Crisis on Cullen Boulevard

Funding is down. Faculty is fleeing. And 50 professors are in semi-open revolt. Is the University of Houston on an irrovocable slide toward mediocrity?

In line with UH's inbred sense of inferiority, system administrators -- using an "it could have been worse" rationale -- have actually tried to portray the funding cut the main campus suffered at the Legislature's hands as a victory. They even awarded chief lobbyist Grover Campbell, the system's vice chancellor for governmental relations (and a UT grad), a generous $10,000 raise.

A thin, blonde man with a slight drawl who's in his early forties but could pass as a grad student in his late twenties, Campbell has represented the UH system in Austin for nearly a decade. He says his critics have distorted the school's performance there.

"I know the allegations of failure are out there, but if you've got to define success you've got to define failure," he says. Campbell blames UH's declining enrollment, particularly in graduate classes, for most of the funding losses. He produces a list of goals he's accomplished, a list Coalition members say accounts for small battles and misplaced priorities in a losing war.

"If you want to talk about whether I have the right marching orders, you need to talk to the Board of Regents, the chancellor and the presidents," retorts Campbell. "They're the ones who put together our agenda. This is not an agenda that I sit up in an office late at night and just create myself."

Schilt's cohorts in Houston's business community sent him congratulatory notes after hearing the system's glowing account of the session's outcome. But key Harris County legislators and on-campus observers saw something quite different: a humiliating defeat and a warning flag.

"We've got to do something," says state Senator John Whitmire, a UH law school graduate and 22-year veteran of legislative service. "UH has never been able to compete on a level playing field with UT and A&M. It's gotten worse because now you have other institutions, like Texas Tech, moving out ahead of UH, and that's just sheer political power."

Whitmire says the university is too valuable an asset in the city, particularly to Houston's minority communities, to be allowed to degenerate.

"If we want it to be the institution it has a right to be, we've got to marshal the troops," he says. "It's bigger than John Whitmire. It's bigger than Alex Schilt. It's going to take a community effort."

State Representative Sylvester Turner, another UH alumnus, warns that if the status quo continues, the school is headed for second- or third-class status. "That's what is happening," says Turner. "When it comes to funding for the University of Houston, it is not looked at with those schools grouped on level one."

Asked whether he favors upgrading the University's lobbying effort, Regent Martinez responds with a question: "You've got to ask yourself, how smart was it for the University of Texas to hire [former state senator] Ray Farrabee for their system? How smart was it to put [former House speaker] Billy Clayton on the board of A&M? It was smart!"

Schilt maintains that his troops have improved their performance in Austin over the past several sessions, but says a lack of resources is a handicap. "We have a much smaller staff of people to do that lobbying and probably we suffer in that we don't have the number of people to go around," he says.

The upcoming legislative session could result in even deeper budget reductions at UH. Campbell says that some $8 million in cuts suspended by a "hold-harmless" designation in the last session will be on the line again. Earlier this summer, the threat prompted Pickering to urge his deans to recruit more students or face potential across the board salary cuts. "How do we do that?" counters one dean. "[We] can't go out on street corners and [just] find students."

Academic department heads say that without the financial and research incentives to keep key faculty members, professors are looking toward greener pastures on the East and West coasts and points in between. Chemistry professor Andrew McCammon, touted by admirers as a potential Nobel laureate, is departing for the University of California at San Diego. Gayle Beck, a respected clinical psychologist, bid UH adieu to accept a better-paying position at the State University of New York at Buffalo. In the political science department, Bruce Oppenheimer accepted Vanderbilt's $82,000 offer after UH countered with an offer of only $70,000. The loss of such talents, says mathematics department chair Etgen, can have a multiplier effect.

"Our department isn't unique in significantly improving over the last 16 years," he says. "We really have made some rather strong moves forward in terms of quality and recognition ... but if the word gets out that things aren't going very well here, then you start worrying about how you're going to keep top faculty you have, because they can go elsewhere."

On the athletic front, regent Moores, the computer-software magnate, donated $70 million to the school, but earmarked $25 million of that for a new athletic facility. Recently, the senior schools of the Southwest Conference took their balls and walked away to the Big 10, leaving the UH Cougars without the umbrella of the SWC and the respectability in Texas circles that school boosters craved and scraped and bowed to earn in the late '60s. Before the SWC collapse, faculty members sniped at Moores' philanthropic priorities, which had the effect of cementing the school's wedding to big-time college athletics beyond the year 2000. Given the current financial crunch, Moores' supergym is not quite what the doctor ordered.

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