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?

Unlike other Coalition members, Harrell Rodgers cannot be said to lack administrative ambitions. At 55, the outspoken, opinionated Rodgers, a native Houstonian who managed hamburger joints while earning a graduate degree at the school, has literally burned his way through the UH bureaucracy, all the while shooting from the lip at superiors. Colleagues praise him as a hard worker and an excellent fundraiser who has donated royalties from some of his more than a dozen books to college endowments. During the early '90s, when he was the school's legislative liaison, Rodgers showed refreshing flair and innovation, once busing students to Austin to buttonhole legislators. A small man with a round, youthful face, penetrating eyes and a tendency to lecture rather than converse, Rodgers' departure as social sciences dean has him preparing to move back into the political science department as a professor, after overseeing it for eight years. He's unstinting in his criticism of the UH system and its chancellor and president, and heaps much of the blame for the current campus problems on Schilt.

Despite vocal support for Rodgers from colleagues at a regents meeting last week, Pickering is sticking with his decision to dismiss him from his deanship. "I need to have a leadership team in whom I have absolute confidence," says Pickering. "Deans are part of an administration that certainly should be encouraged to bring opposition to the base, but ultimately needs to come together to a common understanding to get the job done. And that's how I think a university has to operate."

Not so long ago, during the administration of Marguerite Barnett, the first black and first woman to serve as UH's president, whose tenure was cut short by her death from a brain tumor in 1992, the two men were allies. Pickering served as acting senior vice president, the number two position in the administration, while Rodgers was Barnett's outside liaison working the Legislature. By all accounts, the two were great friends. "That's absolutely true," says Pickering after firing the dean. "I mean, there is a lot of pain in this and I wouldn't pretend that [there's not.]"

In Rodgers' telling, he repeatedly helped protect Pickering from Barnett, who was "a very ambitious person, and knowing she was sick, she wanted the image out that Jim just didn't have any ability. I defended Jim to her over and over. He'd call and say 'My God, she did this and that.' I told her, 'Marguerite, can you lighten up a little bit. I've seen a lot of this guy's work -- he's doing a good job. You're not making him feel very good.'"

Barnett ended up conducting a national search for a permanent senior vice president and indicated she wasn't going to give the job to Pickering. But at that point, she was increasingly ill and making questionable decisions, says Rodgers. When it became apparent that the ailing Barnett could no longer fulfill her duties, Rodgers says it was he who lobbied Schilt and overcame his objections to have Pickering named as acting president on a six-month trial basis.

By Rodgers' account, the alliance between him and Pickering foundered when the new acting president appointed Glen Aumann as his senior vice president while Rodgers was out of town. "If I'd been making a list of 100 people to be senior V.P., it would never have been Glenn Aumann," says Rodgers. "I was fuming mad, and confronted Pickering. He said the other deans had shot down all of his choices, and that was all he was left with. I saw the list and he was right. They were all worse than Aumann."

"That's when I realized I'd made a serious mistake," adds Rodgers. "Marguerite had seen something I hadn't seen. It went downhill from there. It became clear to me he wasn't going to use a cabinet, that he wouldn't consult with anybody, that he was a behind-closed-doors kind of guy." Not so coincidentally, Rodgers has a reputation among colleagues for lecturing to subordinates, but rarely consulting with them about decisions. An audit of his school, while generally praiseworthy, made the same muted criticism.

Rodgers says he went to Schilt and tried to pull the plug on Pickering. "I told Schilt, 'I've made a serious mistake. This guy is not qualified to be president. He just doesn't have any judgment at all. Surrounds himself by weak people, and he doesn't consult.'"

By then, Rodgers says, Schilt had decided Pickering was his kind of guy. "Of course, Schilt's interest was in having someone in there who wouldn't give him the kind of problems Marguerite did. Marguerite ... was always tough on the people above her."

Rodgers believes Pickering, who had been on the outs with Barnett and was in no position to exercise independence from Schilt, was just what the chancellor wanted.

"I think [Schilt] was so traumatized by [Barnett] that when he got a guy like Pickering, who wouldn't make a move without calling him on the phone and asking permission, well, that was exactly what he wanted," Rodgers says. Without a national search, Pickering was appointed president.

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