No Problem, Man...

James Douglas has a plan to return TSU to itsformer glory. But first, he's got to keep the school out of bankruptcy and conservatorship.

An electrical transformer blew out at Texas Southern University the week before Christmas, casting the central administration building into darkness. James Douglas, the first graduate of TSU to become its president, sat in the afternoon gloom of his corner office, a study in brown and black and gray. His closely cropped white hair and beard and the deep lines etched into his face made him seem older than his 52 years. Though the room was warm, Douglas was wearing a black overcoat, nursing a cold. With his head sunk in his hands while staring deeply at a report, he seemed terribly vulnerable.

During Douglas's first year as president, his beloved university is threatened with bankruptcy. In November, the Office of the State Auditor warned that unless TSU's financial aid office satisfies strict federal regulations for repayment of student aid money, the university could run out of money by May. A faculty faction opposed to Douglas has called for the state to fire the university's regents and put TSU into conservatorship. Some professors have even proposed something previously unthinkable on campus, though long argued for in the Legislature: merging TSU with the University of Texas or the University of Houston systems.

Douglas says he's not worried. His response to crisis has always been to stay calm. He has created a 39-page management plan to answer the state's demands for financial and administrative reform, though he has neglected to share it with his faculty. He has a vision to restore TSU to its former place of pride in the black community. But first he must, in his favorite expression, "make the trains run on time," not exactly a comforting expression to the historically minded. Mussolini made a similar promise and was eventually killed by his own troops and hung up by his heels in the town square. If James Douglas is going to retire in this job as he hopes, he must not repeat the mistakes of the past.

This is not the first time TSU has been accused of bad management. During the late '80s, state auditors found so much fault with the university's administration that in 1990 then-lieutenant governor Bill Hobby declared the state ought to take the university over.

TSU's president at the time was William Harris, a respected historian from Indiana University chosen by regents in 1988 over Douglas, who was dean of TSU's Thurgood Marshall law school. Harris brought in a vice president for finance who had worked for a national accounting firm, and it appeared that things were mending. By May 1992, TSU was clean with the state auditor's office for the first time in several years. Under Harris's leadership, enrollment was up to an all-time high of 10,700 students, and Harris was talking about raising standards for admission.

But the expansion of the student body by 3,000 students strained the university's financial aid office and created a new series of problems that the university is still trying to solve. Roughly 70 percent of TSU students require financial aid, and some of them are among the poorest of the poor. Dependent on a combination of direct federal and state grants and federally subsidized loans, some students had come to expect the subsidies as a form of welfare.

Managing financial aid at any school is a complex bureaucratic process, requiring the coordination of several university offices. Students must document their financial need and provide academic and financial transcripts from other schools they have attended. Some are required to submit their parents' income tax returns. The admissions office is supposed to confirm the students' previous course work. The bursar's office must track whether they are current with their tuition and fees. The registrar's office is supposed to provide grades and other evidence that students are making satisfactory progress toward their degrees. Copies of all these documents are supposed to be maintained in confidential paper files in the financial aid office, and the contents of the files are supposed to be tracked in the university's computer and securely protected.

Maintaining such records is particularly complicated at TSU, which abounds in transfer and part-time students. Since TSU is an open admissions university, students who have failed at other colleges can expect to get admitted for another chance. TSU students tend to work in fits and starts, with only 10 percent of undergraduates completing a degree in six years. Many students do not apply early for financial aid, or decide to enroll at the last minute. During the past few years, students have complained loudly that registration is a quagmire in which overburdened financial aid workers turn surly and rude.

In trying to accommodate the increased flow of students, the financial aid office made awards and hoped to catch up on the record-keeping later, says a TSU administrator. But once the awards were made, students had little incentive to come back in with their paperwork, and the backlog overwhelmed the offices' inexperienced leadership and scarce resources.

In early 1992, Harris learned from his internal auditors that the university's computer records for financial aid were in disarray. He called in state auditors, who confirmed that there were no verifiable records for making the awards. In 1992 Congress toughened the accountability rules for institutions receiving student grants. That same year TSU also purchased a comprehensive software program for universities called Banner that should have been helpful in cleaning up the records, but has seen only limited use.

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