The University of Texas System is marching boldly into Houston with promises of academic expansion and collaboration, a move University of Houston System officials can’t oppose loudly enough, but a culture it embraces as it joins UT in offering new law degree specialty courses on eminent domain in Texas.
The prevailing wisdom for both systems is that in Houston and throughout Texas, there are vast new frontiers yet discovered in delivering education, commercial development and community outreach to underserved areas and people.
But at the same time, leaders at Texas Southern University are delaying a decision on a president with a search it has largely kept out of the public eye, after the abrupt departure of outgoing president John Rudley, who earlier this year endorsed UT’s manifest destiny approach to settlement in H-Town.
If there is one thing HBCU leaders should know in an era of increased racial animus, political uncertainty and lean economics, it’s that the old way of business will no longer work in managing our schools. Media is too fast, social reaction is too broad and data is easily accessible for a decision not to be carefully plotted and transparent to all stakeholders; the excuse of protecting applicants and candidates doesn’t suffice when a school’s progress or demise is at stake.
And now Texas Southern finds itself in the worst kind of purgatory, stuck between doing business the way they’ve always done it, while recognizing the delicate nature of the decision before them. In the last twelve months, the school has made headlines for some of the worst issues a campus can face – student discontent, tragic violence, leadership turnover and dismal licensure pass rates for graduates of its law school – all in that order.
Add to that mix a lingering bitterness over the school’s approach to increasing diversity and drastic cuts in state appropriations, and there is an overwhelming sense of just how daunting this job will be for the new president, especially since the campus community will not meet him or her until there is a tentative agreement in place.
For conspiracy theorists, this kind of clandestine approach to the single most important duty of higher education governance rings all kinds of bells. Is TSU preparing to install a president who will reveal himself to be a UT agent for merger or consolidation? Is this when all of those rumors about UH taking over the school come true? How is it that so many schools around TSU are grabbing for land and development, but TSU, seemingly, is not?
In the best of scenarios, TSU regents will force a new president into the spotlight to answer questions from media and stakeholders about an uncertain future, one that this new campus CEO will know less about than the students, alumni and faculty he or she will serve.
And even if you believe rumors about Lone Star College Vice-Chancellor Austin Lane and former Texas Southern Professor Byron E. Price as the two finalists, both HBCU graduates and the latter a TSU alum, neither will have the benefit of proper introduction to the culture of campus and city as an administrator, not solely as an observer or employee.
In the best of scenarios, resentment towards the regents over the covert search transforms into increased pressure on the new president from internal stakeholders, and permanently mars his or her ability to earn trust and build relationships. But perhaps, the move allows the new president to come in with an unbiased ear towards the pressure and overtures of Texas politics, and the UT and UH systems.
In the worst of scenarios, the animosity grows anyway and TSU becomes instantly vulnerable to mission creep and land grabbing from UT or UH, or both; which will force the president to choose between two masters – the will of the campus’ potential and personal legacy, or the will of Texas’ middle-aged, white male power structure and its ability to make appointment and retirement very comfortable for those who play along, and very damaging to those who don’t.
Of course, simply knowing candidates’ identities doesn’t help any of these difficult choices vanish, but it does give the campus a better opportunity to choose alliance with their selected leader, instead of instant distrust of a name and face they don’t know because of an antiquated search process.
No one knows about the political machinations behind the search, if there are any. But giving the impression that there could be, especially with everything going on at and around Texas Southern, doesn’t help the prospects of a stable, long-term prospect in the most important office on campus.