Trouble at Texas SouthernDecember 14, 2006 |
Trouble at Texas Southern
The campus murder of a TSU student sets in motion a chain of events that would eventually bring down President Priscilla Slade and members of her administration.
By Christina Asquith
On the night of Dec. 4, 2004, a Texas Southern University student named Ashley Sloan was gunned down near campus, struck in the temple by a bullet after leaving a party with her friends. A fight inside the party had reignited outside, and someone pulled a gun. Sloan’s friends were able to shield themselves behind a car as the shots rang out, but the 20-year-old sophomore didn’t make it in time. She died in the parking lot.
The murder prompted an outpouring of accusations on campus of poor security. For many Houstonians, the shooting raised old fears of the violence-plagued TSU of the 1990s, which many thought had since been cleaned up by then-president Dr. Priscilla Slade.
As it turns out, the shooting would set in motion a series of events that not only called into question Slade’s multimillion dollar “academic renaissance,” but revealed a campus administration entrenched in scandal.
A Dazzling Vision
Slade’s vision for TSU was dazzling and reflected her own larger-than-life personality. At 53, Slade turned heads on campus, cruising around in her black Jaguar convertible and designer suits. For years, TSU, located eight miles from downtown Houston, lagged academically in comparison with nearby public universities Texas State University and the University of Houston, but Slade was said to be taking the provincial TSU and putting it on the map, nationally and internationally.
In her first few years as president, Slade had doubled enrollment to 12,000 students, launched the university’s first $50 million fund-raising campaign and a construction boom on campus, including a $25 million science building that features a four-story glass atrium and a NASA research center.
There is a new Tavis Smiley School of Communications, a new School of Public Affairs and a new College of Liberal Arts and Behavioral Sciences. The law school has been expanded and, for the first time in its history, posted higher Texas Bar exam passage rates than its main competitor, Texas Tech University. And in Diverse’s Top 100 rankings, TSU was the second highest producer of first professional degrees for African-Americans during the 2004-2005 academic year, second only to Howard University. The School of Business received accreditation in 2002, and the university has added master’s and doctoral programs in administration of justice, urban planning and environmental policy, pharmaceutical science and others. So although, some professors grumbled about Slade’s flashy persona, more felt she made TSU proud.
TSU spokeswoman Gayle Colston Barge points to new initiatives like the on-campus child care center and a summer remedial program for freshmen as examples of how TSU is helping support students, more than 40 percent of whom are the first in their families to attend college.
“I don’t know if that would have happened under just anyone; it could have, but I doubt it,” says TSU regent David Diaz, about the university’s growth.
TSU appeared to be putting the problems of the 1990s behind it. Before Slade arrived, the university switchboard often went unanswered, professors often didn’t show up for class and there was no standard accounting procedure. There was even a movement afoot to place the school under the University of Texas System because of mismanagement and poor bookkeeping.
However, to some on campus, Ashley Sloan’s murder demonstrated that Slade’s positive public image masked deep problems throughout the university. For instance, says Justin Jordan, freshman class president at the time of Sloan’s murder, the push for higher enrollment brought dangerous students to campus. Although the students had no real
interest in academia, their tuition and fees helped fuel Slade’s grandeur, he says. And according to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, only 6 percent of TSU’s students who graduated in spring 2005 had earned their degrees within four years, one of the lowest rates in the nation.
“These are just fancy buildings. Nothing’s happening in them,” says Jordan. “It’s sick that people would treat an institute of higher learning like this.”
Jordan decided that he had to do something.
A Fortuitous Find
A few weeks after Sloan’s death, Jordan and two friends organized a student safety committee, although the gunman, 24-year-old Alex Morris, had already been captured. Morris, who wasn’t a TSU student, was eventually convicted and sent to prison. Jordan and his friends, meanwhile, began patrolling TSU’s 150 acre-campus, documenting areas in need of additional streetlights and identifying red emergency call boxes in need of repair.
During one of these patrols, Jordan and his friends, Oliver Brown and William Hudson, came across an abandoned dump truck behind TSU’s General Services Building that contained copies of the university payroll, complete with employee names, salaries and social security numbers.
With the help of a member of the administration, the three students combed through the payroll, uncovering payments to the daughter of a TSU vice president and a monthly payment of $2,500 to “Steven M,” a former library employee who hadn’t worked there in years, they allege. They used the documents to force a meeting with administrators.
When the three young men asked Quintin F. Wiggins, TSU’s senior vice president for finance, to explain the campus’s poor condition and lax security, they said he blamed “them White boys and them Republicans in Austin” for inadequate funding. “Hell, I get upset when I think about the University of Texas sitting up there on $20 billion in endowment,” Wiggins told them, according to legal documents filed by the students.
Repeated phone calls from Diverse to Wiggins’s attorney seeking comment went unreturned.
