The Terminator of TSU

Last year, Joann Horton was hired to head Texas Southern University. Now the question is: will she save it, or destroy it?

For her inaugural gala as the eighth president of Texas Southern University last December, Joann Horton transformed the school's gymnasium into an elegant ballroom with draperies, potted plants, linen covered tables and a portable dance floor. While a jazz combo played in the background, bartenders poured champagne and liquor at stations scattered around the room. An elaborate buffet was spread. The cream of Houston's black leadership and the TSU administration turned out, the men in black tie, the women in evening gowns. Each guest would take home a crystal bud vase inscribed to commemorate the occasion.

It was a glamorous affair for the new president of the nation's second largest historically black university. Horton, 47, a regally cool, tall woman blessed with a broad smile, moved from table to table, working the crowd. A former junior college administrator from Iowa and Chicago, she had never held a tenured teaching post at a four-year college or published any scholarly work. The university's Board of Regents had chosen her, they declared, for her managerial experience, not for her academic credentials.

Horton's gala, put together in three months, was in marked contrast to the events that followed the inauguration of her predecessor, William Harris, a historian who had published two books with the prestigious Oxford University Press. When Harris was inaugurated five years earlier, he had taken six months for planning and ended up not with a ball, but with a weeklong series of educational symposia that focused on faculty research.

The difference between the two inaugural events pointed to the difference between the two presidents -- and, possibly, to the changing desires of TSU's Board of Regents. When Horton's appointment was announced, much of the TSU faculty immediately resented her lack of academic credentials. During her first three months on campus, Horton did little to allay that resentment. Instead of circulating widely on campus, she chose to consult with a small group of faculty, many of whom had not previously held positions of significant responsibility with the university.

That might have been seen as nothing more than a new person feeling her way cautiously in the minefield that academic politics can easily become. But in her inaugural speech the afternoon before her gala, Horton seemed to suggest there was more to it than that. She cited Machiavelli, saying that nothing is more dangerous to undertake than change. Indeed, she had already shown the danger of change to two people: only a few days earlier, she had fired a pair of the previous administration's top officials, the provost and the director of institutional research.

While no one questioned Horton's right to make such decisions, the timing wasn't particularly politic. Why, some observers wondered, didn't Horton wait until after the inauguration and at least allow the two officials one final moment of glory? And why not make her staff change discreetly instead of issuing news releases highlighting the demotions? Why not build allies instead of enemies? Was this Horton's warning to TSU of more dangerous changes to come?

The events of the following months indicated that's exactly what it was. By the beginning of the 1994-95 school year, Horton had demoted nearly every single dean and vice president who had danced and dined at her inaugural gala, sending them back to the classroom. In all, 18 top administrators would end up stepping down.

Some of the firings may well have been overdue; for years, there had been complaints that TSU was inbred, given to hiring too many of its own graduates and keeping them in place too long. But even so, the peremptory way in which Horton told people to clear out their desks on a day's notice rankled many. Few of those who were stripped of their posts were given the courtesy of discussing their work with the new president before their demotions. A senior faculty critic, referring to the TSU mascot, has called Horton "a lady tiger who casts a cruel shadow." Another says simply that whether or not the firings were deserved, decent people who had devoted 20 to 40 years of their lives to TSU shouldn't be treated like garbage.

In the year since Horton was elevated to the presidency of TSU, not only has faculty morale sunk, student enrollment has dropped by 700. And while her predecessor had managed to balance the school's books, after a few months under Horton, the university posted a $2.8 million shortfall that required laying off staff, implementing a hiring freeze and eliminating part-time faculty members. Horton, who prides herself on her commitment to planning, has been criticized by a state auditor for inadequate planning. Now, having assembled her administrative team from relatively inexperienced faculty members, Horton says she will give this academic year over to planning. To that end, she's allocated $400,000 for consultants to help with the task; her critics point to that as just another example of excess, contending that planning should be handled by the administration itself.

Those same critics say that as a manager, Horton has been disruptive and isolated. Important details such as annual faculty contracts and tenure and promotion decisions that were supposed to have been dealt with in May are still hanging fire. The TSU Board of Regents, which traditionally has met every month to review and make suggestions concerning events at the university, changed its schedule for a while to bimonthly gatherings since Horton's new regime seemed unable to cope with the pressure of a more frequent agenda.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets