Boone Pickens and the Roach Motel
The master of takeovers is caught up in a feud between the president and the faculty of a Panhandle university. It all could have been avoided if only he had read his own book.
Login / Register
ORNo Account? Register here.
There is really nothing special about the house except its size. A red-brick colonial with a portico and circular driveway, it wouldn’t merit a second look in any of Texas’ swank neighborhoods, even at 7,300 square feet. But there it is, plopped down on a vast cow pasture, complete with cows, in the isolated Panhandle town of Canyon. It is the home of the president of West Texas State University, Ed Roach. Roach was the one who pushed for an official residence, something appropriate to his stature in 1984 as the new president of West Texas State, and the school spent nearly $1 million, twice as much as originally budgeted, to build it. Unfortunately, just as the house was being finished in 1986, the state’s already battered economy went into a free-fall. In the resulting fiscal crisis West Texas State was savaged, its budget cut by a third. To the faculty at WTSU, with their frozen salaries and their shrinking programs, the giant house in the cow pasture became the perfect symbol of everything they had come to hate about their president: his arrogance, his self-indulgence, his bad judgment. Typically, since the house symbolized all the things they were powerless to do anything about, they tried to find comfort where they could. So they made up a name for the house. They call it the Roach Motel.
Ed Roach came to West Texas State University with a mission. It was a mission he shared with the chairman of the board of regents, T. Boone Pickens, Jr., the Amarillo oilman and head of Mesa Limited Partnership. That mission was to reshape West Texas State to fit the realities of today’s Texas, the Texas in which inefficiency can mean extinction. That mission meant taking what Roach and Pickens saw as a self-satisfied, mediocre institution and turning it into one of the best-run universities in the state. Things haven’t quite turned out that way. Now, four years into the administration of Ed Roach, WTSU is still mediocre, but it has been transformed into a demoralized den of infighting and intrigue.
Faculty members accuse the president of committing atrocities and compare him to Hitler. The president accuses faculty members of conspiring with outside agitators to bring him down. The president has sued professors; the football coach has sued the president. Paranoia runs rampant on both sides; some faculty members believe that the administration is bugging their phones, and a few have resorted to using code names. Some students are wearing Roachbuster buttons displaying a cockroach with a red slash through it; other students have condemned the protesters. A Milquetoast faculty has turned into a guerilla force. The president has received black balloons, a black cake, letters smeared with excrement, and death threats.
Everything about WTSU—the big house on the prairie, Ed Roach’s dreams of academic glory, the faculty’s total outrage—is so improbable that to an outsider it sometimes seems more zany than serious. And nothing about the situation at WTSU is more improbable than the role of T. Boone Pickens.
“It’S The Moon”
Boone Pickens bristles at the idea that he should have to justify his interest in WTSU. It is self-evident to him that the fates of Amarillo, the city with which his name is metonymic, and WTSU, the school at which his name is festooned, are inextricably linked. “How could I not be interested in West Texas State University?” he says. “Mesa draws most of our personnel from West Texas State. It stands to reason that I want the best people I can get.”
Pickens is baffled at those who say that he is hurting the university; in his view, he became a regent to save it. “I’m convinced that a number of four-year universities in Texas are going to be eliminated,” he says. “I don’t want West Texas State eliminated.”
Pickens’ office at Mesa’s headquarters in downtown Amarillo is understatedly elegant, with pegged wooden floors and Western art on the walls. On his desk are piled a hundred or so copies of his autobiography, Boone, each with a letter inserted in the front cover, ready to be sent off. Behind Pickens are two photographs of his wife, Bea, and a computer terminal hooked to the financial markets. At regular intervals he swivels around to inspect the numbers marching across the screen (“Gosh, I didn’t think oil would do that”). Pickens is of medium height and slender; he prides himself on his abstemious eating habits. At sixty, even with his graying hair and lined cheeks, Pickens gives the impression of youth. His boyish features help, but most of all it comes from his energy—and his almost adolescent absorption in what people are saying about him.
An interview about WTSU scheduled for an hour stretches to three and a half—ending only when the Secretary of Energy calls from Washington. During the interview Pickens is full of questions of his own: “You haven’t asked me about my power—don’t you know I’m ruthless and I do all these things because I’m rich?…People say I’m overpowering as chairman. I play fair. Did you hear I intimidated other members of the board? …Do you believe me—I don’t dabble in local politics.…Is my image like you thought I’d be?”
