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Volume 68, Issue 62, Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Opinion
 

Time to weigh in on issues

By Ken Fountain
Opinion Columnist

As the semester winds down, so does my stint as an Opinion columnist for The Daily Cougar. Before I go, I want to weigh in on some controversial issues here at UH.

Because of my previous work as a News writer (and later News editor) at the paper (and also because Iive been at UH a long time), Iive had a much closer view than most students at the shifting undercurrents of contention that are always just beneath the surface, sometimes erupting into public view. Itis been a revealing journey.

UH is essentially the same as any other large organization, such as a corporation or a government. It is a collection of different components and constituencies the central administration, faculty, staff, different colleges and departments ostensibly working together toward a common goal educating students. But the sheer size and complexity of the University, coupled with basic human nature, makes conflict inevitable.

One of the most recent and most public outbreaks involved the release of a survey report early this semester on faculty attitudes toward the central administration, particularly Chancellor/President Arthur K. Smith and Provost Edward Sheridan. The results, largely negative, put into black and white what has been a long-simmering animosity between the faculty and the administration.

In a nutshell, a large segment of the faculty believes the administration is too authoritarian, micromanaging colleges and departments by fiat from above. They feel that Smith and especially Sheridan (who has more direct interaction with the departments) do not promote "shared governance," the long-standing academic tradition by which faculty (and to a lesser extent staff and students) take a hand in University decision-making.

A couple years ago, there was a similar flap when the administration decided staff members would serve on an "at-will" basis. That is, a staff member could be fired summarily, without appeal.

I wonit pretend to know enough about the issues to make an authoritative judgment. In fact, the more I learn, the more I see I donit know enough. But itis clear that when so many people in an organization are upset, something is wrong.

In my own limited interactions with Smith and Sheridan, Iive found both men to be pleasant enough. Then again, Iive only seen them in public settings, where theyire most likely putting their best face forward. What happens behind the closed doors of their offices may be an entirely different matter. As a reporter, Iive heard from a number of people who have said thatis precisely the case.

But many people have short memories. In its history, UH has gone through many tumultuous periods. In fact, Smith took his newly merged position in 1998 after many years of turmoil that ultimately resulted in an entire reorganization of the UH System. The Board of Regents hired him with the mandate to take a firm hand in improving the stature of "Cougar High."

And to his great credit, Smith and his subordinates have gone a long way to doing just that. The passage last year by the Texas Legislature of a bill to give UH and other state universities more "excellence funding" is the first step in gaining the University its much-sought Tier 1 status. Research funding from outside sources has grown tremendously. The campus is undergoing a physical makeover, with the addition of new facilities and the renovation of others.

The controversies at UH are really office politics. Most of us know how ugly that can be. What starts out as a disagreement over a particular issue becomes twisted after individual egos get involved. People become entrenched in their opinions, never giving an inch or giving much thought to seeing the other side. What is required is for people on all sides to step back from a war footing and begin genuine discussion of the issues, perhaps even find some common ground. After all, the central mission of everyone here remains the same educating students.

I like UH. (Considering how much time and money Iive spent here, I should.) Itis never going to be Harvard or Yale, or even, God forbid, UT. But itis a good university that serves an important niche the working people of Houston. With everyone working together, in a few yearsi time it might even be widely thought of as a great university. Who knows, people may even forget that stupid nickname.

Fountain, a senior communications major, 
can be reached at kenfountain@hotmail.com

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