TSU interim president: ‘I’ve come from behind the curtain’

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By: N. L. Preston

 

HOUSTON – Following the departure of former Texas Southern University President Dr. Austin Lane, all eyes are now on Kenneth Huewitt, who’s served as the university’s chief financial officer for the past three years. Huewitt is ready, and feels his diverse background will give TSU and its watchful board exactly what is needed to maintain the dignity and integrity of the institution, which is the second largest of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).

African-American News&Issues spoke with Huewitt about plans for moving the university forward and care for its students during the pandemic.

Q: The students feel they need a person they can relate to. But what about you, can relate to them?

A: I see myself in many of the students at TSU. My dad was in the military and I was raised by my mom so, other than the 11 years I spent on the East Coast, I have been right here in Texas. I came from a single-parent home and I’m a first-generation college student. If you ever want to know what’s driving me and where my passion is, it’s that.

Q: Do you feel as former CFO you are qualified to lead all aspects of the university?

A: The educational focus is a major priority, but it’s also about business. I was chief financial officer for the Houston Independent School District overseeing a $1.8 billion general operating budget. It’s a smaller budget at TSU than what I am accustomed to, and we are making sure we manage those resources most effectively. Nothing bothers me more than waste. I’ve never been one that felt like I needed to be out in the front, you can lead from the back. I spent a lot of years in the background, honing my craft and when I became interim, I had to step forward and come from behind the curtain and let people see who has been back there.

Q: What qualifications do you think professors should have? Is work experience a good replacement for a degree?

A: I don’t think everyone who teaches should have a master’s or PhD. Look at me. I’m old (chuckle), but based on my age, I have work experience that afforded me the opportunity to lead at HISD and now Texas Southern. I think that a person’s wealth of experience has some value that can be shared with students.

Q: What do you say to critics who claim TSU students are lacking the skills needed for the workforce? What will you do to ensure they are ready?

A: We need opportunities for our students to have the right internships to find good employment. Students need not wait until their senior years; they need to seek internships after their sophomore years. We leaders must work on those relationships with CEOs and business owners for our students and we need more feedback. If we are turning out students who are lacking a certain skill when they show up, we need to know so we can go back and adjust for the next group of students we send out. It’s a partnership. They need employees and we need employers. So that give and take relationship is important.

Q: What fundraising initiatives do you have for the university?

A: It is all about relationships, but I also believe that you need to establish those relationships even when you don’t want anything. It doesn’t always have to be an “ask,” in fact, I purposely took a trip to Washington DC and went to talk about resources. I started each conversation with “I’m not asking for anything, I just want you to know what Texas Southern University is doing.” We let them know what TSU brings to the table when it comes to research surrounding criminal justice reform, cancer prevention or transportation. There were some things they weren’t aware of.

Q: What are you doing to help the students affected by the pandemic?

A: Our alumni first stepped up and started leading the charge. We first launched a food pantry and had to slow them down because they started showing up before we were even ready. Through our TSU Foundation, we distributed 1,000 Wi-Fi devices to students so they could do their online classes at home. We had already turned their world upside down with the abrupt halt of campus activities, so we wanted to make sure they had what they needed.

We also received $5.9 million from the CARES Act for our students. We made the application process very simple and we actually need to do another appeal because not all students have responded. We are sending out reminders to apply because we definitely need to get these dollars into their hands. Students who qualify are receiving $850.

Q: There have been changes to the board. What do you think of the board under Lane, versus the new board?

A: It’s basically the same board, but it’s more about communication. I try to call them at least every other week at a minimum. Even if I don’t have anything specific that I want to talk about, I am making sure they don’t have anything they need to talk to me about. I’ve also let them know they can call me anytime. The main thing I am trying to do is to keep them apprised of what we are doing.

Q: To you, what are the expectations of a president of a university?

A: The simplest thing for me to say is “Do no harm.” I am really trying to work on the culture, improving on how we work with each other and how we service the students. I’ve been here three years. I’ve had input and believe in the priorities we’ve always had in place. If our “North Star” is taking care of our students, then that is the best that we can do.

Q: Final words?

A: Our students need nurturing. It is hard to do that over a Zoom or a Blue Jeans virtual session. We are working on our “Return to Tiger Land” plan for the fall semester. The safety of our students, faculty and staff is our top priority so when we bring them back, we will have ensured we have taken all necessary precautions. My college years were some of my best times, but I didn’t know it at the time, and I want to show our students the positive side of their TSU experience. Yes, they are going through a pandemic, but it is not the end all.