MORE

The Terminator of TSU

For her inaugural gala as the eighth president of Texas Southern University last December, Joann Horton transformed the school's gymnasium into an elegant ballroom with draperies, potted plants, linen covered tables and a portable dance floor. While a jazz combo played in the background, bartenders poured champagne and liquor at stations scattered around the room. An elaborate buffet was spread. The cream of Houston's black leadership and the TSU administration turned out, the men in black tie, the women in evening gowns. Each guest would take home a crystal bud vase inscribed to commemorate the occasion.

It was a glamorous affair for the new president of the nation's second largest historically black university. Horton, 47, a regally cool, tall woman blessed with a broad smile, moved from table to table, working the crowd. A former junior college administrator from Iowa and Chicago, she had never held a tenured teaching post at a four-year college or published any scholarly work. The university's Board of Regents had chosen her, they declared, for her managerial experience, not for her academic credentials.

Horton's gala, put together in three months, was in marked contrast to the events that followed the inauguration of her predecessor, William Harris, a historian who had published two books with the prestigious Oxford University Press. When Harris was inaugurated five years earlier, he had taken six months for planning and ended up not with a ball, but with a weeklong series of educational symposia that focused on faculty research.

The difference between the two inaugural events pointed to the difference between the two presidents -- and, possibly, to the changing desires of TSU's Board of Regents. When Horton's appointment was announced, much of the TSU faculty immediately resented her lack of academic credentials. During her first three months on campus, Horton did little to allay that resentment. Instead of circulating widely on campus, she chose to consult with a small group of faculty, many of whom had not previously held positions of significant responsibility with the university.

That might have been seen as nothing more than a new person feeling her way cautiously in the minefield that academic politics can easily become. But in her inaugural speech the afternoon before her gala, Horton seemed to suggest there was more to it than that. She cited Machiavelli, saying that nothing is more dangerous to undertake than change. Indeed, she had already shown the danger of change to two people: only a few days earlier, she had fired a pair of the previous administration's top officials, the provost and the director of institutional research.

While no one questioned Horton's right to make such decisions, the timing wasn't particularly politic. Why, some observers wondered, didn't Horton wait until after the inauguration and at least allow the two officials one final moment of glory? And why not make her staff change discreetly instead of issuing news releases highlighting the demotions? Why not build allies instead of enemies? Was this Horton's warning to TSU of more dangerous changes to come?

The events of the following months indicated that's exactly what it was. By the beginning of the 1994-95 school year, Horton had demoted nearly every single dean and vice president who had danced and dined at her inaugural gala, sending them back to the classroom. In all, 18 top administrators would end up stepping down.

Some of the firings may well have been overdue; for years, there had been complaints that TSU was inbred, given to hiring too many of its own graduates and keeping them in place too long. But even so, the peremptory way in which Horton told people to clear out their desks on a day's notice rankled many. Few of those who were stripped of their posts were given the courtesy of discussing their work with the new president before their demotions. A senior faculty critic, referring to the TSU mascot, has called Horton "a lady tiger who casts a cruel shadow." Another says simply that whether or not the firings were deserved, decent people who had devoted 20 to 40 years of their lives to TSU shouldn't be treated like garbage.

In the year since Horton was elevated to the presidency of TSU, not only has faculty morale sunk, student enrollment has dropped by 700. And while her predecessor had managed to balance the school's books, after a few months under Horton, the university posted a $2.8 million shortfall that required laying off staff, implementing a hiring freeze and eliminating part-time faculty members. Horton, who prides herself on her commitment to planning, has been criticized by a state auditor for inadequate planning. Now, having assembled her administrative team from relatively inexperienced faculty members, Horton says she will give this academic year over to planning. To that end, she's allocated $400,000 for consultants to help with the task; her critics point to that as just another example of excess, contending that planning should be handled by the administration itself.  

