Rep. Harold Dutton’s Proposed Bill to Separate Thurgood Marshall School of Law from Texas Southern University Causes Major Firestorm

Since the turn of the New Year, the City of Houston has witnessed its fair share of heated discussions surrounding a myriad of issues.

There has, of course, been the Prop. B debate involving the firefighters, and there has been the drama surrounding the Board of Trustees at the Houston Independent School District (HISD), but the latest issue that has made its way to the Greater Houston area, all the way from the 86th Texas Legislative Session in Austin, has caused a ripple in the community that has clearly captivated the hearts and minds of several people all across the Greater Houston area.

Back on February 25th, Democratic State Representative Harold Dutton (District 142) filed a bill, HB 2383, that would have essentially separated the prestigious Thurgood Marshall Law School (TMSL) from the City of Houston’s only HBCU – Texas Southern University (TSU).

Rep. Dutton is an alumnus of both the TSU Business School and the Thurgood Marshall School of Law.

This bill has caused a major stir amongst many TSU graduates, current TSU students, TSU administrators and various members of the Greater Houston area. The bill also created a social media firestorm ever since the community caught wind that the bill was filed by Rep. Dutton.

Was the bill right? Was the bill wrong? Or has it all just been a huge misunderstanding?

One of the things that has made the news of the filing of the bill so drama-filled, was a letter that was sent out to the TSU alumni from TSU President Dr. Austin A. Lane, who laid out the university’s disapproval of the bill, and who stated that the University had no knowledge that the bill was even going to be filed.

Some excerpts from the letter the Forward Times received that was sent to TSU alumni from Dr. Lane, stated:

As alumni of Texas Southern University, it is extremely important that you are kept well informed..…It is important to note that there were no discussions with TSU’s administration or Board of Regents prior to the filing of this bill. Likewise, TSU is unaware of any plans or discussions among state legislators regarding TSU becoming part of a university system, which we understand to be the rationale behind this bill..…For numerous reasons, the University respectfully does not support this bill:

TMSL remains a critical part of the University, not only due to its historical role in the founding of TSU, but its responsibility in producing the largest number of African American lawyers of any law school in Texas. More than 40 years ago, the Texas Legislature designated TSU as a “special purpose institution of higher education for urban programming.” This bill would detract from that designation. We must not let this bill distract the University, our supporters, and state lawmakers from our current legislative priorities, which were created in collaboration with our many constituencies..…TSU is extremely proud of its law school.

Countless supporters of TSU let their voices be heard relative to the bill, with the majority of them seemingly being in opposition to the optics of the bill.

In addition to the letter sent to TSU alumni by Dr. Lane, the University also released a statement to the Forward Times relative to their legislative priorities and desire for the TMSL to remain as an integral part of the University’s future growth plans.

“TSU has no desire to have its law school separated from the university,” the University tells the Forward Times. “During this legislative session, Texas Southern University has been focused on three exceptional items, which include increased funding for student success initiatives, infrastructure support, and getting the College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences funded as a health-related institution. Thurgood Marshall School of Law remains a critical part of the university, not only due to its historical role in the founding of TSU, but its responsibility in producing large numbers of African American and other minority lawyers in Texas.”

Delving slightly deeper into the bill, if passed, the bill would take away the overall operational oversight of the TMSL from the TSU Board of Regents and transfer that authority to a separate governing body. The bill would also grant eminent domain for the new governing body to purchase land in support of the new TMSL operation.

Rep. Dutton believes that there has been a lot of misunderstanding surrounding the overall intent of the bill due to many individuals not understanding his intent. He tells the Forward Times that since he has been in the Texas Legislature, there have been discussions about placing TSU into a system and that HB 2383 was a part of an ongoing effort to fight against the efforts of others to eliminate TSU’s independence.

In a statement given to the Forward Times, Rep. Dutton states:

The facts first. There are 37 public colleges and universities in Texas. Only 4 are not in a university system. There are 6 university systems in Texas and for the last, at least 20 years, there have been discussions about placing TSU into a system. Secondly, these discussions, more recently, have become louder and I felt the need to be proactive in trying to secure the future of TSU, which resulted in the filing of HB 2383. The bill, as drafted, would make the law school at TSU a standalone university, but IF, and only IF, TSU was placed into a system. Then the legislature would have to debate the issue of the law school at TSU becoming a standalone university. However, the bill filing deadline was this past Friday and because no bill was filed to place TSU into a system, therefore, the need for HB 2383 was no longer necessary, so the bill was withdrawn on Monday from consideration by the Higher Education Committee. However, as Chairman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, I speak on their behalf when I say…we will remain vigilante at protecting the future of our university- Texas Southern University.

According to Rep. Dutton, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus has repeatedly fought efforts to have TSU placed into a system, and in fact, he states there was a proposal to have TSU swap locations with the University of Houston and have the UH-Downtown campus on Cleburne and TSU with a Main Street address.

Longtime TSU supporter, Georgia Provost, believes this should serve as the catalyst for TSU alumni and all members of the Greater Houston area to get engaged with supporting TSU.

“This was certainly a wake-up call for us to motivate and empower everyone to give to Texas Southern University,” said Provost. “Doing this will allow TSU to remain Independent, financial stable, and most of all, increase the number of students enrolled at the University.”

Because the state’s current funding formula shortchanges TSU, Rep. Dutton states that TSU is always required to seek special items funding from the legislature, which becomes a method of survival, whereas all other state universities use special items funding as a mere wish list.

Rep. Dutton expressed his disappointment in members of the community who believe his bill was meant to hurt TSU, but states he will continue working on a small college formula funding method that would provide colleges like TSU with the necessary help it deserves.

The Forward Times will continue to monitor this situation and keep its readers abreast of any new developments that arise surrounding the potential of TSU receiving any additional funding during this 86th Legislative Session in order to help sustain this historic institution.