The past year has not been the kind of success story that Boone Pickens has grown accustomed to. His corporate takeover attempts were blocked. His book sold well, but not as well as he had hoped. Mesa Limited Partnership’s earnings dropped from $70.6 million in 1986 to $31.9 million in 1987. His top executive left the company. He received unfavorable publicity for leading a drive to get Amarillo Globe-News readers to cancel their subscriptions; when the paper’s absentee owners capitulated and transferred the general manager out of state, the Mesa headquarters was draped with a giant banner that read “Good-bye Jerry.” Pickens was the subject of an unflattering profile in the Wall Street Journal that quoted him as saying, “I’m not paranoid, I don’t think.”
Now he is deep in another controversy, at West Texas State. To Pickens, the turmoil is not about a timid faculty fearful of change, as Ed Roach thinks it is, or about the intrusion of corporate values into academic life, as faculty members believe. To Pickens, the university is part of a larger problem. That problem is Amarillo. And the problem with Amarillo is that it is full of people who are out to get T. Boone Pickens, Jr. The conspiracy encompasses many of Amarillo’s institutions: the newspaper, the Presbyterian church, the police department, the banks, the Republican party’s right wing, and, of course, WTSU.
The only way to understand the conspiracy is to understand Amarillo, Pickens believes. “It’s not easy to move people to Amarillo,” he says. “It’s kind of like the moon. You move people here and they start thinking about how they can leave.” Soon he stops saying Amarillo is like the moon and simply calls it the moon. To illustrate his point, Pickens waves at the panoramic view from his window of morning rush hour. “Look, that’s the main street. What do you see out there? Five cars!” Pickens himself sounds a little weary at being so far from earth. “The only reason I stay sane is that I’m out of town a lot.”
Every few minutes Pickens buzzes his secretary to retrieve evidence of the plot. That includes almost anything the Amarillo Globe-News has written about WTSU or Mesa; letters by Pickens, to Pickens, and about Pickens; videotapes of his enemies’ appearances on the local news; articles about people with whom he’s feuding. For the most part he refuses to go on the record about the conspiracy. “It looks so petty for me to get involved with this,” he says. Sometimes he even questions whether he is imagining it all. “But then I get up in front of a crowd, and people ask why the newspaper hates me.”
The conspiracy itself is fairly simple: anyone who for whatever reason has been critical of Pickens is part of the plot. For example, for years Pickens has been feuding with the far-right wing of the Amarillo Republican party. He also is the chief defender of Ed Roach against the WTSU faculty. Therefore, in Pickens’ view, the faculty is being manipulated by the right-wingers. “They have a common enemy—me!” he says.
Pickens made his reputation taking on the big guys, the people he has characterized as the bloated, self-indulgent heads of America’s big corporations. But when he talks about WTSU, one can only think that no one is too small for Pickens to attack. Here he is, accusing a university professor—an outspoken opponent of Roach’s—of being an alcoholic. Another Roach critic has no credibility because he was pictured in the campus yearbook standing on his head. Pickens dismisses a local writer as a “drunk who makes thirteen thousand dollars a year.” Don Stribling, an ex-WTSU employee who is now the youth director at the First Presbyterian Church, which Pickens attends, wrote a letter to the Globe-News that was highly critical of Pickens’ role as a regent. In response Pickens himself hands out a packet of correspondence dealing with the “grave concern” he has with Stribling’s behavior as a church employee. Stribling kept his job after a church meeting was held on the matter.
Pickens is aware of how fantastic it all seems. “You hang around here for a while,” he says. “We’ll get you as screwy as we are.”
The Change Agent
The college was founded in 1910 in Canyon, seventeen miles south of Amarillo. The location in the small agricultural center was a life sentence to the educational backwater—at least until Boone Pickens and Ed Roach determined to change it. WTSU started out as a teacher’s college, West Texas Normal College. (When a member of the faculty recently told Pickens that he just wanted things to get back to normal, Pickens responded, “Yes, you want to get back to West Texas Normal, and I’m not going to have any part of that.”) Over the years the school has been redesignated a state college and then a university, but it still plays much the same role it did in the beginning. Most of the teachers in the Amarillo area were educated at WTSU, and many of the students are the first generation of their family to go to college.
