Storming the Ramparts

TSU struggles on as insiders battle detractors both within and outside the school's front gates

When the Texas Southern University Board of Regents met in the first week of February, the most recent episode of the chronically troubled school's soap-opera history was into its fourth year.

With state bureaucrats and legislators threatening ever more loudly to place the state's largest minority-based college under the control of the University of Texas, Texas A&M or the University of Houston, the board and the school administration had set off on a very public self-immolation.

In 1995 the board ousted new president Joann Horton, who had been hailed as a savior when she was hired just two years earlier. Former Houston Astro Enos Cabell was elected chairman of the board, despite loud grumbling over his lack of academic credentials (including even a college degree). That same year, regent Joe Bailey resigned after fellow regent Anthony Lyons, in an impassioned if bizarre speech at a board meeting, accused him of having "a poor attitude" toward African-Americans and of improper behind-the-scenes politicking.

In October 1997, as turnover and longtime administrative vacancies continued to cripple the school, Cabell was voted out. Six months later, students took to the streets to protest the board's imminent plans to get rid of James Douglas, a popular TSU lifer who moved from the school's law-school deanship to replace Horton. The board backed off, even though it had been getting heat from some state legislators who blamed Douglas for not addressing the school's problems.

Things got weirder in July of last year. Only five of the school's nine regents attended the board meeting that month; absent was board chairman Willard Jackson, who had led the move to dump Douglas. Three of the five regents in attendance were aligned against Jackson and, having a quorum, voted 3-2 to replace him as chair with one of their own.

They ignored such technicalities as the fact that a vote on the chairman was not posted as part of the agenda. Jackson went to court and won his seat back, but the incident only furthered the sense that matters at the 52-year-old school were spiraling out of control.

And so, as the regents gathered in February for their scheduled meeting, many of the school's supporters were hoping for little more than an end to the fireworks that were giving the institution a disastrous reputation.

They wanted some quiet.
Instead, they got yet another shock. The board stunned them all by firing James Douglas and announcing that the school would begin searching for someone to be its third president in less than four years.

Perhaps no one should have been surprised that TSU finds itself in the middle of another fight. The school was born in controversy and has had to scrap every year for state money, watching enviously and suspiciously as glamorous state schools such as UT and A&M roll in public dough. The rapid growth of its Third Ward neighbor, the University of Houston, has also caused bruised feelings.

Texas created TSU when an African-American named Heman Sweatt sued for admission to the University of Texas School of Law; the state wanted to argue that blacks had an equal opportunity for higher education at places other than the hallowed halls of UT.

Since then, more than 30,000 students have graduated from TSU, almost all of them black or Hispanic. United States Representatives Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland went there. About one-third of the black lawyers in Texas are graduates of TSU's Thurgood Marshall School of Law; many of the Houston school district's teachers and administrators are alumni; the school says it is the largest employer of African-Americans in the state and the fifth-largest minority college in the country.

But the university has been plagued by problems since it opened. Enrollment has roller-coastered and currently stands at a mere 6,000. Academic programs have been spotty. Those who graduate from the law school are forever fighting the image caused by the school's well-publicized rock-bottom passing rates on the bar exam.

The physical condition of the school has deteriorated; students living in the dorms have sweltered through Houston's weather with ancient air conditioners that offered little relief on the occasions they functioned at all. The administration has been so inept at such basic procedures as processing financial-aid requests that students who live off campus have been tossed out of apartments or had their electricity cut off while they waited in vain for their money to arrive.

And through all of this, the school has been constantly threatened with what it sees as extinction: being absorbed into another university system. Supporters of the minority school fear that students who can't get into the larger schools but are accepted at TSU would be shut out if TSU were swallowed up.

Governors such as Bill Clements have regularly ripped into TSU; in 1989 Clements railed that he was "thoroughly disgusted with the administration at Texas Southern, as I have been for some time." He added, "They're in trouble. There's no question about it. ...[A]s much as the Houston community has tried to enter the picture and to be helpful and to provide leadership, it really hasn't worked."

It's difficult to imagine something more rankling to TSU supporters than being lectured to by an archconservative white governor patronizingly talking about the utter patience of the downtown Houston establishment as it tried to help a bunch of ungrateful incompetents.

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