Bail-out helps Texas Southern – at least temporarily – Texas Southern University

HOUSTON

As Texas Southern University
celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, university
administrators are hoping a financial bail-out
and accountability plan will help the
historically Black college survive at least
another fifty years.

In exchange for something between $8
million and $12 million from the often
tight-fisted Texas legislature, TSU officials
have agreed to maintain a schedule to fix the
financial aid problems of the 7,700student
university. About half of that money is
supposed to keep the institution, from which
75 percent of its students receive financial aid.
out of the red this fiscal year. The agreement
is an attempt by administrators to stave off
outright state control of the school, once
known as Texas State University for Negroes,
whose historic role in educating Houston’s
Black community has ignited impassioned
loyalties.

“It was through TSU that Houston
Blacks developed a middle class,” says
Zoia Jones, a 1960 graduate and president of
the Houston Chapter of the TSU Alumni
Association.

The financial plight of the college has
drawn statewide interest, especially among
African Americans, because Texas Southern
remains the only independent public Black
university in Texas. It boasts a who’s who of
powerful alumni, including the late U.S.
Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, and claims
to have graduated more minority lawyers than
any school in the state. In a show of support,
March 21 was designated TSU Day by the
Texas Black Legislative Caucus.

In his inaugural speech, TSU President
James M. Douglas, a Houston native and law
school alumnus, offered an upbeat vision of
the institution’s future: “Texas Southern
University will survive because its founders
and those who followed built our university
on a rock. With your help we will continue to
build upon a rock.”

Douglas and his legislative supporters
have a lot riding on their shoulders in the next
few months.
For about a year, The University That
Sweatt Built, a bittersweet reference to the
1947 Sweatt v. Painter anti-segregation court
case that resulted in TSU’s state
funding, has been buried under a mudslide of
fiscal woes linked to financial aid
mismanagement. The U.S. Department of
Education, claiming that the university owes it
as much as $13 million in misspent financial
aid dollars over several years, has placed it on
a reimbursement system. That system
requires Texas Southern to pay students
financial aid, then file for reimbursement
showing proof that students qualify. The
cumbersome and time-consuming procedure
has left the university cash poor.

At a recent public meeting, State Rep.
Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said a startling
forty cents of every dollar the college receives
comes from financial aid.
The financial aid troubles led to a faculty
uprising spearheaded by Otis King, a tenured
law school professor and former mentor to
Douglas. King’s attempt to win support for
conservatorship, which means the state would
appoint outsiders to manage the university’s
daily operations, received national publicity
but fell flat with faculty.

But even if the legislature gives the school
the bail-out money, which would be in
addition to its annual allocation, realists say
the dollars don’t guarantee TSU’s long-term
survival. State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, a chief broker of
the agreement with the legislature, says the
school must improve its management if it is to
survive.

“We need a plan to change the culture of
the institution…. But we can’t do it all at one
time,” acknowledged Coleman, whose district
includes TSU and whose father was a regent.
“I said not too long ago that over my dead
body would TSU end up in conservatorship
or in another university system. Well, I’m still
breathing.”

Coleman expects legislative approval of
the agreement later this month. However,
King, a former dean of the law school and
president of the faculty senate, said that the
agreement just delays conservatorship.
“The legislature is giving the college just
enough support to fail,” King said, following a
recent spirited meeting at which Coleman,
Dutton and Houston’s other Black legislators
championed the agreement.

In addition to the money TSU will receive
from the legislature, a rider in the
appropriations bill stipulates the creation of a
management team, led by the State
Comptroller’s Office, that will assist college
officials in revamping hiring, bookkeeping and
financial aid procedures. The college needs $4
million to offset a projected revenue shortfall
this fiscal year because of financial aid and
other problems, according to state auditors.
However, Douglas, who has hired a new
financial aid director and changed most of the
office staff, told a legislative appropriations
committee that the estimate was too high. The
remainder of the money would be applied
toward long-term financial problems, Coleman
said.

TSU has until Sept. 1 to develop
accountability systems or face further
legislative controls, including conservatorship.
The agreement also requires college officials to
provide quarterly reports to TSU regents
(who are appointed by the governor), the
Legislative Budget Board, the Legislative
Audit Committee, the State Auditor’s Office,
the Senate Finance Committee and the House
Appropriations Committee.

The majority of people at a recent public
meeting at TSU’s Thurgood Marshall Law
School appeared to support the plan. Many
of them, passionate about the university’s
independence, said Texas Southern officials
need to clean house to prevent the state from
permanently taking control of the institution.
Most of the financial aid issues plaguing
the university were detailed in a November
1996 state auditor’s report. In a letter to Enos
Cabell Jr., chairman of the TSU Board of
Regents, Auditor Lawrence Alwin wrote:
“Neither proactive leadership nor fundamental
oversight systems are in place to prevent a
future financial crisis.”

At the public meeting, State Rep.
Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, said,
“President Douglas has taken the brunt of
criticism in this…but [financial
mismanagement] has been a problem for TSU
for the last twenty-five years.”
Indeed, state auditor’s reports over the
years have taken the college to the woodshed
for lax financial accountability. Douglas, who
became president in 1995, has pinned
financial aid problems on a succession of
administrators who failed to fix matters. And
some university officials who worked with
financial aid were reassigned to other joins on
campus, according to state records, which has
irked lawmakers who are now being asked to
bail out the institution.

TSU officials say financial aid was given
to students without documentation, but with
the understanding that they would bring the
necessary paperwork later. Many students at
the open-enrollment college never did.
Supporters say Douglas has worked
furiously with staff this year to send student
aid documents to Washington, D.C., so TSU
can quickly receive financial aid
reimbursement. Douglas said the real problem
besetting the university is no longer financial
but one of confidence that things are being
fixed. He told the legislative appropriations
committee last month that a new computer
system and other measures helped staff send
700 student files to the Department of
Education for reimbursement in early
February. Last fall, he said, it took the
university several months to send only 300
files.

However, the process is tedious and
patience is wearing thin in the legislature.
During hits testimony last month, State Rep.
Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, admonished
Douglas: “I don’t want to come here next
[legislative] session and have us recounting
the same problems. Whatever heads must go
in order to protect the students, that must
happen.”

Nonetheless, TSU still needs operating
money. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee,
D-Houston, wants the federal Education
Department to revise the reimbursement
arrangement with the college to allow TSU
officials to draw down a percentage of its
financial aid.

“I am asking them to recognize that there
has been a good faith effort to correct the
problems,” Jackson Lee said in reference to
Douglas’s work.
However, many say education officials
have no reason to help TSU when it still
owes the department millions.

King says racial pride and emotionalism
are blocking discussions of reasonable
solutions to TSU’s problems, which
should include joining a university system,
as Prairie View A&M University has done.
The historically Black college about fifty
miles west of Houston became part of the
predominantly white Texas A&M System
more than a decade ago.

“Coming from Mr. King, I guess he
expressed his view. However, I don’t see TSU
as being unable to solve its problem,” says
Jones, president of the Houston alumni
association. “We ought to have brains
enough to run the school.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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