WTSU is hardly the sort of place where you would expect to find a faculty in revolt. The sixties came and went without making a ripple. Probably the most notable event in the school’s history occurred in 1916, when Georgia O’Keeffe came from New York to join the art faculty; she left after a year. For most of the current faculty, the appeal of the university lies in the freedom from the pressure of the academic big time; there is no publish-or-perish rule at WTSU. Even the campus itself, with its squat and undistinguished brick buildings, evokes a sense of utilitarian modesty. A visitor hears the same refrain over and over: “It is such a nice place to settle down and raise a family.”
By the early seventies, enrollment swelled to nearly 8,000 students, and the regents, anticipating further increases, launched an ambitious building program. The school acquired enough administrators to accommodate a student body of 15,000. But the bust caused enrollment to drop off, and so did the Legislature’s 1985 decision to triple out-of-state tuition—a devastating blow for a school that drew heavily on eastern New Mexico and western Oklahoma. The decline has continued, administrators say, because of the well-publicized problems on campus. Today the university has just 5,742 students.
In the face of hard times, Ed Roach’s business background—he had been the dean of the business school at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos—made him the choice of the search committee for WTSU’s new president in 1984. It certainly wasn’t his congeniality or charisma. Sturdily built, with sandy, thinning hair, tortoiseshell glasses, and a card in his wallet documenting his excellent physical condition as a dedicated runner, Roach has a perpetually tense, serious demeanor. When a humorous remark is made, he has a disconcerting way of staring uncomprehendingly, as if the speaker had suddenly lapsed into a foreign language.
During his interview with the search committee, Roach would flip open a loose-leaf binder and consult its charts and graphs before answering questions. He employed terms like “strategic planning,” a subject on which he had given lectures around the state. This was exactly what the regents wanted. Says Nolon Henson, a regent from Happy, “Running a university now is a more business-type thing.” Ed Roach and Boone Pickens did not know each other before Roach came to WTSU. But once the new president was installed, he and Pickens became close. For Pickens, Roach’s ability to speak the language of management made up for his lack of charm. “People say Ed Roach is too grim,” Pickens told a writer for a WTSU publication. “You don’t smile when you’re thinking.”
Ed Roach had big plans for WTSU, plans that went far beyond simply cutting administrators and overhauling the physical plant. He wanted to make the sleepy school nothing short of excellent. He was going to start with the kind of strategic plan he lectured about. WTSU would decide on a few things worth doing, do them well, and eliminate everything else. In the process there would be a complete reevaluation of every aspect of the university—the administration, the academic departments, the number of faculty, and the role of athletics.
It was his determination to change WTSU, Roach believes, that caused all the trouble. On a spring afternoon, he sits in his office and sketches a graph that looks like a large check mark. “This represents change,” he says. He circles the bottom point of the check. “This has been labeled the ‘valley of despair.’” Only after passing through the valley, he explains, can change be effective. But Roach, Pickens, and WTSU have been stuck in the valley of despair for four years.
“I’m a change agent,” Roach says. “Boone Pickens is a change agent. You go back through history—typically, change agents aren’t loved.”
The Imperial President
Ed Roach came to WTSU to make changes, and make them he did. His first targets, however, were hardly the kinds of things that strategic plans are made of. Within weeks of his arrival in July 1984, he remodeled his office suite—at a cost of $50,000. He traded in the previous president’s Chevrolet Celebrity for a Buick Park Avenue. For his gala inauguration that fall, the speaker was former president Gerald Ford. It was a bit highfalutin for WTSU—the ceremony soon was being referred to around campus as the coronation—but Roach remained a curiosity rather than an object of malice.
The next spring Roach changed the campus food service. The old supplier, Marriott, satisfied its student customers: it served West Texas fare, including, once a semester, calf fries. But it didn’t satisfy Ed Roach. The problem wasn’t so much the food as again a matter of style. At Southwest Texas State, Roach had seen catered breakfast meetings for the president using a silver service and uniformed help; Marriott’s catering for presidential affairs was “third rate,” Roach says. So he got rid of Marriott and hired SWTSU’s food supplier, Professional Food Management.
