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George C. Wright: The TT Interview

The president of Prairie View A&M University on higher ed budget cuts, the role of historically black colleges in Texas and why he'll soon be back in the classroom teaching the largest class on campus.

Prairie View A&M University President George C. Wright.

There will be a new professor at Prairie View A&M University this fall, one who's very familiar to returning students and faculty. To help spread the pain of budget cuts, George C. Wright, the president of the university, has decided to step back in front of the classroom and teach a 300-student American history survey course — the largest on campus.

Knowing cuts were on the way, Wright made the decision to get back to teaching last November, and spent his winter break reviewing and updating his old lecture materials. Though he's a bit nervous about the challenge before him, he says the preparation has already provided much enjoyment. "People can joke and say, 'Who's buried in Grant's Tomb? Has that changed? When was World War I? Has that changed?'" Wright says. "But the interpretation and analysis constantly do change, and that's what makes history exciting."

Wright, who got his start as a history professor, won't be the only Prairie View administrator returning to his roots this fall. Several members of his staff — including the provost, associate provosts and all the deans — are following suit, though none of them are being relieved of any of their other duties. Wright says they will manage to get through it. "It's been my fate to be an administrator during tough times," he says. "I'd love to be an administrator at this level during a time when states are expanding higher education. That has not been my experience, and I don't think it's going to be my experience."

Last week, Wright took some time to talk about his decision, the budget, and the role of historically black colleges and universities — such as Prairie View and Texas Southern University — in Texas. The following is an edited transcript and an audio excerpt.

Audio Highlights: George C. Wright

TT: What has the reaction been to your return to teaching?

Wright: I have been very pleased with the response I have received from a wide range of people.

Let me just use students for an example. I’ve always had an excellent relationship with students here on this campus. But they say, “You don’t spend enough time with us.” And I’ll say, “You do realize I have to go to the Legislature, I have to talk to alumni, I need to do all these things that I’m doing that are about students even when I’m not around students.” But I think a lot of them are excited about the fact that I will get to see them and interact with them in the classroom.

A lot of the longtime faculty here are actually glad that I’m going to be teaching. I think in some ways, some of them want to say, “He’s going to really find out what it’s like to be at this university.” Meaning, in their minds, that I’m going to be disappointed. But that’s not the case, because I think I have an understanding of this new generation of students.

I think they’re excited about me teaching. And clearly, I think my administrative team is excited. They, like me, all claim to be good teachers. So now, we’re going to have to put our money where our mouths are. And we’re going to have to do that and at the same time do all of our other things that we’re still required to do. It doesn’t mean I get to drop something. It just means I get to add something to what I’m doing.

TT: Is there a risk that you might be spreading yourself too thin?

I’m fortunate now that this fall is the start of my ninth year at this job. And so I have a sense of the things that I really need to do. There’s always the problem in any administrative job that you can come to work saying, "This is what I’m going to do today," but all of a sudden you may be diverted. I could get to work and some crisis has developed, and that may mean I have to drop everything and do that. But short of that, I’m not worried about spreading myself too thin.

The jobs that I’ve had working at a university require 10, 12 or 14 hours a day anyway. I’ve already devoted time to getting my lectures together. And I’ll have to find time late at night for reading the next day’s lectures and preparing for class, as I would have done in the past. So, I don’t see myself spreading myself thin. 

TT: Can you talk about the outside factors that led to this decision?

Everybody knows who has ever heard me speak since I’ve been president, I start off by saying, “I am a history professor masquerading as a college president.” That’s my line. That’s what I tell people. 

I say that I got into this business because I wanted to teach history and history is my hobby, my passion, my vocation. I believe that because I’m a good historian, it has helped me be a good administrator. The logical consequence of my career is that at some point when I’m no longer president, I hope to be a full time history professor again. And so consequently, everything has always pointed in this direction.

It took something like this budget for me to think it out. And here’s what I decided: In preparing for the budget cut — without knowing what it was — all the universities said, “Okay, let’s cut back on travel some. Let’s cut back on this. We need to look at all of our programs to see what we’re doing that we can eliminate.”

At some point, every school, Prairie View included, said to Professor Smith, “You teach now 40 students in a class. You really need to teach 50 students or 55 or 60 in that class.” In some instances, they said to the professor, “You teach three classes a semester. Why can’t you teach a fourth class during this crisis? Because we’re going to have to let some adjuncts and others go." Then you said to the groundskeeper, the janitors and the staff people, “You need to do more, but you’re not going to be paid anymore.”

