In Rodgers' telling, he repeatedly helped protect Pickering from Barnett, who was "a very ambitious person, and knowing she was sick, she wanted the image out that Jim just didn't have any ability. I defended Jim to her over and over. He'd call and say 'My God, she did this and that.' I told her, 'Marguerite, can you lighten up a little bit. I've seen a lot of this guy's work -- he's doing a good job. You're not making him feel very good.'"
Barnett ended up conducting a national search for a permanent senior vice president and indicated she wasn't going to give the job to Pickering. But at that point, she was increasingly ill and making questionable decisions, says Rodgers. When it became apparent that the ailing Barnett could no longer fulfill her duties, Rodgers says it was he who lobbied Schilt and overcame his objections to have Pickering named as acting president on a six-month trial basis.
By Rodgers' account, the alliance between him and Pickering foundered when the new acting president appointed Glen Aumann as his senior vice president while Rodgers was out of town. "If I'd been making a list of 100 people to be senior V.P., it would never have been Glenn Aumann," says Rodgers. "I was fuming mad, and confronted Pickering. He said the other deans had shot down all of his choices, and that was all he was left with. I saw the list and he was right. They were all worse than Aumann."
"That's when I realized I'd made a serious mistake," adds Rodgers. "Marguerite had seen something I hadn't seen. It went downhill from there. It became clear to me he wasn't going to use a cabinet, that he wouldn't consult with anybody, that he was a behind-closed-doors kind of guy." Not so coincidentally, Rodgers has a reputation among colleagues for lecturing to subordinates, but rarely consulting with them about decisions. An audit of his school, while generally praiseworthy, made the same muted criticism.
Rodgers says he went to Schilt and tried to pull the plug on Pickering. "I told Schilt, 'I've made a serious mistake. This guy is not qualified to be president. He just doesn't have any judgment at all. Surrounds himself by weak people, and he doesn't consult.'"
By then, Rodgers says, Schilt had decided Pickering was his kind of guy. "Of course, Schilt's interest was in having someone in there who wouldn't give him the kind of problems Marguerite did. Marguerite ... was always tough on the people above her."
Rodgers believes Pickering, who had been on the outs with Barnett and was in no position to exercise independence from Schilt, was just what the chancellor wanted.
"I think [Schilt] was so traumatized by [Barnett] that when he got a guy like Pickering, who wouldn't make a move without calling him on the phone and asking permission, well, that was exactly what he wanted," Rodgers says. Without a national search, Pickering was appointed president.
Pickering declined to discuss his history with Rodgers, saying, "I really hate and I've tried not to comment on personnel issues. It's only harmful to get into a 'Yes I did, no I didn't' situation."
Rodgers' take on Schilt is caustic. "A professional nice guy," he says. "He works real hard at that, being that nicest, most reasonable, decent, caring, loving man you'll ever meet. He knows all of the regents' birthdays and anniversaries and children's names, and when they go on a trip he writes 'em notes saying, 'I hope you have a good time.' I think he parlayed that from the downtown campus presidency into a position where he's in totally over his head."
Rodgers points out that the council of UH deans unanimously voted against Schilt's appointment, saying he was unqualified and if he was the final candidate, a new national search should be launched.
Through an aide, Schilt declined to respond to specific remarks made by Rodgers for this story.
Rodgers is still angry over a phone call several weeks ago from the chancellor, during which he says Schilt reminded him he was a "friend and buddy" and urged the dean to take a settlement maintaining his pay, to keep his mouth shut and to go back to teaching.
"Alex said to me, 'Gee, we offered you a wonderful deal to just walk away quietly, and I would have taken it, Harrell.' I said 'Yep, you sure would have.'"