Those same critics say that as a manager, Horton has been disruptive and isolated. Important details such as annual faculty contracts and tenure and promotion decisions that were supposed to have been dealt with in May are still hanging fire. The TSU Board of Regents, which traditionally has met every month to review and make suggestions concerning events at the university, changed its schedule for a while to bimonthly gatherings since Horton's new regime seemed unable to cope with the pressure of a more frequent agenda.

While Horton, as would any manager, might argue that she's simply trying to deal with problems she inherited, her critics charge that many of the problems are of her doing, and that as a leader she's failed to inspire respect and loyalty of the faculty who do the crucial work of the university. Instead, she's playing a game of symbol and rhetoric. By firing people, and then trumpeting those firings to the media, she creates the impression of decisive action. The cameras roll, new faces are seen, change is happening at the often troubled Third Ward campus.

Then Horton turns up the rhetoric, saying she is simply pursuing a "change agenda" mandated by the TSU Board of Regents. She talks about student "empowerment," "customer-oriented service," "team building" and being "proactive."

What all this means, however, is still a question, and it's one that the school's nine member Board of Regents -- to which the next governor will make three appointments in February -- will soon have to deal with. Though Horton has had only a short time to show what she's capable of, her most fervent critics believe her job is on the line. The regents who were so behind her a year ago, they say, now have doubts about their choice.

As for the regents, they aren't talking publicly. But as the turmoil at TSU continues to build, they have to be asking themselves: did they hire an effective manager, a strong leader, or did they find themselves only a terminator?

Founded in 1947 by a white Texas Legislature scrambling to forestall the integration of the University of Texas law school, TSU has long had to defend itself not only from the internal squabbles that afflict many schools, but from external attacks on its very reason for being. Those attacks have become more than rhetorical in recent years as, all over the nation, the role of historically black institutions has been questioned. In Mississippi, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the state has maintained a segregated system of higher education in which black institutions were underfinanced, a pattern that has been repeated across the South. One proposed solution to this problem has been to merge the black institutions with the dominant white ones, or else help the institutions attract more white students, something that could dissolve their unique character and missions. At TSU, murmurings of a merger with the University of Houston or the University of Texas has caused concern at an institution that fiercely values its independence.

TSU has also had to deal with the taint of scandal. Three years ago, the university's nationally famous marching band, the Ocean of Soul, was disgraced in a shoplifting affair while on tour in Japan. Subsequent investigation revealed that many of the touring band members were not regularly enrolled TSU students. Stories about TSU's low graduation rates, the difficulty its law students have had in passing the bar exam and state audits critical of the university's management seem to recur with seasonal regularity. Indeed, this summer the state auditor reported irregularities in the student financial aid program.

Given TSU's history, Horton's success or failure takes on an importance beyond that of a single academician's career. A troubled TSU could be vulnerable to absorption by another institution. A strong TSU could argue impressively for its continued independence and expansion.

Situated on 130 acres off Wheeler Avenue in the Third Ward, three miles southeast of downtown, TSU sits next to the University of Houston; only Scott Street separates it from its huge neighbor to the south. TSU's Third Ward home has the problems and the amenities of a historic neighborhood. It is where one of Houston's oldest black high schools, Jack Yates, can be found, and is the site of the politically influential Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. Some of TSU's neighboring families have lived in the area for generations and maintain aging homes in genteel poverty. To the south sits the Riverside community, a formerly Jewish neighborhood of large brick houses and tree lined streets that's now the home of an influential segment of Houston's black middle class.  

But the Third Ward also features deteriorating housing, junk in the streets, jobless people sitting on stoops. It is a perfect laboratory for TSU's research mission to find solutions to urban poverty and despair. Enrolling between 10,000 and 11,000 students a year, the university offers a law school and a pharmacy school and has produced a quarter of the current schoolteachers in the Houston Independent School District.

