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Gen. Becton's "basic training"


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Familiar Territory for New Leader

By Marcia Slacum Greene
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 16, 1996; Page A01

When retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr. wants people to get a quick idea of who he is and what he stands for, he shows them his 12-point Philosophy of Command, Becton's guide to management, leadership and life.

Although the written list he proffers is now 22 years old, many say the essence of the man still emanates from several of his philosophical beliefs: Integrity is non-negotiable. Loyalty is a two-way street. Chain of command works -- if we use it. Challenge assertions.

Becton, 70, who took over yesterday as chief executive officer of the D.C. school system, brought along a copy of his philosophy and a determination to do one more time what many say he does best: Produce results under pressure.

It is the third time in 11 years that he has been thrust in the role of restoring stability and accountability to a public institution.

In the 1980s, he was director of the then- scandal-prone Federal Emergency Management Agency; in the early 1990s, he was president of the financially troubled Prairie View A&M University in Texas.

In both positions, he was considered a strong, pragmatic manager who interviewed staff members about problems and solutions, relied heavily on hand-picked administrators and demanded accountability. However, some critics viewed him as a trouble-shooter who could make the trains run on time rather than a visionary who could decide the direction of those trains.

In an interview, Becton said he has nothing to prove and did not need a job. He began work yesterday but has yet to negotiate his salary.

"This is the biggest challenge of them all," the three-star general and veteran of three wars said. "I have heard folks complain about turf, but I've seldom heard people talking about the children."

Becton made it clear when he spoke at the D.C. financial control board meeting yesterday that he plans to get results.

"We will be diligent in our efforts to create an optimum learning environment that is stimulating and challenging to students and teachers alike," he said. "Our goal is to build an environment that fosters success. Remember, children first. Failure is not an option."

School system employees have nothing to fear if they are competent and performing, he said. But children must be first. "If I have to fire a whole bunch of people to get that message across, so be it," he said.

Before taking the job, Becton consulted with Louise Becton, his wife of nearly 49 years. He also talked with his children and close associates, including Gen. Colin L. Powell.

"I was shocked," Louise Becton said. "First, I checked out his mental status. It was obvious that he was leaning toward [the job]. I a.m. very proud of his courage and very prayerful that this will work."

Julius Becton is a lean man who regularly does 55 to 60 pushups and looks at least 15 years younger than his age. Two years ago, when the Bectons began attending more funerals of friends, he retired from the presidency of Prairie View, saying he wanted to relax.

But Becton's idea of relaxing has included serving as director of several corporations and academic institutions. He is actually looking forward to the long hours as the District's school superintendent.

"Here is a chance where I will be able to make a difference," he said. "If we can convince that disadvantaged kid that, yes, you can make it, that anyone can make it, that's what it is about."

Samuel Metters, a McLean businessman and president of the Prairie View Alumni Association, said: "I think Becton will do to that school system what Lee Iacocca did for Chrysler. Becton is going to come in there and clean up the classrooms, get good administrators and create an environment so that learning can take place."

Becton took over FEMA in 1985 after the resignation of Director Louis O. Giuffrida, whose tenure was riddled with controversy and a federal investigation of alleged fraud and mismanagement.

"He brought a sense of integrity back to the agency," said Jane Bullock, FEMA's current chief of staff. "He gave people in the agency a sense of direction."

But it is largely because of Becton's work at Prairie View that D.C. financial control board Chairman Andrew F. Brimmer wanted him to take the District job, said Becton, who received a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Prairie View in 1960.

When Becton took over at Prairie View, the 118-year-old historically black college mirrored the current troubles in the District school system. The university, part of the Texas A&M University system, had financial and management problems. School dormitories were crumbling. There were major fire code violations, and the campus had a serious crime problem.

During Becton's five years at Prairie View, new financial controls were put in place, the endowment funds increased from $4.8 million to $10 million, and corporate giving increased. Barry B. Thompson, chancellor of the Texas A&M system, said the turnaround began within the first few months after Becton took charge.

"He is a rational man with the ability to set goals and achieve them," Thompson said. "He is good under pressure, and it does not take him very long to make decisions."

But quick action, critics say, also proved to be one of Becton's biggest downfalls at Prairie View. Some members of the alumni association felt that Becton, as an ex-military man rather than an educator, did not have the academic experience to do the job. And some have never forgiven him for two controversial decisions.

First, he asked the Texas Rangers to investigate allegations of financial mismanagement at the school.

Then, he suspended the university's football program and all other athletic activities except track because he said they were not self-supporting. The programs were later restored.

Today, no alumni talk about Becton without bringing up the football team, which has never recovered. In a state where football is considered king, the team has a record losing streak.

"The problems before Becton got there were exaggerated," said Ben Durant, a Houston lawyer and school alumnus. "I saw him as someone who was a caretaker, who did not have vision or expertise to deal with the situation."

Some people at the university were glad to see him go.

"I broke up their own little play pen," Becton said.

Becton said he was willing to make unpopular changes at Prairie View and will make them in the District. "I'll make decisions, and I am not going to fret about them."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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