In response, there was a revolt. Three times a day, every day, the school was reminded that the president seemed to care more about his sugar-and-creamer set than about the people who had to eat the food. Students held angry meetings and wrote outraged letters to the school paper. Discussion of presidential perquisites became a new pastime; the food service joined the litany of the redecorated office, the car, and the coronation.
Under fire, Roach responded by digging in. He saw the food-service fight as a dress rehearsal for the academic battles that were yet to come. He clashed with Bob Kinney, the dean who dealt with the food service (“I’m convinced that if I had been left alone, I could have worked it out,” Kinney says, “but Dr. Roach wanted me to control people”). Within a year, in the first example of what would become a pattern at WTSU, Kinney lost his job. Roach says Kinney was unable to make decisions.
The next thing that Roach got was the house. An official residence had been under discussion for years. Roach made the case to the regents that it would be more like a university building than a private residence. He pointed out that there was nowhere on campus to entertain actual and potential contributors and nowhere elegant in town to put up important visitors.
In the fall of 1984 the regents received approval from the state’s higher education coordinating board for a $494,000 house. By the time the house was completed in 1986, the cost had ballooned to nearly $1 million. It appeared that the commercial-quality kitchen and an enlarged septic system had been left out of the original estimates. Roach went to Austin to get more state money for the house, but the coordinating board agreed to pick up only part of the balance and told the university to find the remaining $211,000 itself. To save money, the administration assigned university maintenance workers from their regular duties to help finish construction. A painter named Winfred Padgett refused to go and complained in the local newspaper about coworkers who had spent their time building a presidential wine rack. Ten months later Padgett was laid off.
If changing the food service was a miscalculation, then building the house was a fiasco. With money getting tight, Roach seemed to be saying, “Everybody has to make sacrifices but me.” He even requested that one of the music department’s best teaching pianos be moved to the new residence. The department head suggested a new piano be purchased instead. Administrators had to talk Roach out of firing the man.
All this might have been expected to raise the ire of Boone Pickens, who has made a career out of skewering corporate executives for their love of perks. But Pickens finds fault only with Roach’s critics. “My wife summed it up very well,” he says of the presidential abode. “She said she’s never been to a place like this, where they have something nice and don’t want it.”
Roach too is unyielding. “Appearances count,” he likes to say. “Every fundraising book says people don’t give to institutions that need it but to institutions they think are doing a first-rate job.” But in trying to appear presidential, Roach ignored his own dictum; to the faculty, he appeared to be consumed with his own grandeur. He was alienating the people whose goodwill would be crucial when the time came to reorganize the school. But to Roach, all the criticism is just proof that his opponents are small-minded nitpickers. “Am I,” he asks, “going to have to talk about mashed potatoes all my life?”
The Court of the Sun King
In the spring of 1986, with the atmosphere at the school already poisonous, Ed Roach revealed his long-awaited strategic plan. It made good on his promise that things would change. The following year, the number of colleges was slashed from 7 to 4. The number of departments was reduced from 23 to 14. Among the victims were the colleges of agriculture and nursing (both down-graded to divisions) and arts and sciences (dismantled) and such departments as anthropology, horticulture, and speech and hearing therapy (all eliminated). The effect was to emphasize the areas most popular with students, especially business and communication.
Most of Roach’s final plan had been suggested, in one form or another, by the faculty. It shouldn’t have been cause for a major controversy. But there was so much distrust between Roach and the faculty that controversy erupted as soon as the plan began to go into effect.
Roach’s critics saw a disturbing pattern: people who had publicly opposed Roach or angered him for any number of reasons found their jobs eliminated in the restructuring of the university. Though tenured faculty were beyond Roach’s reach, deans, part-time professors, and nonacademic employees were not. Faculty members began to see their dispute with Roach as more than a clash of personalities; it was a matter of academic principle. As English professor Richard Moseley puts it, “At a university, freedom of expression is not just a right, it’s a responsibility. If you tell people to shut up, you don’t have a university anymore.”
Roach had no more regard for his opponents than they had for him. He saw them as fifth columnists out to subvert the strategic plan and keep things the way they had always been. “I hear those people say, ‘We were looking forward to change,’” he says. “Baloney. It was a hunker-down mentality.”
