Can Bush Sr. Deliver for Texas Southern?
TSU receives high-profile fund-raising support from former President George Bush
By Lydia Lum
Amid a tumbling economy and a not-so-distant history of leadership problems and financial trouble, Texas Southern University is launching a $50 million capital campaign spearheaded by former President George Bush.
The campaign is a rare venture for a historically Black university that has struggled for many years just to remain autonomous, much less brag about high points.
A 1999 report showed that TSU’s more than 30,000 alumni gave an average of only $2 a year to their alma mater. So it’s not surprising when organizers say the $50 million campaign, now in its “quiet phase,” may be the first major fund-raising drive of its kind at the 53-year-old university.
“It’s TSU’s time,” says Alan Buckwalter, general chairman of the campaign and chairman of JPMorgan Chase, Southwest region.
In fact, observers say the mere fact TSU officials are undertaking the campaign is perhaps the biggest sign that the university — known for its fiscal instabilities and revolving door of presidents — has indeed turned the corner.
“The school has had a fiscal makeover,” says Buckwalter, who is active in numerous charitable and civic circles in Houston. “Importantly, the university’s perception in the community is improving. This will only increase with the support of key individuals like former President George Bush, who is serving as honorary chairman for the university’s capital campaign.”
He is not going to attach his name to something unless he is completely sold on it. This school has definitely had a fiscal makeover.”
But is the campaign well timed? The country is suffering an economic slide while engaged in a war on terrorism that could be lengthy. Meanwhile, millions of dollars in relief aid have poured in to help victims and families of terrorist attacks. And because record floodwaters devastated so much of Houston this past summer, residents here already have opened up pocketbooks to help recovery efforts.
None of this is lost on Buckwalter and others. At an October meeting among campaign organizers, talk emerged of hiking the $50 million goal before the campaign’s public push in 2002 and announcement of lead gifts already secured. But as talks progressed, Buckwalter says, organizers agreed that the best course is to remain conservative. “Many donors we are talking to now may step up in a big way, but they may have to make their gifts over a longer period than originally planned,” Buckwalter says.
What is more certain, though, is that the campaign will go on. TSU, like many institutions of higher learning, immediately suspended fund-raising efforts for a while after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks out of respect for the victims and the outpouring of emergency relief aid.
But because of the economic downturn, college enrollments everywhere are growing. TSU is no exception. With a preliminary head count of 8,119 students this semester, the Houston university’s enrollment is now higher than it has been since the mid-1980s. TSU officials say it’s timely to promote how over the years, the school has produced famous politicians such as Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland, and other notable graduates. TSU also produces more Black and Hispanic lawyers and pharmacists than any other college in Texas. In addition, TSU is the biggest producer of teachers for Houston public schools, the seventh-largest system nationally and a system where more than 90 percent of students are minorities.
“It’s in Houston’s business interest to train these students,” says TSU president Dr. Priscilla Slade. “It’s good business sense, and it’s good humanitarian sense.”
The plans and execution of TSU’s capital campaign, expected to stretch at least three years, are a much-welcomed course for TSU officials. For years, TSU had drawn bad press for its bookkeeping problems. By the time Texas lawmakers convened in 1999 for their biennial session, they were considering once again whether to dissolve TSU’s board of regents and let either the University of Texas System or Texas A&M University System absorb TSU. In a last-ditch effort during that legislative session, TSU regents fired President James Douglas and hastily appointed Slade, an accountant who had earned acclaim as TSU’s business school dean. She became TSU’s fourth president in 11 years. Slade swiftly changed protocol.
She overhauled record-keeping, staved off lawmakers and satisfied state auditors. Then, TSU officials could finally focus on what any school is supposed to do — educate students and encourage faculty research — rather than just struggle to stay in business. At her formal inauguration as president in April 2000, Slade enthusiastically announced the $50 million
campaign and the elder Bush’s backing.
