HOUSTON – As president of Texas Southern University, Dr. Priscilla Slade was building a legacy — nearly doubling enrollment, constructing new academic buildings and overhauling the financial aid system.
But her accomplishments have taken a back seat to scandal.
Slade was fired last week and faces a criminal investigation into her use of state money. She's accused of improperly spending $87,000 to furnish her home, $138,000 on landscaping and exterior improvements, and $56,000 on security related equipment and labor.
Slade has appealed her firing and said some expenses were necessary to entertain donors. Slade, who has a doctorate in accounting from the University of Texas, blamed a paperwork error for the landscaping bills and has since reimbursed the school $138,000.
Her attorneys did not return calls seeking comment. One of them, Ronald G. Franklin, wrote a letter to attorneys for the school's regents saying Slade acknowledged the furniture belonged to the school when a visiting regent complimented her on the decor, "a scene at odds with the notion of any misconduct."
But Slade's spending, including the purchase of a sleigh bed for nearly $10,000, has upset many at the school.
"To the average man out here trying to make ends meet, these kind of purchases, you know really, they can't stomach them," said Robert Muhammad, a supporter and graduate student of TSU.
Slade was fired April 17 after an investigation by the law firm Bracewell Giuliani. The firm's report said Slade expected the university to pay for $260,000 in goods and services in 2005 for which she hadn't sought approval.
"This amount approximates Dr. Slade's salary as TSU president under her 2005 contract," the report said. "In this light, it is perplexing that Dr. Slade, who by all accounts has been successful in addressing the financial problems that plagued TSU in the past, would authorize these transactions for her home without approaching the regents to determine whether the projects should be undertaken at TSU's expense."
Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said he has found potential violations by Slade and will present his findings to a grand jury next month.
Slade, 54, told lawyers hired by the school's regents that she considered her home "an extension of the university." However, the lawyers say her compensation package includes $4,000 a month for housing.
Slade told the regents' lawyers that her furniture purchase were "in keeping with historical precedent established by former TSU presidents." The lawyers countered that Slade was hired "largely to change past practices at TSU, particularly in the area of the institution's financial affairs."
When Slade took TSU's helm in 1999, the school had a declining enrollment, a junk bond status and there was talk of merging it with another state school.
Sylvia Brooks, an alumna who now heads the Houston Area Urban League, describes Slade as an impressive, visionary woman and "very, very sharp."
Brooks said Slade brought resources to the school, which attracted better students and made TSU "competitive and comparable to any of the upstanding historically black universities throughout the country." TSU now has about 11,000 students.
Regents Chairman J. Paul Johnson doesn't discount Slade's work.
"Truly, she has done a stellar job," he said. "She was a very well-liked individual. And so yes, it is probably difficult for everyone involved."