Ted Freidell, a former dean of the college of arts and sciences, considers himself among Roach’s first victims. Freidell had been the dean of the college since 1971, and he was a vigorous opponent of its breakup under the strategic plan. When the time came to choose a dean for the new college of education and social science, Freidell wanted the job. He won the unanimous recommendation of the selection committee, but Roach rejected him. The vice president, who has since left the university, told the committee to name someone else, someone the president would find acceptable.
Hunter Ingalls, a part-time professor of art history, also lost his job, after writing a letter to the Amarillo Globe-News criticizing the regents’ unquestioning support of Roach. A Ph.D. from Columbia who married into one of the Panhandle’s wealthiest families, Ingalls was one of the most popular professors on campus; the school paper editorialized for his reinstatement, terming his departure “a little too conveeeenient.”
The list grew longer. It included Winfred Padgett, the painter who had made the injudicious remark about the presidential wine rack; it included student affairs dean Bob Kinney and his deputy; it soon included Steven Mayes, an administrator who supervised the journalism department. Roach’s unhappiness with the coverage he was receiving in the school newspaper was well known. The administration replaced the newspaper’s faculty adviser without consulting Mayes. Mayes refused to sign the employment papers for the new adviser and wrote a letter of complaint to Roach. Mayes resigned from his administrative position at Roach’s request shortly afterward.
The faculty began to think of WTSU as the French court under Louis XIV—a world populated by snitches and fueled by vindictiveness and internal intrigue. Roach listened avidly to those who reported snide remarks and nasty cracks professors made about the boss. No incident was too small to overlook. When Roach learned that psychology professor Tom Cannon had made a joke about the president’s doghouse—a miniature version of the presidential mansion—he told Cannon’s department head of his extreme displeasure. Cannon recalls, “I said something like, ‘If you think the president’s house is nice, you should see his dog’s house.’” When word of Roach’s displeasure reached him, Cannon duly wrote a letter of apology. He was, “To President Roach, everything is a matter of control. You are either for or against, and if you are against, you must be punished.”
The Coup De Grace
As the anger against the president built, another feeling emerged—a feeling of, well, exhilaration. There was excitement in the air, a heady sense that the upheavals that one associated with campuses like Harvard and Columbia and Berkeley had come at last to faraway Canyon.
It was an explosion waiting for a spark, and Roach provided one soon enough. He decreed that deans and department heads would get additional administrative duties as well as salary increases. However, the administration also decided that summer-school classes would be reduced. To the faculty, it was an example of education taking a backseat to administration.
In the fall of 1986 the faculty senate decided to hold a referendum on the change. On the bottom of the ballot was a space for comments. People quickly ran out of paper enumerating their complaints. The president of the senate, an engineering-technology professor named Don Envick, who has since taken a position at a Nebraska college, presented the comments to Roach and urged him to talk to the faculty about their concerns. Roach refused. “He said he didn’t have to respond to anything negative,” Envick recalls. Later, at a meeting with the full senate, Roach repeated his refusal.
That did it. Ed Roach had achieved the impossible: he had radicalized the WTSU faculty. The complaining turned to calls for action. At a gathering at Envick’s house, Roach’s opponents pressed for the strongest move the faculty could take: a no-confidence vote. The vote was taken, and on November 10 the results were announced. Ninety percent of the faculty responded, and 87 percent of them—157 faculty members—voted no confidence in Ed Roach. The school newspaper soon reprinted the anonymous comments that accompanied the ballots. Said one: “He couldn’t have brought more ill will to WT if he had been caught sodomizing the university mascot at the homecoming game.”
The faculty saw the vote as a triumph; the outcome was more overwhelming than anyone had dared imagine. Their censure was now official, and they knew that not even Pickens, who had remained firmly behind Roach all along, could ignore it.
Some members of the faculty believed Roach’s relationship with Pickens was part of the problem at WTSU. A self-professed hero worshiper, Roach has copies of Pickens’ autobiography in nearly every room in his house. His office, just off the living room, is decorated in Late Boone. Framed editorial cartoons of Pickens, autographed to Roach, line the walls, and on the desk, along with books about two of Roach’s other heroes, Truman and Churchill, is the omnipresent Boone. As faculty critics saw it, the way Roach ran the university—from top down, punishing what he regarded as disloyalty, harping on the bottom line, living high on the institution’s money—amounted to an intrusion of corporate values into academic life.