In a recent Black Issues interview, Slade says she met the former president in 1999 after that stressful legislative session. At the time, son George W. Bush was Texas governor and already had appointed several Republicans as TSU regents. Two regents then introduced Slade to the elder Bush, she recalls. “He was instantly interested in TSU,” Slade says of the former president. “He knew more than I realized. He knew about our turmoil. But he also knew about the kinds of kids who come to TSU. He even spoke to how much potential TSU had.”
So when Slade, who had raised more than $2.5 million in less than five years for business school scholarships and research, was planning the $50 million campaign universitywide, Bush seemed a natural name-brand leadership choice.
“I have great respect for TSU and what they do, and because Priscilla Slade is quite the persuasive salesman for all the right reasons, I’m very proud to be associated with this school, its president and faculty in helping in this small way,” Bush said in a prepared statement for Black Issues. “It is important to supplement the state support of this wonderful institution which has played such an important role historically with minority students.”
Dr. Marybeth Gasman, who has extensively researched Black college philanthropy, says the elder Bush’s family ties could bring recent charitable giving full circle. After all, Bush’s son, as president, is leading this country through terrorist threats and has encouraged people everywhere to give what they can to relief aid. “Certainly, they can speak to Sept. 11 quite tastefully as this campaign continues, as many of the people they approach will have given to Sept. 11 (aid),” says Gasman, an assistant professor of higher education at Georgia State University.
Gaining inner circles
TSU’s wish list of what the capital campaign contributions will finance reads like that of many universities. Among other things, officials hope to add more endowed scholarships and endowed faculty chairs, and to initiate new research centers. They want to add more computers at TSU’s library because a paltry 36 stations are now supposed to provide Internet access to all students. They also want to build a sports stadium and complex so they can stop renting playing fields from other Houston-area colleges.
What is more attention-getting is Slade’s burgeoning list of high-profile supporters, including Bush. A year ago, Slade joined Bush and wife Barbara at their family home in Kennebunkport, Maine. There, they hosted an invitation-only party where they wined and dined a handful of Houston business executives and their spouses, who are now assuming leadership roles in the TSU campaign. And earlier this year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, tapped Slade for his 10-member team advising him on political appointments statewide.
The fund-raising campaign is a rarity for TSU, but the university is far from bankrupt. It has a $12.1 million endowment. State funds make up 56 percent of total TSU revenue, while state funds make up only 50 percent of total support for Texas colleges overall. And for the past six years, the nonprofit Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund (TMSF) has channeled an estimated $180,000 to TSU, says TMSF president Dwayne Ashley.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing the $50 million effort is reaching alumni. Not only have TSU alumni historically not opened their wallets, they also have not really been schmoozed and solicited, university officials say. And those alumni who have given in recent years may not even be known to TSU officials, they say. That’s because six people have headed university advancement within the past decade, says Nina Wilson Jones, TSU assistant vice president of development since this past February. And many TSU alumni records are still kept manually, so it’s possible that individual contributions that should have been marked, “alumni,” were simply not marked as such, Jones says. For instance, TSU records show it received no alumni contributions in fiscal 2001, but it got $132,284 from 553 individual donors. Jones says many of those donors could arguably be alumni.
Gasman, of Georgia State, says well-defined alumni support will prove crucial in not only campaign dollars but also in securing corporate and foundation gifts in the increasingly competitive environment. “Corporations and foundations will definitely want to know the alumni are behind their own school,” Gasman says.
Slade, however, already has recognized this and worked to fill vacant jobs in alumni affairs, as well as resurrect entities such as the nonprofit TSU Foundation. She hired Jones — a former bank executive who had worked with affluent Black clientele such as entertainers, executives and professional athletes — to better ensure that contributions don’t become just one-time drops in the bucket, but instead, annual gifts. And behind Slade stand a growing cadre of campaign organizers trying to tell the TSU story.
“I can state unequivocally and without a doubt that the TSU regents, the Houston community and the state of Texas want Dr. Slade to be successful in this,” Jones says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com