Storming the Ramparts
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.
Such statements fostered a bunker mentality at the school, which came to see the state as a not-trustworthy cop eager to close the place down. Whether that mentality was a valid viewpoint, ratified by years of being treated as a financial stepchild by the state, or a case of school supporters being in denial and hiding their heads in the sand, depended on whom you talked to.
But the man doing the talking, at least for now, is Willard Jackson. And Jackson is most decidedly in the camp that says it's time to stop fighting the state and instead do as it says. That view, it's safe to say, hasn't made him the most popular person in town.
It's easy to paint Jackson as an absolute nightmare for longtime TSU supporters, the hungry up-and-comer all too ready to acquiesce to the establishment that has been crippling or belittling the school when not just ignoring it.
He's only 35. He's a smooth talker, a sharp dresser married to tennis star Zina Garrison. A graduate of the University of St. Thomas, he's president of Metroplex Industries, an engineering and consulting firm angling to be a player in an area where players need to be chummy with governments. His office near Greenway Plaza displays not only sports memorabilia such as the basketball signed by Magic Johnson but also autographed photos of Republican politicos. Having been named to the board three years ago to fill a vacancy, he has just been reappointed for a full six-year term by Governor George W. Bush.
And he's not afraid to criticize the school and the supporters who he feels are too slow to accept reality.
"There's a tremendous resistance to change. A lot of people on that campus have been there 30 or 40 years, and these are individuals who are prominent in the black community and who take their complaints to the street. It can become a really divisive issue when you try to do something," he says.
Jackson is savvy enough to know that what he's saying is all but incendiary to some TSU supporters, but he continues: "Going into the 1997 legislative session, the board became divisive over the issue of whether to paint a rosier picture of what was going on. There was a sense of denial as to the financial status of the school. There were members of the board who refused to misrepresent the real issues facing the school, but we also had a small group who said, 'Let's cover up and paint a lot better picture than what's there.' "
That attitude, he says, stems from years of fighting for survival. "There's always been the issue of whether or not it's better to air out our dirty laundry," he says. "There was a fear that by airing out the financial status, it would make the school vulnerable enough so the Legislature would take it over."
That attitude, he says, has to end. And the tool he's using is a February report by the state auditor's office that blisters the school for failing to perform the simplest business tasks.
"We've got to come out of denial and accept the state auditor's report, not attack the credibility of the reporter," he says. "People say, 'The state auditor is being harder on TSU because it's black.' I just don't accept that. To say, 'It's not our fault, it's the state's fault' -- I don't totally agree with that.
"It's time," he says, "for us to accept responsibility."
Jackson tries to massage his message by noting that the passion of some TSU supporters is a legitimate result of their years of struggle. "Because of a lack of adequate financial resources, the school has had to fight to make it....When you're in a real challenging situation, and there are different ways to get to a point you need to get to, with peoples' emotions and ties to TSU, people tend to get real emotional and to disagree. Those disagreements create divisive situations on the board, between the board and the administration, and between the board and the community. It's a really deep, emotional-type issue."
Negative emotions, as regards Jackson and where he wants to take the school, can be as raw as those expressed by former regent Anthony Lyons, who said after Jackson was voted chairman that the move was "destructive [and] insulting."
Lyons's ally, Enos Cabell, also doesn't mince words when he talks of how TSU has been treated by the same establishment with which Jackson wants to cooperate. "I remember going to Austin and listening to UT go in there and ask for permission to spend $81 million on sports facilities. They had the money [through private funds]; they just wanted permission to spend it. I said, 'Damn, if we take that $81 million, we can educate blacks and Hispanics. We got leaky roofs and the a/c is falling down.'
"And then TSU gets up and tries to fight for one or two million, and they cry and moan because TSU wants $2 million -- they can kiss my ass," he says. "I'm from L.A., and you're gonna pay the piper sooner or later. When people find out, they are gonna stir the shit up. You are either going to educate your minority kids or you're going to get run over. You can sit and cry about how you can't put up with TSU -- well, you better put up with it."
Others are more muted in their rhetoric but still admit that Jackson is viewed with some suspicion in Houston's black community.
"Some members [of the Legislature] reflect their constituents' views, and they don't see Jackson as capable and as interested at all in the school as an entity," says Representative Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who was willing to talk on the record. "I don't think myself that that is 100 percent correct, but there's probably some validity to it. Willard does a good job, but people seem not to trust him."
That lack of trust obscures some issues that show it's perhaps too easy to paint Jackson as an ambitious outsider ready to sell the school out. For one thing, it's hard to argue with the state auditor's report. Even more important, the concerns raised by the report are eminently addressable ("It's Business 101 stuff," Jackson says); if they are indeed addressed, then the Legislature, and all-but-announced-presidential-candidate Bush, would be completely happy to leave TSU alone instead of tackling an emotional, race-tinged issue.
