As president of Prairie View A&M University, retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius Becton earned respect as a starched-shirt leader who demanded accountability in academic and financial affairs and didn’t mind challenging the status quo to achieve his goals.
Now, the students, faculty and parents of the Washington, D.C., public school system will have to determine if Becton’s often gruff, no-nonsense style can help their ailing district heal itself.
Becton, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, recently was named chief executive officer of the D.C. school system. He will report to a new education panel appointed by the D.C. financial control board.
The panel is expected to govern the District’s schools for several years before returning power to the elected school hoard. The decision to establish the panel and CEO position are controversial with some residents and home-rule proponents because the elected school board will only serve in an advisory capacity.
Becton, who is a Prairie View A&M alumnus with a master’s degree in economics from the University of Maryland, does not have a traditional educational background. That raises the issue of whether he is an appropriate choice for chief executive officer of a school system. His selection, however, is not unprecedented, according to the Council of the Great City Schools. Seattle public schools are also administered–and with notable success–by a retired Army general, John Sanford.
District schools have been dogged by violent incidents, low teacher morale and allegations of financial mismanagement. How academic programs fared under Becton’s leadership at Prairie View may indicate what D.C. parents, faculty and students can expect from him.
Becton’s lack of academic background temporarily surfaced when he first was appointed president of Prairie View, a historically Black college near Houston, Texas.
“Do we need an educator or an organizer? That was an issue at Prairie View,” said Wilbert Williams, who was president of the Austin chapter of the college’s alumni association during Becton’s five-year tenure. Former State Rep. Wilhelmina Delco, who chaired the higher education committee of the Texas House of Representatives, said Becton had adequate educational experience. “He’s had his hand in education,” she noted, referring to his appointment to a committee overseeing the desegregation of Alabama colleges a few years ago.
Dr. Flossie Byrd, who worked at Prairie View from 1962 to 1994 and is now vice president and provost emeritus at the university, said Becton briefly taught classes at Prairie View. “To be a leader and ensure that the administration is taken care of does not mean you have to he down in the trenches to do the work. He was very supportive and that gave us [deans and administrators] the leeway to look for funding and programs, and to make the necessary changes to move the programs forward,” offered Byrd, who was named by Becton as Prairie View’s first provost and vice president for academic affairs.
Supporters say Becton’s experiences at Prairie View can be beneficial in his new job as CEO of D.C. schools. When Becton arrived at the university in December 1989, Texas lawmakers had attempted to place the institution under financial receivership.
The threat never materialized, but the university was in the spotlight. As a result, Becton quickly made some tough and unpopular decisions. In the late 1980s, the athletic department at the land grant college–once called the Black Notre Dame for its winning football team in the 1950s–had an $800,000 annual deficit which had attracted the attention of the Texas A&M University System. The system informed Prairie View that something had to be done to reduce the deficit, so Becton called on alumni to financially support the program, just as their counterparts did at predominantly white Texas A&M University.
Because the level of financial support did not rise sufficiently, Becton discontinued football scholarships and the program in December, 1989. Although some members of the, Prairie View community were disappointed that Becton did not challenge the A&M system’s authority, Delco felt that decision revealed Becton’s priorities. “He was the one that bit the bullet and made the decision,” she said. “What his concern was, was that [athletics] was eating up money that was affecting academics.”
The football program was reinstated in 1991, after the program became self-sufficient. Football scholarships, however, were not reinstated until earlier this year. Supporters say Becton championed academics by pushing for faculty development, ensuring that departments were accredited, and encouraging administrators and cleans to focus on raising money for programs.
Early in his administration, he reorganized the university’s academic programs with an emphasis on revising the mission statement and strengthening administrators’ accountability for faculty performance and curriculum, according to Byrd.
However, others associated with the college who did not want to be quoted are less certain about Becton’s academic contributions. There were concerns when Becton moved the engineering technology program, which trains students for manufacturing-related jobs, under the College of Architecture and Engineering. Although some thought the technology program needed to remain separate, the engineering school is still considered the university’s fop academic draw for students and recruiters. And according to officials in the engineering college, there were no accreditation problems during Becton’s tenure.
Some faculty members said Becton’s initial emphasis was on making the campus safe so that students could focus on learning. Becton determined that a handful of undesirable students were disrupting the learning environment on campus, so he forced them to leave. Also, he installed emergency phones at the school so that students and faculty could be directly connected to campus security.
Williams, who was a member of the national Prairie View alumni board, remembers one of the first alumni meetings with the new president. Becton summoned them to a meeting room in the center of which was a table full of guns that had been confiscated from students. The general then proceeded to explain, with flow charts and graphs, his vision for Prairie View. “That included running off the bad guys,” Williams said.
“If the D.C. panel is looking for someone who can get to the bottom of things,” added Williams, “Becton’s their man.”
COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com