Late last month, more than 100 University of Houston professors gathered at Farish Hall Kiva for what could have doubled as an acerbic question session in the British House of Commons. Just as when opposing party members in Parliament raucously taunt the prime minister, this UH main campus hall echoed with shouts of "Put it to a vote!"
The target of the invective, the normally unflappable provost Edward Patrick Sheridan, scowled as his face reddened, according to a nearby professor.
"That would not be helpful," he snapped.
Professors from the Liberal Arts and Social Sciences College demanded an after-the-fact vote on the forced merger of their previously separate colleges, a change enacted by Sheridan's fiat two years before. But they might just as well have been referring to the tenure of the provost himself. The 65-year-old clinical psychologist has attempted to centralize the campus academic bureaucracy down to the department chair level, sparking charges that he plays mind games while trampling on UH traditions of administrators and faculty sharing authority.
Sheridan's latest moves have transformed simmering resentment into an open rebellion not seen since a similar wave of protest led to the 1995 exit of chancellor Alex Schilt and president Jim Pickering. As current Chancellor/President Arthur K. Smith enters what's expected to be his last year before retirement, faculty unrest promises to make the future transition a rocky ride.
Since Smith took over from interim chancellor and former Texas lieutenant governor Bill Hobby in late 1996, his reign has been marked by a series of incidents over increasing centralization of campus authority. General counsel Dennis Duffy reorganized the school's legal office. That triggered female employees' charges of gender discrimination and a $400,000 court judgment against the university for retaliating against one of them.
A clash with the campus police chief over the preferential handling of an athlete's theft case resulted in the eventual ouster of that top cop and a rewriting of UH staff rules to allow termination without cause.
In recent years a steady stream of high-profile UH academicians have been wooed away by competing institutions -- the latest being Richard Blackett, an endowed chair of African-American history who headed to Vanderbilt. Several department chairs fault Smith and Sheridan for failing to make the effort and provide the incentives to keep their academic stars.
Smith, expected to announce his retirement next fall, is an increasingly distant campus presence. As his highly visibly No. 2, Sheridan has become the focus in the struggle to shape the giant urban campus in the impending post-Smith era.
It didn't help that the only real news to come out of the Kiva meeting was the resignation of gerontology specialist Andy Achenbaum as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. Sheridan diplomatically told the group that Achenbaum wanted to return to teaching, although it was widely regarded as a resignation forced by the boss -- just as the dean's earlier appointment of Sheridan's wife, Kathy, as one of his two associate deans was regarded as a dictate from Sheridan.
Former associate dean and law professor Robert Carp believes most problems with Sheridan can be traced to his insistence on micromanaging to an almost manic degree.
"That might be fine in a household or business, but in running a university of 32,000 persons, it just can't be done," says Carp. "So as a result, you have paralysis at virtually all levels of the administrative process because you can't get any answer from him on anything. That's the way it is now."
According to Carp, the outwardly placid Sheridan is a stickler for details who may rant at subordinates for using the wrong word in a memo. Carp says the failure of the provost's office to announce a budget for this summer is typical.
Political science grad students don't even know "whether they can be employed or feed their families," explains the professor. "Worthwhile projects are delayed or don't come to fruition because there's no knowledge of what the budget is going to be We've got to go to the 'gods' in the Cullen building to find out if there's going to be toilet paper in the bathrooms, and that gets tiring after a while."
History professor Robert Buzzanco stunned the campus two weeks ago with an op-ed column in The Daily Cougar student newspaper, blasting the administration's drive to squelch any semblance of shared decision-making.
"Whenever UH faculty members get together formally," wrote Buzzanco, "we are virtually unanimous in our condemnation of the Smith-Sheridan gang. But we do virtually nothing but gripe about it, and thereby give the administration a green light to continue its plundering of our reputation, our rights as faculty, and the students' rights "
Buzzanco says the administration's knee-jerk crackdown on dissent stems from its emphasis on militaristic command. "Smith is an old military guy, and Sheridan went to seminary for a while. They think of the world in a structured, authoritarian way."
English professor Maria Gonzalez agrees: "I've never seen a military model at a university in my life." She says Sheridan wrongly assumes that department chairs are supposed to be delivering messages for the dean. "A department's chair has the responsibility of keeping the integrity of the curriculum and the research that comes out of that department," she says.
Provost Sheridan declined an interview. UH spokesman Mike Cinelli denies that proposed bylaws authored by Sheridan would eliminate faculty input when it comes to governing the campus.
"It doesn't change anything about the appointment of the faculty chairs by the dean," says Cinelli. "The faculty is very heavily involved in the selection process. It's not the dean just arbitrarily picking someone."
A source supplied The Insider with a draft of the new bylaws, which appear to eliminate traditional faculty elections for department chairs.
According to the document, a search committee for chair candidates would be set up with members approved by the dean and with a committee head appointed by the dean. The dean may require that the committee recommend more than one candidate, and ultimately the dean would appoint the chair. The chair serves at the dean's pleasure, and can be removed at any time. The document says nothing about a vote of department faculty.
According to Cinelli, "Everybody's entitled to express their views on things, and that's all we're going to say about it. The bylaws that we're putting in place across the campus are to give us a unified academic governance. Any university is going to do the same thing: operate from an organized and well-thought-out structure."
Political science professor Ross Lence, a distinguished endowed chair who also directs undergraduate studies in the college, focuses on the alleged violation of state and university nepotism policies in the hiring of Kathy Sheridan. Lence says the appointment "dampened the credibility of the university at large." He contends the presence of both Sheridans in the academic structure is "a suspect arrangement at best, if not an illegal one."
What's more important, notes Lence, "in this fledgling new college, [is] the credibility of the dean of the college is compromised as well." The faculty doesn't believe there can be any independence "as long as the wife of the provost is sitting there listening to the most important questions of finance, academic agendas and other sorts of matters."
As for the nepotism accusations, Cinelli says the duties of the two Sheridans do not overlap, and potential conflicts would be resolved by having the provost recuse himself and let Smith handle matters.
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Carp says his contacts with the provost's office were frequent in his 18 years as an associate dean. He believes Kathy Sheridan's position and connection to the provost are intimidating to other campus officials. He recalls a conversation with a department chairman after a meeting in Achenbaum's office.
"We were talking about something that had to do with Ed Sheridan, and he suddenly shushed me and said, 'No, no, no, don't talk too loud. Kathy's office is just down the hall, and she'll hear and she'll report it back.' I was thinking, my God, this is like Nazi Germany or something. 'Don't say this because another party member is here.' "
The chancellor has agreed to Lence's request for a meeting on the nepotism issue. Buzzanco likens current unrest to the situation eight years ago.
"What's happening now is very similar," says the professor. "We call ourselves 'the progressive faculty association,' and we've talked about circulating letters and petitions. This time, there's a far more diverse group of people who are fed up. There's really a consensus that this has gone too far and the idea of shared governance between the faculty and the administration is just a sham. Something's got to give."