Longform

Crisis on Cullen Boulevard

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Coalition members vary in their prescriptions for curing the problems its members say are contributing to the undermining of UH. But a few concepts seem to have general acceptance, among them shaking up the campus bureaucracy by folding smaller schools into departments and eliminating half a dozen high-salaried deanships. On a larger stage, Coalition members support moving the UH system's bureaucracy back to the main campus, merging its leadership into a single chancellor/president's position and cutting back duplicated functions such as public relations. And the Coalition argues that the system should hire a big-gun lobbying team to fight for the school in Austin. Meanwhile, regents, alumni and local politicians would be drafted into the battle for lawmaker support.

President Pickering says the issue of consolidating departments is tricky and could result in alienating alumni as well as donors like the Hilton family, backers of UH's School of Hotel and Restaurant Management. "It seems to me you better be damn sure before you throw around easy solutions that may or may not save money," he says.

As for moving the UH system's bureaucracy onto the main campus, Pickering says that would blur the identity between him and Chancellor Schilt. "I think both Alex and I are very aware of the need to make sure there is a separate identity," he says.

But Pickering has no doubt about the identity of the Coalition, acknowledging it's "made up of our best faculty."

Lawyer Vidal Martinez, who sits on the UH Board of Regents, concurs. "When you get this collection of people whose talent you cannot disagree with, trying to send you a message," he says, "you need to be ready to listen to it."

In the highly structured world of the University of Houston's regents, a late June meeting in a ballroom at the Hilton School of Hotel and Restaurant Management on the main campus provided an unusual spectacle. But since it occurred in a closed executive session, the public missed out on the action. Largely at the behest of Martinez and philanthropist-regent John Moores, a group of UH professors got the almost unprecedented opportunity to deliver a stinging, hour-long critique of Schilt and Pickering, the school's upper-level managers, to their faces in front of their appointed bosses. Following the UH commencement ceremonies in late May, Martinez and Moores had been given a preview presentation from the Coalition, and that had impressed them enough to recommend the show to the entire board.

The chancellor's staff carefully controls the flow of information to the board, and this presentation constituted a massive, if temporary, breach of the info-dam.

Gary Etgen, who's chaired the UH mathematics department for 16 years, began the presentation by explaining to his select audience how a much touted effort to cut bureaucratic waste and streamline campus operations by restructuring had resulted in little more than a token trim of minor programs such as jewelry making. Political scientist Richard Murray, who's taught or advised dozens of politicians in Harris County for nearly a quarter-century, told the regents that the school is losing political clout and funding because its Austin representatives are outclassed by the powerhouse alumni legislators and lobbying teams assembled by A&M, Tech and UT.

Law school professor Bill Streng then finished off the barrage by calling for an outside management audit of the UH system itself, the layer of bureaucracy headed by Schilt that sits atop the pyramid of four UH campuses. If any view is shared almost universally among UH faculty, it's that the system is bloated to the point that its administrative structure needs drastic modification and its budget needs to be pared by millions.

The regents reacted positively to the presentation, if comments by board chair Beth Morian are any indication. "Now that the summer is over, I look forward to getting back in touch with them," says Morian. Her remarks have resonance -- she's a granddaughter of Hugh Roy Cullen, whose largess got UH off the ground, and she's viewed by Coalition organizers as one of the regents closest to Schilt. "They bring up some interesting points," she says of the professors, "and we're all interested in the good of the university."

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Tim Fleck
Contact: Tim Fleck