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?

President Pickering says the issue of consolidating departments is tricky and could result in alienating alumni as well as donors like the Hilton family, backers of UH's School of Hotel and Restaurant Management. "It seems to me you better be damn sure before you throw around easy solutions that may or may not save money," he says.

As for moving the UH system's bureaucracy onto the main campus, Pickering says that would blur the identity between him and Chancellor Schilt. "I think both Alex and I are very aware of the need to make sure there is a separate identity," he says.

But Pickering has no doubt about the identity of the Coalition, acknowledging it's "made up of our best faculty."

Lawyer Vidal Martinez, who sits on the UH Board of Regents, concurs. "When you get this collection of people whose talent you cannot disagree with, trying to send you a message," he says, "you need to be ready to listen to it."

In the highly structured world of the University of Houston's regents, a late June meeting in a ballroom at the Hilton School of Hotel and Restaurant Management on the main campus provided an unusual spectacle. But since it occurred in a closed executive session, the public missed out on the action. Largely at the behest of Martinez and philanthropist-regent John Moores, a group of UH professors got the almost unprecedented opportunity to deliver a stinging, hour-long critique of Schilt and Pickering, the school's upper-level managers, to their faces in front of their appointed bosses. Following the UH commencement ceremonies in late May, Martinez and Moores had been given a preview presentation from the Coalition, and that had impressed them enough to recommend the show to the entire board.

The chancellor's staff carefully controls the flow of information to the board, and this presentation constituted a massive, if temporary, breach of the info-dam.

Gary Etgen, who's chaired the UH mathematics department for 16 years, began the presentation by explaining to his select audience how a much touted effort to cut bureaucratic waste and streamline campus operations by restructuring had resulted in little more than a token trim of minor programs such as jewelry making. Political scientist Richard Murray, who's taught or advised dozens of politicians in Harris County for nearly a quarter-century, told the regents that the school is losing political clout and funding because its Austin representatives are outclassed by the powerhouse alumni legislators and lobbying teams assembled by A&M, Tech and UT.

Law school professor Bill Streng then finished off the barrage by calling for an outside management audit of the UH system itself, the layer of bureaucracy headed by Schilt that sits atop the pyramid of four UH campuses. If any view is shared almost universally among UH faculty, it's that the system is bloated to the point that its administrative structure needs drastic modification and its budget needs to be pared by millions.

The regents reacted positively to the presentation, if comments by board chair Beth Morian are any indication. "Now that the summer is over, I look forward to getting back in touch with them," says Morian. Her remarks have resonance -- she's a granddaughter of Hugh Roy Cullen, whose largess got UH off the ground, and she's viewed by Coalition organizers as one of the regents closest to Schilt. "They bring up some interesting points," she says of the professors, "and we're all interested in the good of the university."

Regent Martinez says the presentation was an eye opener. "We were receiving information for the first time on some of those issues," he says. "They view the restructuring process as being dead. They view our legislative efforts as needing to be reorganized and redirected."

Schilt took the criticism unruffled, while Pickering parried with some of the presenters. The regents asked a number of questions, primarily about the political issues, and the mood stayed cordial. Staff waiting outside the room heard laughter.

But some other folks on the UH campus weren't laughing. Social Sciences Dean Harrell Rodgers, preparing that day for a meeting with a superior in which he expected to get marching orders for the coming semester, suddenly found his meeting canceled. Rodgers was a key player in the administration of the late UH President Marguerite Barnett, and he has been an intense critic of Schilt and Pickering and a backer of the Coalition. That last may be one reason his meeting was canceled; as Rodgers discovered later, he was to be dumped from his deanship by Pickering. He'll return to the political science department as a professor but will be taking a pay cut after rejecting a proposal to keep his administrator's salary in return for muting his criticism of the administration.

While Pickering's aides characterized the shift as a routine changing of the guard, Rodgers contends his dismissal is a retaliation to his continuing criticism of his bosses, and in particular his support for the Coalition. In an interview in his final days as dean, Rodgers indicated his may not be the only head to roll: "When he called me [in early August], I told Chancellor Schilt, 'The clock is ticking, buddy, everybody knows it's not working in Austin. People are going to be paying a whole lot more attention this time, and we haven't done the work we needed to do. People are questioning the lack of strategic planning and the quality of leadership here. You better get a grip on the fact we better change what we're doing or you're going to be a victim too."

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