The university has also produced such important congressional leaders as Barbara Jordan and the late Mickey Leland, who was a pharmacy student caught up in the student rebellion of the late '60s. TSU is a center of black professionalism, black power and black pride, and what happens there is fiercely debated within African-American cafes, churches and newspapers. Not much of that debate makes it out of the African-American enclaves. Because TSU is considered so essential, negative stories about it tend to wound the community's pride, meaning that much criticism is kept in-house.

TSU is an open admissions university, although this was not always so. More than 70 percent of its students receive financial aid; many require remedial studies before going on to college level work. About a fourth of TSU's students are the poorest of the poor, with family incomes of less than $3,000 a year. Its undergraduates are older than most, averaging 22 years, and many of them drop in and out of school while working, a pattern that's helped create a low graduation rate.

Considering what's happening at the school that sits at the center of much of the community she serves, Dorris Ellis, editor of the Houston Sun, a newspaper based in the Third Ward, says she has mixed feelings about Horton's performance so far.

"I want her to do well," she says, "particularly because she's the [school's] first woman president. But I do have some concerns about the time it's taking to make things work smoothly."

Ellis frets that the university may be becoming stagnant as it approaches its 50th anniversary, and believes Horton has isolated herself in the way she has dismissed people.

"She always had the power to fire," Ellis says, "but I think I would look at people first and make an assessment, and if I made changes I would have competent replacements."

State Representative Ron Wilson was initially skeptical of Horton's appointment because of her gender. A black male would have been preferable, he said at the time. Now, Wilson supports the TSU leader, saying that she's the first president to call on him to discuss TSU's problems.

"Of all the presidents in the last 20 years at TSU, she has taken the boldest steps to clean it up," Wilson says. "I get tired of going to the Legislature to defend TSU against improprieties and I've been doing it for 18 years."

"TSU is absolutely critical to the black community," Wilson, adds, "because it produces an overwhelming majority of African-American lawyers and pharmacists. It's a nurturing environment for black professionals. Unfortunately, although white institutions let in a few minorities, they don't retain them, and until they do a better job of that, TSU and Prairie View A&M are absolutely essential for us."

Unfortunately for Wilson, his view is not widely shared in Austin; TSU has had to face mounting pressure at the state level to cut back. Beset by the need to fund schools and prisons, the governor's office has pressured the TSU regents to downsize the institution.

Horton's predecessor William Harris, fought such pressure and, largely as a result of the struggle, was forced to resign. Hired in 1988, Harris raised TSU enrollment from 7,500 students to more than 10,000 at time when other institutions were struggling to find students. Sponsored research increased from $6 million to $18 million annually. He and his administration created the university's first new doctoral program, in environmental toxicology, a remarkable political achievement given the pressures on state universities to reduce programs, not create new ones. And unlike his counterparts at the University of Houston, who took an $8 million cut during the last legislative session, Harris won increased financial support for TSU in Austin. Late in his administration, Harris also tried to deal with TSU's historically low graduation rate. His solution, to raise admissions standards, brought a firestorm of criticism from the black community. Still, Harris did much to expand the appeal of TSU beyond open admission students, and during the first four years of his administration the number of upper middle-class black students with better academic training more than quadrupled.

Given this, it's a puzzle to many that Harris was let go. Some have suggested that the Board of Regents simply got tired of his pushing for expansion at the same time they were being pushed by the state to cut back. Although both Harris and board members have refused to speak publicly about their disagreement, several administrators say that Harris told them that the problem was his objection to the board's pressure to downsize.  

In February 1993, the board summarily told Harris to leave; only a few months before he had signed a new five year contract. Buying that contract out wound up costing TSU $250,000. Harris was almost immediately invited to teach at Indiana University, where he had earned his doctorate, and within a few months he had been named the president of historically black Alabama State University.

By firing Harris in the middle of the academic year, the Board of Regents created a recruiting problem. By that point, most of the best presidential candidates have already made other commitments. But rather than go with an interim administrator while conducting a long and careful search, the board decided it would come up with a new president in six months.