Pickens’ reaction to the no-confidence vote confirmed their worst fears. “The faculty are employees, and employees go to work—that’s it,” Pickens told Amarillo television reporters. “The faculty believes they can never be discharged from the university because they’ve been tenured. Let me tell you, higher education is going to be restructured, just like corporate America.”
Out Of Control
After the no-confidence vote, the administration seemed paralyzed. The university catalog, which explains WTSU’s programs and the course work required to graduate, had to be revised to reflect the strategic plan. The new edition, scheduled to be issued in the spring of 1987, didn’t appear until November. Freshmen had no written source to tell them whether their degree programs were valid.
The budget was a mess too. Instead of coming out at the beginning of the school year, in August, it was not ready until October. Department heads received multiple versions of the budget and didn’t know what to work from. One of Roach’s selling points for the strategic plan was that it would save nearly $1 million, which would go largely into faculty salaries. But the raises never materialized. Roach says legislative budget cuts were the reason. Adding to Roach’s embarrassment, the administration bungled the awarding of scholarships given by the Amarillo Advertising Federation; the ad club retrieved the money from university control and now administers the scholarship program itself. One thing Roach did take care of was his own salary. In 1986 he negotiated a $10,000 raise, paid for by private funds, bringing his salary to $90,000.
Roach and Pickens like to boast that Roach has been a successful fundraiser for the school. After all, that’s what a lot of the perks were about—creating a look of success that would attract donors. But when pressed, Roach and Pickens admit that almost all the money is from one source: Boone Pickens. “Boone has given most of the money, in the neighborhood of two and a half million,” Roach says, adding, “these are tough times.”
At times it seemed that just about the only action being taken at WTSU was the Boonification of the university. The Bea and Boone Pickens Distinguished Lecture Series, paid for by the Amarillo Credit Association, has brought in three speakers: megatrender John Naisbitt, television evangelist Robert Schuller, and rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. (It did not escape the notice of Roach’s faculty critics that in the same week Schuller was speaking at WTSU, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Edward Albee gave an address at Amarillo’s community college.) To acknowledge Mrs. Pickens’ contributions to the arts, West Texas State now has a Beatrice Carr Pickens chair in music. Pickens and Mesa Limited Partnership have also given jointly $1.5 million to the business school. In thanks for that generosity, the regents took Roach’s suggestion that they honor their chairman by naming the school the T. Boone Pickens College of Business.
The war between the faculty and Ed Roach reached a new level of intensity in September 1987. An anonymously written broadside appeared in school mailboxes and classrooms. Titled The Rest of the Prairie (the campus newspaper is called The Prairie), it featured a cartoon called “Ty Koone Country” and an editorial policy that Ed Roach should depart WTSU. An open letter to Roach concluded, “You are the problem, Ed. You are also the solution. Get the hint?” Roach and Pickens were convinced that the paper was not a manifestation of the mood of the campus but actually tied in to the Amarillo conspiracy against Pickens.
The hostility between the faculty and Roach was out of control. Soon it escalated again. In February of this year an anonymous group calling itself SAFE at WTSU (Students, Alumni, and Faculty for Education at West Texas State University) took out an ad in the Globe-News calling for Roach’s resignation on the grounds that he had committed “atrocities.” The following Sunday Roach’s supporters ran a reply written by a Mesa employee. The ad was signed by 387 people; the name-gathering effort was coordinated out of the Mesa offices.
The counterattack was not over. A few days later the university president took the extreme step of taking his own faculty to court. The suit, brought on behalf of Roach and his wife, accused ten John Does responsible for The Rest of the Prairie and the SAFE ad of libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Roach demanded that his anonymous critics be forced to reveal their identities. A private investigator from Houston was hired to see what he could turn up about Roach’s opponents. To Roach’s supporters, the lawsuit was a sign that his critics had gone too far; to his critics, it was a sign that Roach had gone too far.