I said to myself, at some point, can’t people look at me and the administrators and say, “Well, what are you doing other than telling us to do more? What more are you doing?”

And I said, “Oh my goodness. I definitely can teach. I can definitely do this, and I can help in that regard."

And honestly, from a symbolic standpoint, I thought it would make the right statement. I’m at a university and teaching is at its core. Maybe I should teach at some point at Prairie View.

All that said, if I turn out not to do well teaching this fall, I won’t do it again. I think I’ll be able to determine at a certain point whether or not I’m connecting with the class, whether I’m giving them the amount of time I’m supposed to give them and things like that to be successful in the classroom.

TT: Is this approach something you’d recommend for other administrators?

Wright: I’ve talked to people like the president of the University of Texas, Dr. Powers. A lot of people like him often teach a freshman seminar. I think when Mark Yudof was the chancellor at the University of Texas System, I believe he taught some. I know administrators at Texas A&M University have taught some.

I had not taught because, again, of doing all the many things I do. And my major class was the American history survey. It's a rather large class. So I thought it’d be more difficult than just having 15 or 20 students. 

At the same time, I said to the vice presidents, three of the five of us are faculty members. All of the deans come from whatever academic discipline they are now the dean over, so they clearly have been faculty members. So, I said to them, “If your schedule permits…”

TT: Was it tough to get buy in from other administrators?

Wright: One of the things about being president is that people look to you for leadership and ideas. Then, they are pretty candid in giving you their view of things. This was not one of them where we had to go on and on. Buy-in on this was easy. People understood what we’re trying to do.

One of the things I said to them from the beginning was, “As we go into this budget situation, it’s going to call on all of us to make some sacrifices. But also if you’re a vice president or a dean, how you view things will be noted by the people who report to you.” So therefore, if we’re complaining about the budget cuts or we have that kind of attitude, it will trickle down.

TT: Earlier this year, lawmakers were warned by the federal government to be careful about funding reductions to Prairie View and Texas Southern University. What is the role of historically black colleges and universities in Texas and why should they be protected?

Wright: First of all, a school like Prairie View — and if you consider Prairie View was the only public university up until roughly 1946 or '47 when Texas Southern came into existence. It meant that virtually all of the educated blacks in Texas and in many states outside of Texas had a Prairie View connection.

Even though integration has existed [for] 50 or 60 years now, a significant number of the students who are educated in Texas have come through these schools. I think a real value of a Prairie View is providing access to students. That's number one.

And at the same time, we have our fair share of legacies, just like a Texas A&M, UT or fill in the blank and put in any other school. I know young people who could go anywhere, and they say, just like folks say about UT, "My money and my kid are going to this school," which is a good thing.

So, we have provided access. We’ve also played the role of providing opportunities for some students who may not have done as well as they should have for whatever reason prior to coming to college. So that’s an important role.

As you may or may not know, in the year 1999, the state of Texas, in agreement with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, agreed that they would do an assessment of Prairie View and Texas Southern funding vis-a-vis the University of Houston, Texas A&M, UT — looking at the primarily white schools. Coming out of that is what’s called the Texas "priority plan" where Prairie View and Texas Southern would receive moneys for new buildings — in our case $125 million for new buildings and $12.5 million a year for six years for new programs. 

Well, those funds were to end in September 2007, but those funds have been extended every biennium since then. One of the things people want a person who’s a president of an HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] to say is whether or not we’ve been treated fairly by the state of Texas, the U.S. government, and so forth.

I think most people would acknowledge that there was a time in the past — and we could argue about when it ended — when we were not treated fairly with regard to allocation of resources. But at least since the 1980s and moving forward, legislators have been forthcoming in providing resources for Prairie View.

I can only speak for Prairie View. I’ll let others speak for Texas Southern. During my eight years as president, the funding we have received has been consistent with the funding of other schools and the special funding that had started under this "priority plan."

Consequently, we don’t feel as if we’ve been neglected. We wish ourselves and all of the institutions of higher learning all had more funds. After having been provost of the University of Texas-Arlington, a predominantly white school, for eight years, I know that school would say they could use additional funding. I suspect even UT and A&M could say the same thing.

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