After a five month search the board had found Joann Horton. At first glance, she didn't look like a standard candidate. Most university presidents work their way up through teaching and academic writing or research; Horton had never published a scholarly book or article or held a full-time, tenure-track teaching post at a four year college. Before 1989, when she took over Iowa's junior college system, she spent ten years as an administrator in the Chicago community college system.

Obviously, her skills were more managerial than scholarly, and that the regents would turn in her direction seemed to say something about what they felt TSU needed. Academic status was being bypassed for perceived administrative prowess. Horton did well in her interviews with a broad based search committee, and was presented to the TSU Board of Regents along with two other finalists: Leonard Haynes, a Washington consultant and federal education bureaucrat, and Otis King, a longtime TSU law professor.

When Horton was declared the victor, the board said the choice was unanimous; sources close to the process, however, indicate that the vote was actually split. The critical difference may have been made by three board members whom Governor Ann Richards had named to the board only a week before they voted on Horton. For those who saw previous president Harris as a victim of the governor's budgetary pressures, the timing of the new regents' appointments was more than happenstance. On the TSU campus, Horton is perceived as Ann Richards' choice. A spokesman for Richards insists that the governor seeks only to appoint the best qualified people to the board, but in no way gets involved in their hiring deliberations.

When Horton took over at TSU, she began working on what she calls a "change agenda" she says was given her by the Board of Regents. Though the details of that change agenda remain unclear, what's obvious is that the first item was not what would be changed but who. That turned out to be just about everybody left from the Harris administration.

The first to go were Provost Bobby Wilson and Director of Institutional Research L.L. Clarkson. As Harris' chief academic officer, Wilson had directed resources that led to the rise in research sponsored by outside sources. While holding his administrative post, Wilson published and directed research in environmental chemistry through a series of grants from the Egyptian government. As Harris' chief academic officer, he told the deans who answered to him that he expected them to publish and teach effectively, and that they would be held to the same academic standards as the faculty.

Wilson had his critics. One of the most vocal was history professor Robert Jackson, president of the TSU chapter of the Texas Faculty Association. The TFA complained that under Harris and Wilson there was favoritism for African-Americans and discrimination against whites, Asians and Hispanics in evaluations and tenure.

Some of the old guard faculty were not happy with Wilson either. They felt threatened by his escalating professional demands. For some teachers, many of whom were TSU graduates, the university had offered a sinecure, with promotions and raises based on friendships, years of service and loyalty.

Clarkson was less controversial. A math professor who had spent his entire career at TSU as student and administrator, he was said to bleed maroon and gray. He was responsible for gathering data on the university's performance and making vital reports required by the state and federal agencies that help fund the school.

Though it wasn't unexpected that a new president would want a new provost, the dismissal of Clarkson, seen by many as the university's living link to institutional history, was a shock. It sent a signal that no one, no matter how devoted or long serving, was considered off limits.  

At the end of May, six more administrators were told by the interim provost to clean out their offices immediately. These were the dean of the graduate school, Joseph Jones; the director of the Mickey Leland Center, Donald Hill; Betty Cox, who directed the university's remedial education program; James Race, director of the university's federal grants program; the registrar, John Westberry; and Cary Wintz, the director of academic computing. They were also asked to sign a letter of resignation indicating their support of Joann Horton, a request that some refused.

Today, almost every dean and vice president has been replaced. The most recent to go was Merline Pitre, terminated in August as the dean of the college of arts and sciences. A woman deeply respected in the black community for her social concerns and political connections, Pitre was also well liked on campus, so much so that several people initially asked to replace her turned the job down. (A replacement has since been found.)

Otis King, Horton's chief antagonist and rival for TSU's top job, has not quietly faded into teaching since being told he would not be president. He has become Horton's leading critic through the pages of the TSU Voice, a newsletter published by the TSU chapter of the Texas Association of College Teachers (known ironically as TACT) and distributed to faculty and staff. The way Horton has handled her terminations, King says, proves that she's a poor leader.