“[TSU administrators] told them, ‘We’re all Black, so keep it quiet. Don’t expose your dirty laundry to White folk,’” says Dr. Bobby Mills, a TSU sociology professor and a mentor to the students. “They assumed because these young men were Black that they could give them a snow job. They weren’t stupid enough to fall for that.”
On Jan. 11, 2005, the students issued an open letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry disclosing alleged corruption at TSU. They prepared a petition to circulate calling for Slade’s resignation. Around campus, they became known as the “TSU 3.”
In an attempt to defuse the growing controversy, Slade met with the three students in her office in late January 2005.
When Slade asked what she could do to stop the petition, Jordan told her to resign.
Over the next few months, Jordan says he was contacted several times by Slade’s office. He says he was offered, among other things, the opportunity to spend a semester abroad in Italy or transfer to Texas State University, as well as a job working in the president’s office — things he interpreted as bribes to keep quiet. Sensing they were getting in over their heads, the trio began secretly recording many of their meetings, which is legal in Texas.
The TSU 3 compiled their findings into a 20-page “Special Crisis Report,” but it was largely ignored. The students found conflicts of interest at every turn. For example, two state representatives were on TSU’s payroll as guest lecturers. Jordan submitted the report detailing corruption to the TSU Board of Regents in the summer, but they responded in August 2005 with a vote of confidence for Slade.
Jordan and Brown then traveled to the state capital in Austin to turn the report over to Gov. Perry, who referred them to Macgregor Stephenson in his Office of Higher Education.
“The students were very interested in protecting the institution and the allegations they made were very serious, but I wasn’t in a position to validate them,” Stephenson said, adding that he “forwarded the matter to the TSU board of regents.”
He didn’t follow up.
On campus, the young men’s hard work went unappreciated by most students. During a Student Government Association meeting, the TSU 3 went to the microphone to explain their findings but the crowd was only interested in playing music and using the podium to give shout-outs to fraternities and sororities.
The more the TSU 3 pursued their claims, the more cases of corruption they unearthed. They updated the Special Crisis Report three times, including new evidence that two highly publicized parking garages were built for as much as $20 million over budget.
“At first, I thought about not going forward,” recalls Brown. “I told Hudson and Jordan that if we do this, it could cost us our school records. We could possibly go to jail, or even be physically harmed. They said, ‘Hey, I’m willing to die for this because it’s time for TSU to change.’ I realized if they’re willing to sacrifice their lives, I’d do the same in the name of justice.”
Jordan says the administration soon began trying to intimidate them into silence.
The students say they were followed around and harassed by campus police officers. In March 2005, Hudson and Jordan were arrested on accusations of printing employee’s social security numbers on fliers. The two surrendered to police, made bond and went to court to face charges of “fraudulent use of identifying information.” The charges were immediately dismissed as unfounded by District Court Judge Don Stricklin.
Then, in late Spring 2005, administrators brought the students before the Student-Faculty Disciplinary Committee on charges that included “inflicting mental harm,” “insubordination,” “vulgar language” and “disturbing a meeting.” They say they were denied legal representation and told to write a letter to Gov. Perry saying that “everything was OK now” at TSU. As a result, Hudson was suspended for a year and required to take anger management classes in order to return. He was also fired from his campus job in the office of enrollment management, and all three were forced out of their roles in student government.
On Oct. 29, 2005, the TSU 3 filed a lawsuit against TSU’s board of regents, Slade, five administrators and a campus police officer, alleging retaliation for their investigation. The students are seeking unspecified damages.
“They’ve had their education, their life, their career all slowed down. They’ve been ridiculed in front of students. They were very proud of their role in student government,” says Patrick Gilpin, their lawyer. “These are very young men; they’re not veterans like me. They’re idealistic kids. They had discovered a lot of information and when they took it to the proper authorities, they were expelled and harassed.”
A Growing Profile
In talking about Slade, almost everyone mentions her beauty, charm and glamour.
“She would say, ‘I’m just a poor girl from Yazoo, Mississippi,’” says board of regents president J. Paul Johnson. “She thought we were the little engine that could. She made sure that we were a quality institution and not a quality Black institution.”
The daughter of a minister and a secretary, Slade was one of seven children. She attended Mississippi State University as an undergraduate and received her master’s from Jackson State University and a doctorate in accounting from the University of Texas at Austin in 1991.
Slade spent five years in the banking industry and taught accounting at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. She moved to Houston to teach accounting at TSU in 1991, and was named dean of the business school the next year. When former TSU President James M. Douglas left in 1999, Slade was appointed president on an interim basis, officially named president later that year.
Prior to her appointment, “The university was not moving forward. It had a lot of debt, morale did not seem to be high and more needed to be done with the curriculum, the finances and the legislature,” says A. Martin Wickliff Jr., a former TSU regent who hired Slade. “She seemed like the type of person who had the vision and leadership skills that had turned around the School of Business.”
