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No Problem, Man...

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.

The office of financial aid reported to the vice president of student affairs, Deanna Burrell, a sociology professor with little experience in managing the complexities of federal aid. Rather than remove Burrell, who was a well-connected TSU alum, in late 1992 Harris promoted Bobby Wilson to the position of provost over her. Wilson, a nationally respected chemist, was not familiar with financial aid, either, but before he could address the issue, his responsibilities enlarged. In February 1993, six months after the regents had renewed Harris's contract for another five years, they bought out his contract for nearly $300,000 for reasons that neither the board nor Harris would reveal. Harris's resignation left Wilson as the university's highest official and its de facto president.

While the regents searched for a new president, Wilson brought in financial aid officers from several Midwestern universities to study TSU's financial aid problems. They wrote a report in the fall of 1993, but it was a report that Wilson would never act upon, and he doubts his successors did either.

Over the protests of faculty leaders, that September the regents hired a new president, a junior college administrator from Iowa named Joann Horton. (James Douglas, who was not even an official finalist for the position, received a lone vote from one of the regents.) The board wanted an outsider, someone who ostensibly would enact a mandate for change. Horton's first act was to fire Wilson. In carrying out her "change mandate," Horton was to subsequently dismiss 15 other top-level administrators -- personnel moves that plunged the university into a chaos from which it is still trying to recover [see "The Terminator of TSU," by Michael Berryhill, October 6, 1994].

It was one thing for Horton to fire people. It was another for her to replace them with managers who could act decisively to solve TSU's critical problems. She turned financial aid back over to Burrell, who would leave in August 1994 to return to the sociology department. In the process, the university replaced the financial aid director with one with no background in the complexities of the job.

As required by federal regulations, state auditors continued to examine TSU's financial aid records. In March 1994 they reported to Horton that they had found more than $300,000 in questioned costs in the school's 1993 awards. They included "payments to ineligible recipients, excessive payments and payments which were not properly documented." Horton conceded some problems, saying the university had a short-term plan to stabilize the situation, including requiring the director of financial aid to approve all awards -- a superhuman task given that TSU was making upward of 2,500 direct federal grants annually, in addition to several thousand more student loans.

If Horton had cleaned up the financial aid office as promised, she might have been able to pin the problems of the 1993 grant cycle on her predecessor. The amount of questioned costs -- $326,000 -- was a relatively small part of the university's $34 million in federal grants and student loans. All it would have taken was a concerted effort to do the thing that bureaucrats are supposed to do: keep records, organize files and coordinate offices, the very things the regents had expected Horton to do. But by firing the registrar and other top officials and replacing them in several cases with relatively inexperienced interim appointments, Horton compounded the confusion in financial aid. Registration became even more chaotic, and enrollment began dropping.

The federal Department of Education kept the pressure on, requiring the state auditors to review TSU's 1993 grants in more detail. The auditors inspected a cross section of files, noted further discrepancies and questioned costs, and then, assuming that all the files were probably in about the same shape, projected the questioned costs across all the files. By September 1995, TSU's questioned costs for 1993 had grown by a factor of 40, to $13.6 million. Much of that aid may very well have gone to qualified students who were legitimately enrolled in classes, but until TSU can prove it, the Department of Education can hold the university accountable to repay the amount.  

By the time TSU was informed of its $13 million problem in the fall of 1995, the regents had fired Horton and appointed Douglas as interim provost and acting president. Rather than conduct a time-consuming national search and further stall the reform of the university, the board appointed Douglas president in December 1995. After three tries, Douglas had finally won his dream job.

Douglas had been on the job just two months when he received another scathing review of the school from the state auditor's office, which pointed out that nothing had been done during the past two years to correct the problems identified in 1994. One of TSU's most obvious problems, the auditors pointed out, was that since 1994 the financial aid office had been run by an interim director with no previous experience in the area.

Douglas says his first search for a new director of student aid turned up no suitable candidates. He put the word out again and this fall hired Norman Hayes, an amiable former college athlete who had worked as an associate financial aid director at Indiana University since 1980.

Just 45 days after Hayes took office in a scuffed bare room at Bell Hall, the state auditor's office sent the university a bankruptcy scenario involving student aid. Typically, the Department of Education grants institutions a lump sum of money to draw down for student grants. But since March, TSU has been on what the federal government calls "reimbursement." Under reimbursement, the university puts up the money for student grants from its own state resources. The federal government will repay TSU for the grants it has advanced when the university provides the documentary proof that the monies have been properly awarded.

