School for Scandal

Too often, Texas Southern University lives down to its reputation. But for a community in need, failure is not an option—or shouldn’t be.

August 2007By Comments

Texas Southern University, its supporters frequently say, was created to fail. That it has succeeded all too well in this mission is one of the saddest stories in Texas. Now in its sixtieth year, it has hardly known a time when its fiscal affairs were not in chaos, when its board of regents was not dysfunctional, when its graduation rate was not shockingly low, and when exasperated white politicians in Austin were not talking about putting it under a conservatorship or ending its status as an independent institution. The latest crisis involves revelations that the university’s ex-president, Priscilla Slade, spent some $260,000 in school funds on decorating and landscaping her home, with the connivance of the school’s former chief financial officer, Quintin Wiggins, who was convicted of misapplication of fiduciary property and sentenced to ten years in prison. Slade herself faces a trial this month.

When local black leaders like state senator Rodney Ellis say that TSU was created to fail, they mean that its original purpose was not to provide black Texans with educational opportunities but to justify denying them those opportunities. In 1946 a young black man in Houston named Heman Marion Sweatt applied to the University of Texas School of Law. He was refused admission because of his race. Sweatt filed suit against the university, and under the warped logic of segregation, he had a good case, because Texas had no “separate but equal” facilities. The trial court delayed the case so that the state could cobble together a law school for blacks, and UT officials announced that it would open one the following year. Its home would be a site south of downtown Houston, where the Houston Independent School District had operated a junior college for blacks with one permanent building and a collection of Quonset huts. In the spring of 1947, the Legislature authorized the purchase of the college from the HISD for $2 million and established it as Texas State University for Negroes. Sweatt still sought admission to UT, but the trial court, ruling that the state had complied with its duty to provide separate but equal facilities, refused to order university officials to admit him. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Texas courts. Comparing the two schools, it ruled, “We cannot conclude that the education offered [Sweatt] is substantially equal to that which he would receive if admitted to the University of Texas Law School.” (Sweatt enrolled in the UT law school in September 1950 but did not finish.)

The university’s name was changed to Texas Southern in 1951, but the “created to fail” syndrome did not go away. TSU has historically faced three kinds of problems. One is a lack of funding by the state, an issue that has diminished as black legislators have gained in power and influence; another is a credibility-shattering history of mismanagement and lack of oversight that deters state budget writers and potential donors from pouring more money into the university; and a third is the lack of educational skills possessed by many incoming students who are the products of Houston’s inner-city schools. Once, in its early years, TSU had to offer remedial education to nine hundred of its one thousand entering freshmen. The problems persist into law school, where TSU has by far the lowest passing rate on the bar exam of any Texas law school. The public policy question that will not go away is whether TSU can function independently or whether it should be merged into the neighboring University of Houston or some other institution.

Yet there are other measures by which TSU is not a failure but a success story. It is no contradiction to say that in spite of its checkered history, Texas Southern is one of the most important universities in the state. For all its shortcomings, it has provided a path into the middle and professional classes for tens of thousands of Houstonians, most of them black and a sizable minority Hispanic. This has enriched the city’s economy, broadened its power base, broken the cycle of poverty for countless families, and promoted a degree of racial harmony that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago, when Houston was still a redneck town. One need only consider the tense racial climate in Dallas, which lacks an accessible public university for children from poor families, to realize just how important Texas Southern is.

No one understands this better than members of Houston’s black community and their elected representatives. They regard TSU as “their” school. This support has been both a blessing and a curse. The resistance to changing the status of the university comes from them. Howard Jefferson, who for many years headed the local chapter of the NAACP, told me, “This is ours. It is not broken; it is cracked. Let us fix it.” When a proposal to merge TSU with the U of H gained traction in 1986, busloads of opponents descended on the Capitol in a demonstration that the Houston Chronicle likened to a revival. The initiative died. Similar opposition arose earlier that year to a proposed merger with UT. TSU’s supporters don’t want it to be an elite school. They want it to be exactly what it is: an open-enrollment institution that can give their children an academic credential. “Even though many of the students who go to TSU could not get in any other place, they come out as doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs,” Jefferson told me. Law graduates may have to take the bar exam three times before passing it, but the old joke applies: What do you call a law student who ranks at the bottom of his graduating class? “Attorney-at-law.”