Shortly after Slade took over the presidency, the federal Office of Civil Rights successfully settled a long-standing case regarding the unequal funding of HBCUs. TSU was to receive about $12.5 million a year above its normal funding for at least six years. Around that time, the university also received $2.7 million in a tobacco settlement. In addition, Slade launched the university’s first capital campaign to raise $50 million with former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who has Houston ties. The campaign is not complete, but Slade has claimed that $37 million has been raised so far, an amount now in dispute. And as the school’s enrollment increased, so did its revenue from student tuition and fees, reaching $48 million in 2004.
“She’s a dynamic person with a broad vision for the university who took a lot of bold steps, and she has gotten credit for a lot of people’s work. The OCR money would have helped any president,” says Dr. Sanders Anderson, head of the faculty council.
Slade’s lifestyle grew along with the university. In 2005, she purchased a $1.2 million house and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on furniture, landscaping and artwork.
“She just got bigger than the institution. It became: ‘Hey, look at what I’ve done,’” says a regent who requested anonymity because of the lawsuit Slade has filed against the board. “She believed this university couldn’t survive without her greatness, and that was her downfall.”
Nonetheless, the regents took no steps to rein in Slade, and dismissed the allegations made by the TSU 3.
Even as TSU ostensibly improved, there were signs of problems just below the surface. In 2004, the TSU police chief was fired after reporting missing funds. He eventually won $314,000 in a whistleblower lawsuit. Then, a university audit revealed hundreds of thousands of dollars of missing money from the $2.7 million tobacco settlement. As a result, the university had to reimburse the state. In early 2005, a senior administrator was indicted for stealing $22,000 from an internship program. More recently, the university paid for 26 security cameras. Five went to Slade’s house and 21 are now “missing.”
“We could almost have a [district attorney] substation out there,” says Harris County District Attorney Charles A. Rosenthal Jr.
“We Trusted Her”
The TSU 3 had been threatened with expulsion, fired from jobs and harassed by the police. By the fall of 2005, they were feeling demoralized and ready to give up. “Every time we took information to someone, we ran into a brick wall,” Jordan says.
The Harris County investigators receive hundreds of tips a week, but when they were approached by the TSU 3 in August 2005, they were impressed with the level of evidence the students had collected against Slade, who they were familiar with from past corruption cases at TSU.
“They were the insiders who knew things before we knew about them,” says Donna Goode, chief of the public integrity division for the Harris County District Attorney’s office. “They’re pretty impressive young men. To have people this young and have some stake in this and subject themselves to the possibility of being retaliated against — it was a bold move on their part.”
The district attorney’s office quietly opened an investigation. Three months later, according to Johnson, a regent raised concerns over Slade’s spending. Regent Belinda M. Griffin had visited Slade’s home to pick up a purse Slade had bought for her during a university-related trip to China. According to the district attorney’s office, Griffin was in awe over Slade’s lifestyle and asked how she could afford the expensive artwork, furnishings and manicured lawns.
“Girl, the university is paying for it,” Slade is said to have replied.
Griffin, who was on the finance committee, would have known that Slade was required by Texas state law to get board authorization for purchases of more than $25,000. Griffin raised concerns to the board over $87,000 in furniture purchases. Johnson says that when he looked into the issue, he found more of Slade’s spending that was “outside the parameters.”
The board discussed this during their regularly scheduled meeting in January 2006.
“We trusted her, and I think she misinterpreted the rules and regulations governing housing purchases,” Johnson says, adding that he had intended for the board to “handle the matter internally.”
But the next day, the district attorney’s office subpoenaed the minutes of the executive meeting and called in all the board members for questioning.
“Someone told the DA,” Johnson says. “As soon as the DA got involved, everyone’s hands were forced.”
That someone was the TSU 3, who didn’t believe that the board could be trusted to monitor Slade.
With the district attorney’s subpoenas bearing down on them, the board finally took action to check Slade. In February 2006 they hired the law firm of Bracewell & Giuliani to conduct an external audit of university spending. The details of Slade’s lavish lifestyle poured forward: $260,000 in unauthorized spending to landscape and furnish her home; $10,000 on limousine costs; and a $9,000 bed.
The board stripped Slade of her spending authority and eventually terminated her. The TSU board rehired Slade in August to teach accounting, saying they were forced to do so given her tenured status. After a public outcry, they reversed that decision, prompting Slade to file a breach of contract lawsuit against the university.
Questions remain over how much the board knew and whether they were fiscally irresponsible. “There’s no question that Dr. Slade made these purchases openly and that others knew about them,” says Goode, of the district attorney’s office. No formal charges have been brought against the board.
