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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Troubled TSU won't get a conservator

A blue-ribbon committee will recommend changes in the financially troubled Texas Southern University's governance but stop short of calling for a state-appointed conservator, according to those familiar with the panel's deliberations.

The committee, which is due to submit a final report today, will advise Gov. Rick Perry to remove some members of TSU's governing board. Alumni, students and lawmakers have criticized the nine regents for lax oversight when the historically black university is in danger of defaulting on its obligations.

One regent, Houston attorney Harry Johnson, has already offered to resign.

"I thought it was time to give the governor the option of moving in another direction," he said Wednesday. "TSU is going to be OK with or without Harry Johnson on the job."

The recommendations of the committee, appointed by the governor in January, are nonbinding. Former state Rep. Glenn Lewis, of Fort Worth, chairs the panel that includes state NAACP President Gary Bledsoe and Larry Faulkner, the former University of Texas at Austin president who heads the Houston Endowment.

Perry created the advisory panel less than two weeks after ordering the regents to start making "tough decisions" to fix TSU's financial problems or resign.
"I can understand why they would recommend that," said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat whose district includes the 11,000-student campus. "You can't make changes to the institution without making changes at the top."

The committee will not recommend which regents should leave before the end of their six-year terms. Under state law, Perry makes appointments to the board, pending Senate confirmation. The terms of three regents expired in January, and the governor has yet to announce replacements.

The regents need to keep closer watch over TSU's operations, the advisory committee thinks, because it is a stand-alone institution without the additional oversight layer provided by a university system, according to a person knowledgeable about the committee's deliberations.

The sources insisted on anonymity because committee members have been pledged to secrecy until the report is officially issued.

Belinda Griffin, the Board of Regents' newly appointed chairwoman, said she could not comment on the recommendation. "I haven't seen it," she said. "I don't know the context or framework."

But Griffin acknowledged during a state Senate Finance Committee hearing last month that the board needs help in key areas, such as accounting.

"We could clearly strengthen the board," Griffin said in response to a question from state Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat.

Campus leaders have faced increasingly hostile questions from lawmakers while seeking an emergency appropriation of $16.5 million. Problems include flooded basements in several buildings and inadequate fees or occupancy rates to pay the debt service for new dormitories, parking lots and a shuttle system.

The regents also have been under fire for a high-profile spending scandal that led to the firing of university President Priscilla Slade last year. Her replacement has not been named.
For weeks, the advisory panel has debated placing a conservator in charge of the university's spending, with the ability to fire any employee, hire new people and change the administrative structure.

Coleman and state Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat who also represents TSU, have so far firmly rejected the conservator idea. Other lawmakers, including West and Steve Ogden, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, think that might be the only way to fix the university's problems.

Raymund Paredes, the state's higher education commissioner, said state leaders still might decide TSU needs outside financial help.

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