The perennial problem at Texas Southern is weak leadership. Priscilla Slade epitomized the all-too-prevalent attitude of  “Ask not what you can do for Texas Southern, ask what Texas Southern can do for you.” One president re-imbursed himself $800 from the Regents Fund for political contributions. Another regent sought and received $3,000 in discretionary funds to make a speech in Rome. These are tip-of-the-iceberg examples. At TSU, state representative Sylvester Turner told me, “Some board members did not bring resources to the university; the university brought resources to the board.” One regent put the university’s money in his bank; another arranged for financial aid for his children. Appointments to the TSU board have seldom been a high priority of Texas governors; a Dallas justice of the peace kept his seat for 24 years. “You don’t want somebody who needs a job,” Turner said. “You have to have people who can write checks and raise money, people who have some capability of running a major organization.”

One afternoon in late June, I met Garnet Coleman, the state representative in whose district Texas Southern sits, for a tour of the campus. Coleman grew up nearby; he remembers attending parties here. He helped arrange hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding for the school after the federal Office of Civil Rights said that vestiges of segregation still existed, and he reflects his constituents’ opposition to any change in the university’s independent status. “The only option for us is to support Texas Southern University staying an independent, viable, higher-learning institution for African Americans,” he told a campus rally opposing state conservatorship in 1996. “That means no conservatorship. It means no merger with the University of Houston. Texas Southern University must have its own independent board of regents.” We strolled down what used to be Wheeler Street but is now a tree-shaded brick walkway. The trunks of the trees were painted with the letters and colors of fraternities and sororities. A carillon played the hymn “In the Garden” as we passed landmarks Coleman pointed out: the Barbara Jordan—Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs, the Rod Paige Education Building, the Martin Luther King classroom building, the small brick building that had been the lone permanent structure all those years ago. It looked like a typical college campus. But TSU is not typical. “You have to understand that TSU came from a world of separate but equal,” Coleman told me. “Everybody, well-to-do and poor, lived together. The community is tight-knit. This was the beacon of hope.”

Then he told me about one of the parking garages Slade had built. I had driven past it. It’s gargantuan, almost two football fields long. It had been funded by revenue bonds supported by a student parking fee. Except . . . “There was no fee!” Coleman said, shaking his head in amazement. Now TSU is on the hook to pay off the bonds—but with what money? The tragedy of Slade’s presidency, he said, is that TSU had not had any criminal problems with financial mismanagement for ten years before she came along. She dug the hole so deep that the handwriting is on the wall: “If TSU runs into a problem again, it will end up in a system.”

The temptation—which I am going to yield to—is to ask, “What’s wrong with that?” I realize that I can’t ever aspire to have the depth of understanding about TSU that Coleman has, or the sense of history that Jefferson has, or the emotional attachment that Houston’s black community has. But I can see that the problems are so pervasive, so embedded in TSU’s culture and history, and so destructive of the university’s ability to carry out its essential mission that the hoped-for remedies—a new president, a new financial manager, a new collection of regents—will not bring about real change. What can change TSU is membership in a major university system with access to funding and accountability for the university’s educational and managerial performance. Texas’s other historically black public university, Prairie View A&M, is proof positive of the benefits of membership in a major university system. Prairie View is part of the Texas A&M System. The system’s regents and the chancellor provide oversight. Accounting is standardized for all schools in the system. Faculty salaries are competitive with those of peer schools. Higher entrance standards have not impeded the school’s ability to produce black nurses, teachers, premed students, and engineers.

If TSU were a member of, say, the UT System, all these benefits would accrue. It does not have to be a prisoner of its history. Its destiny does not have to be that it was created to fail.

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