The auditors predicted that TSU might have to advance its students as much as $8 million for this academic year's aid cycle, and if TSU doesn't get its money back from the federal government by May, its payroll checks could start bouncing.

A financial aid file can be anywhere from a half-inch to an inch thick and involve dozens of documents. In order to recover the student grants, Hayes's office must ship 2,700 files to the Department of Education's regional office in Dallas for approval. By Christmas he had shipped 300 files. But the state's predictions of a possible $8 million deficit by spring are not likely to come true, Hayes maintains. "The university has advanced less than $3 million," he said, "and we should be able to pull down two-thirds of this by the end of the spring semester."

That would still amount to a million-dollar deficit, but if Hayes can project getting the rest back by the end of the summer, James Douglas will be able to look the Legislature straight in the eye this spring when he is asking for state appropriations and say that TSU has got its paperwork in order, that the trains are running on time.

For Douglas, reassuring the Legislature may be an easier job than placating his former mentor turned nemesis, law professor Otis King, president of the faculty senate and once an aspirant for the university presidency. King was a finalist when the regents chose Joann Horton over him; he then kept up a concentrated stream of criticism against her in a campus newsletter -- some of it factual, some of it mere vituperation.

When the regents appointed Douglas with no search and without consulting the faculty, King immediately accused them of suspending their own rules and operating a "hoodlum society." In a December faculty senate meeting, King's palpable target seemed to be the regents again. It was the regents who had picked Douglas, who, King said, was doing nothing to communicate with the faculty about his efforts to solve the university's financial aid crisis. It would be better, King insisted, to get rid of the regents altogether and put the university in the hands of someone appointed by the governor.

Douglas chuckles a bit when King's name comes up. If it were not for a call from Otis King in 1971, Douglas says he might still be practicing law with some of his TSU classmates as he had planned. King was then the dean of the TSU law school, and he lured Douglas back from a year of study at Stanford to teach at TSU. Douglas found he liked teaching, and decided that if he were to make a contribution to his school, he needed experience elsewhere. Against King's advice, he left for a job at Cleveland State, then Syracuse and Northeastern State in Massachusetts before returning to take his mentor's job as dean of the TSU law school. Since then, Douglas seems to have done nothing right in King's eyes, and his final mistake may have been to take over the job to which King aspired for many years.  

But King's personal motives aside, Douglas does have some drawbacks. He is known to be somewhat dictatorial, and lost two lawsuits over low pay raises he gave to white law professors. He has a reputation for working hard and being unable to delegate. By his own admission, he's a poor communicator. At December's faculty senate meeting, one Jamaican faculty member jokingly wondered aloud whether Douglas might be Jamaican himself, since his standard response to questions seems to amount to, "No problem, man."

When the threat of conservatorship and the suspension of the regents and administration was raised at the end of November, Douglas issued a one-page open letter assuring the campus that the university was in good hands, "our hands," and that he had put a competent team and plan in place to deal with the problems. The letter was long on generalities and short on details.

In fact, Douglas does have a 39-page management plan with goals, deadlines and specific assignments to administrators who are pledged to meet them. Too bad he hasn't shared it with the faculty. It would then be easy enough to see if Douglas can make the trains run on time.

The real question will be whether Douglas can fulfill his vision of making TSU a residential campus again, like it was in the '50s and '60s, before it became an open admissions campus. The old dormitories have long since deteriorated, and TSU's 8,700 students are mostly commuters who live at home or in scattered apartments. Douglas wants to require all freshmen and sophomores to live on campus, and is building 500 beds in apartment suites. He wants TSU students on campus 24 hours a day, immersed in "an academic village."

The average university president lasts five to seven years in office. It took Douglas almost 14 years as dean of the law school to turn around his graduates' embarrassingly low passage rate of the bar exam.

"Administrators who try to do things fast are just tinkering," he says. "You can't make massive changes in five years."

As for federal financial aid, Douglas is personally taking a hand in seeing that the problem is solved and has pledged to resign if he doesn't. He knows how vital it is to TSU's survival. Not that he has much firsthand experience with it. Douglas, who grew up in the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens, says he never received a nickel of aid as an undergraduate at TSU in the '60s. His father sent him and each of his eight brothers and sisters through college by working 16 hours a day at a steel mill.


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