Crisis on Cullen Boulevard

If you're looking for the chancellor of the University of Houston System during working hours, don't bother dropping by the main UH campus off the Gulf Freeway, the one that philanthropist Hugh Roy Cullen endowed back in the 1930s with the idea that it would provide a higher education for the children of the city's working class.

No, if you're looking for Alex Schilt, you have to travel several miles north, through the hardscrabble streets of the Third Ward and past the deteriorating edges of downtown to the steel and glass skyscrapers in the heart of the central business district. It's there you can find Schilt, comfortably ensconced at the top of the Entex Building in an aerie that has all the plush trappings of a corporate CEO's digs, including the expensive furnishings and impressive view of the skyline.

A pencil-thin, bespectacled man of aristocratic bearing whose background is in educational psychology, Schilt certainly fits into the corporate milieu, entertaining nightly with dinner parties at Wortham House, the UH System head's official residence on South Boulevard near UH's private and more prestigious counterpart in the city, Rice University. In addition to his system duties, the chancellor holds one of the premier corporate directorships in Houston: a seat on the board of HL&P's parent company, Houston Industries, a perk that yields him about $25,000 a year in director's fees.

Schilt once told a UH regent that he didn't think the school's main campus in southeast Houston was a place where business executives would feel comfortable. Asked recently why the university system's offices aren't on the main campus, Schilt just laughed.

"I don't think they'd want us there," he explained.
Maybe not, especially if the "they" are the professors that, in recent months, have risen in near open revolt against not only Schilt, but his man on the main campus, UH President Jim Pickering. In the last year, funding at the city's largest public institution of higher education has plummeted by more than $8 million; some faculty stars have packed their bags and hied off to greener pastures; and a contingent of about 50 full professors, including some of the most respected and recognizable names on campus, has organized to try and stem what they see as a serious hemorrhaging of their school's research and academic capabilities. Not very welcoming indeed.

At the mostly commuter campus south of the air-conditioned splendor of Schilt's downtown office, the summer mugginess hasn't appreciably lifted. Still, as at most other universities this week, there's a touch of fall detectable in the air as nearly 40,000 students and their instructors get back to the business of higher education. The start of classes at an older university can seem like one more turn in a timeless succession of semesters peopled by youthful faces enacting old traditions anew in museum-quality buildings. But at 61 -- barely more than an infant in academic years -- UH is too raw and young to be shrouded in ivy. The school is still searching for tradition and esteem -- both within its community, where alumni support is shaky, and in the Texas Legislature, which controls its financial lifeline and where many lawmakers' old school ties bind them to UH's competitors: the University of Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.

In many ways, UH's history parallels that of the city in which it sits, right down to that deep-seated insecurity that surfaces without much prompting in times of crisis. "Choke City" and "Cougar High" are the inverse manifestations of all that bright, boosterish rhetoric that the city's and the university's leaders burble at every opportunity. That either institution exists at all is a triumph of the will and the cash of self-promoting developers such as the Allens and their next evolutionary incarnation, first-generation philanthropists such as the Cullen family. In the never ending quest for respect outside the city limits, self-doubt is never too far below the can-do front. Houston has been to the moon, but somehow feels it has never really arrived, a recent NBA Championship notwithstanding. This is a syndrome that requires more therapy than a few basketball victories.

The growth of the UH System is also reminiscent of Houston's sprawling, unregulated dog paddle into suburban pasturelands. In the 1960s, what started as a power move to get rid of an unwanted dean on the main campus led to his installation as the head of a separate campus bureaucracy, the University of Houston at Clear Lake. Similarly, the UH-Downtown campus was born of a need to shore up a collapsing junior college favored for night classes by downtown business folk. UH's then-president, Phil Hoffman, hungered for a "system" designation that would give his university the same structure as the big boys -- the UT and A&M systems. Both UH expansions were approved after the fact by the state Legislature, but they generated a backlash that eventually caused lawmakers to dig in their heels and during the '80s reject the school's decade-long attempt to plant a flag in the middle of developer George Mitchell's Woodlands north of the city. A fourth UH campus at Victoria way out the Southwest Freeway was approved only after some powerful arm-twisting by Houston-area legislators. The upshot: a system in which three of the independent campuses are small asteroids, the fourth is a massive planet and they're all supervised equally by a single, growing system bureaucracy atop a downtown business tower.