In August 2006, a grand jury indicted Slade and three administrators — Bruce A. Wilson, director of purchasing and senior vice president for administration; Wiggins; and Frederick L. Holts, who once worked as senior safety system engineer — on charges of “misapplication of fiduciary responsibility.” The case goes to trial in February. Meanwhile, the district attorney’s office continues its investigation, and as of late November was considering perjury charges against Slade.
“It was bad before, and it didn’t get any better under her leadership,” says Rosenthal. “There was the belief you could do whatever you wanted, as long as you wanted, because it wasn’t the university’s money, it was tax funds.”
Slade’s questionable spending is not unique among university presidents. For example, Dr. E. Gordon Gee, chancellor of Vanderbilt University, earns an annual salary of approximately $1.3 million, but he has come under criticism for spending $6 million of university money to renovate his university-owned mansion. American University President Benjamin Ladner did lose his job over $500,000 in unauthorized spending, which included European vacations and private parties. Both Vanderbilt and American are private universities.
In her final year at TSU, Slade earned a salary of $277,000, plus another $65,000 in housing, car and other benefits. Slade owned her house but sold it after she was fired.
Slade’s attorneys did not return several phone calls and e-mails for this article. She is said to be living with her brother in Missouri City, Texas. But just before her indictment, she wrote a letter to the Houston Chronicle in April, in which she defended her spending as necessary and for the benefit of TSU (see sidebar).
Endgame for Slade
Late last month, TSU appointed James T. Boddie Jr., a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general, as interim president. The university has also installed a new chief financial officer to root out existing corruption and suggest changes.
But Dr. Bobby Wilson, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, insists that despite the lawsuits, audits and indictments, there is no mismanagement at TSU.
“I’ve been here 30 years. There isn’t any corruption. If there was,
I would know about it,” he says.
The new president will take on many of the same problems Slade tackled in 1999.
After many boon years, student tuition and fees increased by a whopping 22 percent this year after the administration “discovered a deficit” this July of $13.7 million. At least 178 jobs have been cut, including dozens of faculty. Salaries for faculty are stagnant for the first time in years. The university’s bond rating has also been lowered to “negative.” Questions loom over how much money Slade really raised after an audit found poor recordkeeping, unwise investing strategies and inaccurate reporting on financial documents regarding the $23 million endowment.
“Now, no one discounts what [the students] were talking about,” says Anderson of the faculty council. “A lot of things they’ve said have come to fruition.”
Even Johnson, who is being sued by the TSU 3, was impressed with their work. “Jordan’s an admirable young man. He’s diligent in his pursuit of what he believes is right.”
Jordan says he was happy when the indictments finally came down, but his two friends lost some of their enthusiasm. Wilson lost a semester and is now trying to reenter TSU. Brown has left TSU and is an airline pilot. He hopes to return one day and finish his degree and go to law school.
“With corruption, everyone pays,” Jordan says. “Now the faculty has to teach more classes, the students have had a tuition increase, the taxpayers — they’re sick of paying more money, and people in the administration are going to jail. We are all paying somehow.
Adds Jordan: “Dr. Slade and the administration did a wonderful job of charming the board. They were mesmerized by her.
People were mesmerized by her.”
Slade’s Side of the Story
Dr. Priscilla Slade defended herself in a letter to the Houston Chronicle on April 12, 2006. Following is an excerpt from the letter.
In February 1999 I became interim president of Texas Southern University at a time when the very existence of the university was in question. After seven years of continuous effort, TSU is accredited by every relevant authority and has grown to become the second-largest historically Black university in the country.
Four months ago, during a visit to my home, Regent Belinda Griffin complimented my choice of furniture. I thanked her and candidly pointed out that the furniture was owned by TSU, as was the university’s practice.
As a result, my professional reputation is under attack, and TSU’s future is at risk. It is time for me to speak out.
I began my work for the university in 1999 without a written contract or even an agreed-upon salary. Rather than concern myself with compensation or benefits, I focused on the future of the university. At the time, I was settled in my home in Missouri City. Overnight, my residence became the “president’s home.” I was informed that the university “already” employed several persons whose jobs were to maintain the president’s residence and assist with housekeeping. I did not interview or hire these employees; I welcomed them in my home, and they have continued to work since that time. Now I read that these costs are categorized as “questionable expenses” after an internal TSU audit.
Some press reports have concluded that I have spent more than twice the amount permitted under my contract. That conclusion is not true.
Expenses made under my direction come from two sources: those permitted under my contract (about $50,000) and those from the annual budget approved by the regents for my office (about $450,000). Neither has been exceeded.
What of the other “questionable” expenses? The regents’ own investigators, Bracewell & Giuliani, concluded that every expenditure was of the nature that could be legitimately funded with public funds.
Although I had the discretion and authority to make each of these purchases, in hindsight, I recognize that I should have done a better job of communicating with TSU regents.
— Priscilla Slade, President, Texas Southern University
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