Friday, August 8, 2008

The story behind the story of the TSU 3

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.

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.

For more on this story, go to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

Photos: The "TSU 3",from left, Oliver Brown, Justin Jordan and William Hudson (above), and former TSU President Priscilla Slade (below).

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