Retired Army General Takes Control of D.C. Public Schools: Becton's Record at Prairie View A&M Included Engineering, Football Controversies

By Richardson, Susan | Black Issues in Higher Education, December 12, 1996 | Go to article overview

Retired Army General Takes Control of D.C. Public Schools: Becton's Record at Prairie View A&M Included Engineering, Football Controversies


Richardson, Susan, Black Issues in Higher Education


Retired Army General Takes Control of D.C. Public Schools: Becton's. Record at Prairie View A&M Included Engineering, Football Controversies

As president of Prairie View A&M University, retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius Becton earned respect as a starched-shirt leader who demanded accountability in academic and financial affairs and didn't mind challenging the status quo to achieve his goals. Now, the students, faculty and parents of the Washington, D.C., public school system will have to determine if Becton's often gruff, no-nonsense style can help their ailing district heal itself.

Becton, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, recently was named chief executive officer of the D.C. school system. He will report to a new education panel appointed by the D.C. financial control board.

The panel is expected to govern the District's schools for several years before returning power to the elected school board. The decision to establish the panel and CEO position are controversial with some residents and home-rule proponents because the elected school board will only serve in an advisory capacity.

Becton, who is a Prairie View A&M alumnus with a master's degree in economics from the University of Maryland, does not have a traditional educational background. That raises the issue of whether he is an appropriate choice for chief executive officer of a school system. His selection, however, is not unprecedented, according to the Council of the Great City Schools. Seattle public schools are also administered -- and with notable success -- by a retired Army general, John Sanford.

District schools have been dogged by violent incidents, low teacher morale and allegations of financial mismanagement. How academic programs fared under Becton's leadership at Prairie View may indicate what D.C. parents, faculty and students can expect from him.

Becton's lack of academic background temporarily surfaced when he first was appointed president of Prairie View, a historically Black college near Houston, Texas.

"Do we need an educator or an organizer? That was an issue at Prairie View," said Wilbert Williams, who was president of the Austin chapter of the college's alumni association during Becton's five-year tenure.

Former State Rep. Wilhelmina Delco, who chaired the higher education committee of the Texas House of Representatives, said Becton had adequate educational experience. "He's had his hand in education," she noted, referring to his appointment to a committee overseeing the desegregation of Alabama colleges a few years ago.

Dr. Flossie Byrd, who worked at Prairie View from 1962 to 1994 and is now vice president and provost emeritus at the university, said Becton briefly taught classes at Prairie View.

"To be a leader and ensure that the administration is taken care of does not mean you have to be down in the trenches to do the work. He was very supportive and that gave us [deans and administrators] the leeway to look for funding and programs, and to make the necessary changes to move the programs forward," offered Byrd, who was named by Becton as Prairie View's first provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Supporters say Becton's experiences at Prairie View can be beneficial in his new job as CEO of D.C. schools. When Becton arrived at the university in December 1989, Texas lawmakers had attempted to place the institution under financial receivership. …

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