Crisis on Cullen Boulevard

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Regent Martinez says the presentation was an eye opener. "We were receiving information for the first time on some of those issues," he says. "They view the restructuring process as being dead. They view our legislative efforts as needing to be reorganized and redirected."

Schilt took the criticism unruffled, while Pickering parried with some of the presenters. The regents asked a number of questions, primarily about the political issues, and the mood stayed cordial. Staff waiting outside the room heard laughter.

But some other folks on the UH campus weren't laughing. Social Sciences Dean Harrell Rodgers, preparing that day for a meeting with a superior in which he expected to get marching orders for the coming semester, suddenly found his meeting canceled. Rodgers was a key player in the administration of the late UH President Marguerite Barnett, and he has been an intense critic of Schilt and Pickering and a backer of the Coalition. That last may be one reason his meeting was canceled; as Rodgers discovered later, he was to be dumped from his deanship by Pickering. He'll return to the political science department as a professor but will be taking a pay cut after rejecting a proposal to keep his administrator's salary in return for muting his criticism of the administration.

While Pickering's aides characterized the shift as a routine changing of the guard, Rodgers contends his dismissal is a retaliation to his continuing criticism of his bosses, and in particular his support for the Coalition. In an interview in his final days as dean, Rodgers indicated his may not be the only head to roll: "When he called me [in early August], I told Chancellor Schilt, 'The clock is ticking, buddy, everybody knows it's not working in Austin. People are going to be paying a whole lot more attention this time, and we haven't done the work we needed to do. People are questioning the lack of strategic planning and the quality of leadership here. You better get a grip on the fact we better change what we're doing or you're going to be a victim too."

In line with UH's inbred sense of inferiority, system administrators -- using an "it could have been worse" rationale -- have actually tried to portray the funding cut the main campus suffered at the Legislature's hands as a victory. They even awarded chief lobbyist Grover Campbell, the system's vice chancellor for governmental relations (and a UT grad), a generous $10,000 raise.

A thin, blonde man with a slight drawl who's in his early forties but could pass as a grad student in his late twenties, Campbell has represented the UH system in Austin for nearly a decade. He says his critics have distorted the school's performance there.

"I know the allegations of failure are out there, but if you've got to define success you've got to define failure," he says. Campbell blames UH's declining enrollment, particularly in graduate classes, for most of the funding losses. He produces a list of goals he's accomplished, a list Coalition members say accounts for small battles and misplaced priorities in a losing war.

"If you want to talk about whether I have the right marching orders, you need to talk to the Board of Regents, the chancellor and the presidents," retorts Campbell. "They're the ones who put together our agenda. This is not an agenda that I sit up in an office late at night and just create myself."

Schilt's cohorts in Houston's business community sent him congratulatory notes after hearing the system's glowing account of the session's outcome. But key Harris County legislators and on-campus observers saw something quite different: a humiliating defeat and a warning flag.

"We've got to do something," says state Senator John Whitmire, a UH law school graduate and 22-year veteran of legislative service. "UH has never been able to compete on a level playing field with UT and A&M. It's gotten worse because now you have other institutions, like Texas Tech, moving out ahead of UH, and that's just sheer political power."

Whitmire says the university is too valuable an asset in the city, particularly to Houston's minority communities, to be allowed to degenerate.

"If we want it to be the institution it has a right to be, we've got to marshal the troops," he says. "It's bigger than John Whitmire. It's bigger than Alex Schilt. It's going to take a community effort."

State Representative Sylvester Turner, another UH alumnus, warns that if the status quo continues, the school is headed for second- or third-class status. "That's what is happening," says Turner. "When it comes to funding for the University of Houston, it is not looked at with those schools grouped on level one."

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Tim Fleck
Contact: Tim Fleck