"You expect a new president to make changes," King said, "but you don't expect them to be made the way she's made them. In the traditional way, you inform someone that at the end of their contract they will no longer be needed. You have an amicable parting. Since most of the administrators have rank and tenure, they can go back to teaching. Then you start a search, bring the new person in two or three weeks before the old person leaves and have a smooth transition. You don't tell someone to just clear out that day."

Horton's firings have cost the university money. Rather than waiting for administrators to complete their 12-month contracts, she dismissed them with time remaining and then filled their vacancies with interim appointees. The contracts had to be honored and the new appointees had to be paid, requiring two salaries for a single job. King estimates these redundancies have cost the university $300,000.

But the real question remains as to whether Horton's firings constitute a management reorganization or an attempt to make all administrators loyal to the president, and aware that they can be dismissed as readily as their predecessors.

Administrative assignments can create loyalty in another way: pay increases. Because administrators go from nine-month faculty contracts to twelve-month administrative contracts, their income is increased. They also typically received raises for their increased responsibilities. (Most TSU administrators also teach). In the TSU Voice, King, who at $100,000 a year is one of the best paid professors at the university, has tracked the pay increases of Horton's new appointees. Many have received $10,000 to $30,000 bumps. James Ward, the communications chair who Horton promoted to vice president of institutional advancement, saw his salary rise from $51,000 to more than $100,000.

Such increased administrative costs have bothered faculty critics surprised by the $2.8 million shortfall that Horton announced in July. Part of the problem should have been evident to Horton from the start: the state had given university employees a three percent raise for the first year of the two year appropriation cycle and required the university system to find another three percent out of its own resources for the second year. Horton uses the fact that she was handed an existing deal as a reason to put part of the blame on the state. "They decrease the amount of resources that they give us," she says, "that means we have to increase whatever resources we have to fill the gap."

In the September issue of the Voice, Otis King denounced the administration as "the gang that couldn't count straight." He broke out the causes of the $2.8 million shortfall this way: $500,000 for the presidential search, inauguration and liability for former president Harris' contract; reception and housing for the new president, $100,000; 15 administrative pay redundancies plus raises for new administrators, $500,000; consultants, $480,000. The administration has attributed another $600,000 of the shortfall to overestimating a rise in spring enrollment. King snorts with contempt at this mistake, since in the past several years spring enrollment has always declined by about 200 students from fall enrollment.

King estimates he has found $2,180,000 of the shortfall. He hasn't found the other $620,000, but some of it may be explained in the August state auditor's review of management controls at TSU, which criticizes the TSU board for not effectively dealing with a $495,000 loss in the school's athletic program.  

That report also said the registrar's office had not been properly managed, including, among other things, allowing ineligible students to register as well as improperly altering transcripts for athletes. Since some of this occurred under the previous administration's watch, though, this particular audit suggests that some of Horton's housecleaning has been justified.

For her part, Horton has not done a great deal to explain her actions. She tends to stay frenetically busy, but when she does settle down, she does so in the TSU president's office, which sits in a corner of a suite of offices designed to hold more workers than Horton has on staff. An African sculpture sits in one corner, and a famous print, "Shotgun Houses," by retired TSU art professor John Biggers, hangs on the wall. On the edge of Horton's desk, which is fringed by several neatly stacked file folders, sits a vase filled with flowers.

Horton grew up in Lenoir, North Carolina, one of eight children raised by a widowed mother. During her last two years of high school, she attended integrated schools. She chose Appalachian State College in Boone, North Carolina, over historically black institutions because of its French program, and was among the first African-Americans to integrate the school. After earning her master's in French at Appalachian State, she taught French at a junior college, but was drawn into an administrative post helping students with their careers.

Horton says she found she liked working with people and she liked planning, so she decided that she wanted to be a college administrator. She took what she calls the logical route: she went to graduate school at Ohio State University in higher education administration. One of the school's best features, she says, involved the opportunity to meet with college presidents to better understand the issues they deal with.