The Legislature attached a rider to TSU's 1997 budget appropriation mandating that the school demonstrate substantial progress within two years by addressing chronic problems in any 15 of 19 specific areas. The auditor's report issued February 12 shows that only five of the 19 issues were satisfactorily addressed.
Even the subdued budgetary language doesn't obscure some flaws which sound almost incredible:
*TSU "has trouble paying its bills on time, collecting money it is owed, using money in compliance with rules and regulations, and keeping accurate financial records." Over one-third of almost $15 million of the school's accounts receivable is more than two years old; the auditor notes, "Only four people are involved in the billing process for this money, and there are no procedures outlining how to collect it. The University does not accurately track who owes it money."
*TSU "does not have a system to attract, select and retain qualified employees....The University routinely hires inexperienced and/or unqualified personnel for critical positions." Systems for training and evaluating employees are inadequate.
*Not only was financial aid delivered late to students (or not at all: TSU still owes $745,000 in aid to students for last year or previous years), but also the current system is ripe for abuse: "We observed extremely poor cash management and security controls over the handling of student financial aid checks," the auditor wrote, "including ... no security guard in the area of check handling [and] checks totaling over $1.6 million were too easily accessible to temporary workers and nonuniversity staff."
Jackson says the imminent arrival of the auditor's report triggered president Douglas's firing. "Last session the Legislature made it very clear; they said, 'Don't come back in 1999 without progress,' and with the same old rhetoric of 'We're going to do it, we're going to do it.'...What happened was that progress was just not being made. There's no other way to say it. And it was absolutely clear to the board that the [state] agencies and leadership had lost total confidence in this administration's ability to correct these issues."
(Douglas, who has the option of returning to the law school, did not return a reporter's message relayed to him through an ally. In the past he has complained about the board's micromanaging affairs at the school.)
Cabell says that the state, once again, did not provide enough resources to allow TSU to address the issues and that Douglas was made a scapegoat. He thinks that Bush reappointed Jackson with the understanding that Douglas would be removed, something Jackson denies.
Jackson has a solid bloc of seven voters on the board now, and those seven wield impressive power. They will pick the new president, who in turn will be able to stock administrative positions with his choices because of the slew of vacancies at the school's top levels.
"There are seven board members working together strongly now, and I don't see that changing," Jackson says, in an assessment that other board members agree with in private.
There may not be a board to lead, however. Coleman says he'll file a bill to have the TSU board removed for 18 months and have the state run the school until its problems are handled. "If it turns out the bill isn't needed, it can be laid on the table," he says, but filing deadlines require it to be pushed throughout the session.
Legislators will be reviewing TSU's actions next month, after an April 1 deadline to see whether steps have been made to implement what's called the "Jump Start Plan" to address the auditor's concerns.
Jackson expresses confidence that legislators will be satisfied, although recent events show the school is continuing to stumble.
The district hired as its chief operating officer Don McAdams, an HISD board member who is a management consultant with experience working with universities. (The fact that McAdams is white did not go unnoticed by those who watch TSU closely.) McAdams lasted less than six weeks before resigning March 3 after conflicts with acting president Priscilla Slade.
Jackson issued a statement the same day, accepting McAdams's resignation and praising him for having "made a positive impact on moving TSU from its inertia setting."
TSU did receive good news at its board meeting March 4, when a representative from the state auditor's office praised the school for its initial responses to his office's report.
To Jackson, TSU's problems, while extensive, are eminently treatable. And once the nuts and bolts of putting in adequate financial systems are addressed, the school will be ready to grow, he says.
It's an echo of what many other former TSU administrators, presidents, board members and supporters have said in the past, but Jackson says he believes there is incredible opportunity for the school.
"At TSU what the state gives is 90 percent of the budget, which is [$60] million a year," he says. "At other schools what the state gives is 40-50 percent of the budget. For every state dollar, we ought to be able to match it with a private dollar.
"But when there is a lack of credibility in financial management, in basic accounting, it's very difficult to get people to write checks. Even alumni....It's a very difficult conversation to have asking corporations to support the school with millions of dollars when it's in the paper that the state auditor says we can't keep our checking account straight. But TSU is a very easy sell if we get the auditor approving of the changes we make."
But, as Coleman notes, that kind of talk from Jackson does not always go down so well. "There's a healthy bit of skepticism, and people have the right to be skeptical when the government has not treated the school in the right manner in the past," he says. "People get paranoid when it involves something that's important, and sometimes that paranoia gets turned into suspicion and bad feelings, and those bad feelings get transferred to Willard and sometimes to me."
There are, Coleman says, two issues. "Am I optimistic about the school repairing its problems and serving students well? Yes. I'm not as optimistic about the relationship between the community and the board and certain board members and the Legislature.
"Can we accomplish the accountability goals? Yes," he says.
"Is it ever going to be a lovefest? No."
Of course, anyone who follows the school knows that if it ever became a lovefest, then it probably wouldn't be TSU.
E-mail Richard Connelly at email@example.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.