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?

UH now has its system status, but unlike UT and A&M, which are protected somewhat from hard financial times by access to the Permanent University Fund, a wellspring of reserved state financing, UH must scrap for the dollars it can get. During the last legislative session, the main campus' state budget of $225 million suffered an $8.5 million cut, the largest loss by any state-funded university in Texas. Since higher education is increasingly vulnerable as legislators opposed to tax increases look for ways to fund federally mandated expenditures for school districts and prisons, UH administrators are already steeling themselves for more cuts in the coming legislative session in January, even as they issue cheery bulletins and press releases painting a bright future for the state's largest urban teaching-research university easily accessible to burgeoning Hispanic and black communities.

But warnings that the future isn't so rosy are coming from some of the school's veteran faculty members, who this spring formed a new group, the Coalition for Excellence, dedicated to maintaining academic and research standards at UH. Houston politicos who understand the school's importance to the city have also added their voices to the chorus of concern over UH's future. Academics and politicians both contend that unless something is done to stem an erosion in the quality of the school's faculty, and the level of the school's support in the Legislature, Texas' largest city will be permanently saddled with a second-class public university. While Schilt says the school "is at risk" if it doesn't recruit more minorities, the Coalition argues that Houston's minority communities are at risk if the school is allowed to slide into academic mediocrity. "Do we have to export our talented black and Hispanic students to other areas?" asks political scientist Dr. Richard Murray, a Coalition spokesman. "I don't think so."

Mayor Bob Lanier says UH's lobbying effort in Austin is outgunned and needs help and direction. According to the mayor, neither he nor the city's lobbying team have been asked to help the school.

"The fate of Houston and the fate of the university are inseparably intertwined," says Lanier. "So many of their graduates end up in Houston. They end up being our professional people, our teachers, our executives. It's absolutely vital to this city that the university be treated on a parity with other great universities of the state."

UH administrators counter that the school's critics are well-intentioned but uninformed about complex issues. President Jim Pickering also suggests that the university professors who have been leading the criticism are among the most insecure academics around.

"People moving through the ranks get to a certain point in their career," says Pickering. "They've taught well, they've researched well, written good books, and all of a sudden the world isn't exactly [what they expect]. I don't know whether that's an adequate explanation for why people are upset, but I know when I ... talk to people ... almost every one fits into this new category: 'Alone and afraid in a world I never made.'"

Most striking about the new protest on campus is that the noise is coming from relatively affluent, established, middle-aged vocal cords. Unlike the 1960s, when it was the students who did most of the protesting, those questioning the system now come from a generation of faculty that arrived at UH during the era of student radicalism and have since put down a quarter century's worth of roots on the Cullen Boulevard campus. Their summers are, likely as not, spent at California vacation homes, sailing the Aegean or furnishing new West U abodes. In class terms, these are hardly lumpen-profs.

The Coalition operates outside the traditional structure of the UH Faculty Senate, despite the fact that some of its members are also faculty senators. Dr. Kent Tedin, the chairman of UH's political science department, helped organize the Coalition for Excellence, which grew out of a bull session at a Montrose watering hole. He says the group consists of 50 full professors on the UH main campus (more than 10 percent of the total number of full professors), faculty who represent the arts, the humanities and the sciences. Recognized campus veterans, the Coalition's members are mostly white and male -- not surprising, Tedin insists, on a campus that only in the last decade began to aggressively recruit minorities and women for its faculty. The informal membership list includes superstar professor Dr. Paul Chu, director of UH's Texas Center for Superconductivity and someone whose credentials are not easily questioned. Tedin characterizes the Coalition for the most part "as a group of late forties, early fifties guys. Most have been at UH since 1980 and [they've] got an investment in this place 'cause [they] don't want to leave."

Coalition members vary in their prescriptions for curing the problems its members say are contributing to the undermining of UH. But a few concepts seem to have general acceptance, among them shaking up the campus bureaucracy by folding smaller schools into departments and eliminating half a dozen high-salaried deanships. On a larger stage, Coalition members support moving the UH system's bureaucracy back to the main campus, merging its leadership into a single chancellor/president's position and cutting back duplicated functions such as public relations. And the Coalition argues that the system should hire a big-gun lobbying team to fight for the school in Austin. Meanwhile, regents, alumni and local politicians would be drafted into the battle for lawmaker support.

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