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