On February 24 he went even further. Roach issued a remarkable press release about recently fired football coach Bill Kelly that showed just how bizarre the atmosphere at WTSU had become. Kelly had been fired over “philosophical differences” after he told the Canyon newspaper that he might look for another job because of constraints on out-of-state recruiting. After being fired, he hired an attorney to fight for his reinstatement (the case has since been settled).
The press release was not about Kelly’s dismissal, however. It was about the death of WTSU football player Curtis Johnson, who had collapsed and died during a workout the previous year. After an autopsy, no fault was assigned to the coaching staff for the death. But Roach’s press release said that new information had come to light. An assistant coach had revealed that Kelly withheld information from investigators. The release went on to say that as Johnson lay collapsed on the ground, Kelly had gone over and yelled at him, nearly causing a race riot by Johnson’s fellow black players. Here is exactly what the university president’s press release said Kelly had yelled: “Get your lazy, fat ass off the ground you pussy motherf—er.”
No sooner was the release handed out than the assistant coach it quoted came forward to say that his remarks had been distorted. A few weeks later the Randall County district attorney issued a statement clearing Kelly of responsibility in Curtis Johnson’s death. The DA also says that the press release left the university vulnerable to the possibility of a wrongful-death suit from Johnson’s family. The incident was Roach at his worst—as spiteful, vindictive, and harmful to the university as his critics had always claimed.
“Fighting A Shadow”
On the same day that he issued his press release Ed Roach found out who was behind the underground paper. Gary Byrd, the president of the faculty senate and a professor of psychology, called a special meeting of the faculty, and he and Spanish professor Mary Gill announced that they were the editors of The Rest of the Prairie. The faculty responded with a standing ovation and shouts of bravo. Colleagues organized a legal-defense fund for the pair.
But there was to be no trial. The next month Roach deflated the faculty’s sense of moral righteousness by dropping his lawsuit. Even his friends, he says, didn’t fully understand the issues. “It looked like the big ol’ president was beating up on the little ol’ faculty,” Roach says.
“I’m not sorry I brought it,” he continues. “I felt so frustrated fighting a shadow.” In his official statement Roach sounded like Pickens when he included among his opponents “individuals who are not connected in any way with WTSU but were using the controversy to further their own political ends.”
Back in Amarillo, some serious damage assessment was going on at Mesa headquarters. Pickens was spending an inordinate amount of time consumed with WTSU. At a special meeting of the board of regents on April 8, Pickens unveiled a plan he hoped would end the turmoil at last: A panel of impartial observers would hear any claims the faculty had to make of violations of academic freedom.
Roach and the regents are strict constructionists on the question of academic freedom, seeing it as a matter of being able to teach without interference. Roach said he welcomed the panel. “I’m tired of this,” he said at the time. “Every act of decision I make, people say, ‘Hey, that’s a violation of academic freedom.’ Removing a chairman of a department is not a violation of academic freedom.”
By the time the three-member panel of academics from outside WTSU arrived, however, the scope of the inquiry had been broadened to include violations of freedom of expression. During the first week of May the panel heard from more than one hundred employees—from maintenance workers and deans to Pickens himself—about the state of West Texas State. The panel was to make a report on its findings for the regents; meeting on May 19.
Whatever the panel says and whatever the regents do as result, the toll already taken has been great. WTSU has gotten more publicity under the administration of Ed Roach than at any time in its history, almost all of it bad. Paranoia is so pervasive that neither the administration nor the faculty can make a move without the other side becoming suspicious. And Boone Pickens, one of the shrewdest dealmakers in the country, has found himself caught up in an academic quagmire.
How did Boone Pickens let it happen? He ought to recognize what’s going on at WTSU; all he has to do is read his own book (plenty of copies are close at hand). In it he derides the egomania of corporate executives, whose biggest interest is the “four P’s: pay, perks, power, and prestige.” He denounces Gulf Oil for hiring a private detective to tail him. “Hiring detectives, unfortunately, is a common practice by many big corporations,” Pickens writes. “It’s partly arrogance and partly a total disregard for fair play and the rights of others.” And he counsels that a good leader listens to what his subordinates have to say, and that means bad news as well as good. “When people disagree with me, they do it openly, respectfully, but directly in front of the others. You’ve got to remove any fear of disagreeing with the CEO.” Pickens may not have looked through a copy of Boone recently, but maybe it’s time Ed Roach did.