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.

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

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