Longform

Crisis on Cullen Boulevard

Page 7 of 15

If UH has a face in Houston political cir cles, it's the craggy 53-year-old visage of Dr. Richard Murray, the Louisiana-born political scientist who has polled for the Houston Chronicle and Dallas Morning News, provided a talking head for local election night newscasts as long as his students can remember and has instant entree to the offices of the city's political elite. He's not universally admired, of course. During the 1990 Democratic gubernatorial primary, former attorney general Jim Mattox accused Murray of rigging polls to undermine Bulldog Jim's campaign. Murray laughed it off, and Mattox took his predicted drubbing.

Murray, who occasionally partners with political science chair Tedin in outside consulting projects, is financially comfortable and recently purchased a summer home in the wine country of California's Napa Valley. The father of two adult sons and recently remarried, he's neither a malcontent nor a bomb thrower, nor does he nurse ambitions for higher academic office.

"I have been here 28 years and I plan on staying, I'm not likely to leave," says the professor. "But I'm more worried about the university's future than at any point in my tenure. We're underachieving. We're better than people think we are, and we do a lot of things awfully well. But we've not organized ourselves to utilize our strengths."

Murray says he has no axes to grind with Schilt or Pickering -- he says he just wants to be part of a successful university. "And people in this community ought to demand that. Four million people around here and they need an excellent public university, and UH is the only option," he says.

Murray tapped his vaunted political connections one afternoon in July by dropping into Mayor Lanier's City Hall office to discuss what he sees as the university's dire political situation in Austin. Lanier told him he had not even been contacted on behalf of the school until after UH was dumped by its Southwest Conference partners. Lanier has publicly damned the school for its sin of omission.

"They never approached him until after the fact on the Southwest Conference, which he just found astounding," remembers Murray. "Every sports editor and anyone who reads the sports page in town knew this was coming. Joe the Ragman could have said this is about to happen. But we were surprised."

Murray has written a 22-page report documenting why the school needs a professional lobbying team to replace or supplement the efforts of Grover Campbell and his assistant. The report emphasizes that the old Austin lobbying system, involving lawmaker enticements like the "three B's" (Beef, Bourbon and Blondes), has been replaced in the modern, more diverse legislature by a system based on the "three F's" (Facts, Footwork and Financing). "Finances," writes Murray, "because most members want to hold their seats and some are ambitious for higher office. A House campaign can easily cost $150,000 these days, a Senate race $500,000. The stork does not bring the money. Most must be raised, with the assistance of lobbyists, from parties with continuing business before the Legislature.

"One advantage we have is to exploit the fact we have some politically very well connected regents who could help us a lot if they would turn their attention to their friends in the Legislature. John Moores, of course. Vidal Martinez. Beth Morian, John O'Quinn. Zinetta Burney has stroke in the black community and Phil Carroll is CEO at Shell. We have strong former members like Ken Lay, who could be helpful. But we haven't created any structure to exploit that."

Grover Campbell, Murray notes, has lasted through three chancellors at the UH system "and his power has increased. They've sucked everything up to the system level. It's amazing how he's advanced to this critical position. He got a ten-grand raise after we lost $8.5 million. I don't call losing $8.5 million a victory, not when everybody else is not being cut."

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.

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Tim Fleck
Contact: Tim Fleck