Whether that has helped her at TSU, though, is an object for debate. Asked about her round of firings, she's diplomatic. "Did I come into the institution feeling there was broad based incompetence?" Horton says. "No. I think that the institution has a lot of talented people in it.... The board charged me with establishing a change agenda, and change agenda is about enhancing the quality, improving the systems and processes within the institution, and beginning to move us ahead."

As good as those things might sound, Horton can be maddeningly general about what, specifically, any of them mean. When asked what systems, what processes, she tends to respond in the general.

"The board articulated to me some concerns about policies and procedure," she says, "about improving the quality of education, about customer-service orientation, about improving the management organization, the planning of the institution, and I took those things as very serious in terms of looking at where we were.

"Now that does not mean that the institution is in major distress. It isn't. But clearly any time a board makes a decision to make a change it's because they felt there is a need to change in order to achieve a particular goal that they see as being important."

On the customer-service issue, at least, it's not hard to see what Horton means. For years TSU students have complained about rude treatment by staff workers, especially those who coordinate financial aid. And some student groups have praised her for being less aloof than previous administrations and meeting with them in regular forums.

In a university so beset with strife and management problems, forums may not be enough. Horton is going to have to be tough. And according to James Ward, her vice president for institutional advancement, that's exactly what she is. "She does not like sloppy work," he says. "If you have a responsibility, she wants you to carry out that responsibility. She's no-nonsense. She does not believe in it. You cannot give her an excuse for why something is not done."

But Horton's own talk so far has borne the odor of excuses. To them, the question is what will happen when she pushes visionary buzz words such as student empowerment, team building and being proactive at the hard-boiled number crunchers in Austin. Those phrases might not go down any better at the Legislature than they have on campus.

If Horton has a secret plan for pulling together this fragmented and difficult campus, she needs to produce it soon. In an hourlong interview, scarcely a number or a specific detail passed her lips.

To deal with similar criticisms from her faculty that she was short on details, Horton set out two weeks ago to mend some fences. On the evening of Wednesday, September 21, her staff members were seen plastering the campus with notices of a sudden meeting of faculty and staff at the cafeteria the following afternoon. It was not clear what the meeting would be about, but a crowd of around 500 turned out to hear what Horton had to say.  

She had called the meeting to be held at the cafeteria instead of an auditorium, she said, so that she would not be set above her audience. She wanted to walk among the TSU community members to "touch and be touched." She talked about empowering students, meeting the 21st-century marketplace, building her team. But she said nothing about the budget or program changes.

And she underlined that, above all, TSU would enforce policies and procedures. Reports both internal and external would be delivered on time. When she opened the floor to questions, one of the first was why promotion and tenure decisions, which should have been made this May, were still floating in the ozone of her administration. She said the letters would be forthcoming.

When one of her critics from the TSU Voice asked if she was satisfied with the manner in which the former administrators were fired, she replied, "Yes. Next question."

Confronted a second time about the firings, Horton implied that she had not gone to the press with all the improprieties she had discovered. Administrators would have to work long hours to solve the problems they found, she said, and she was totally satisfied with the transition. Almost all the questions were hostile.

The meeting did not last to its posted time. Someone had forgotten that the students would be needing the cafeteria for dinner.

Following the meeting, most of Horton's critics complained that, once again, she'd made an appearance but said almost nothing. One of them was reminded of an old academic joke. A newly hired dean seeks advice from the person he's replacing about how to handle crises at the university. The departing dean has prepared three envelopes for him, numbered one, two and three, and tells him to open them in that order as the problems arise. When the new dean faces his first crisis, he opens the first envelope, which reads "Blame the previous administration." A little while later, the dean needs to open the second envelope. It says, "Form a committee to study the problem."

Horton is through with her first envelope and has now opened the second. She will have to make that one last a long time. Because she doesn't want to open the third, which contains this advice: "Prepare three envelopes....


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >