Kelley Crawford, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.