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Alums Fight UT Museum Funding Cut

Grassroots campaign hopes to restore budget

By Mac McCann, Fri., Jan. 24, 2014

Alums Fight UT Museum Funding Cut
Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

On January 15, 2014, UT-Austin's Texas Memorial Museum celebrated its 75th anniversary. But while the Museum has a bright past, its future might be dimming. The hallowed local institution was recently informed that it faces a departmental budget cut of about $600,000, or roughly three-fourths of its total budget (see "UT to Slash Memorial Museum Funding," Nov. 15).

But before the cuts occur – they're officially scheduled to take effect on Sept. 1, 2014 – concerned citizens and UT alumni are trying to prevent them. After learning about the budget cuts, Mary Newcomb and her husband Jeri Putnam, both UT grads, started a grassroots campaign to protest. The couple has been busy collecting signatures for their petition; their goal, Newcomb says, is for "[College of Natural Sciences] Dean Linda Hicke to restore the $620,000 annual funding, and to find other ways to trim her budget."

The campaigners have been actively contacting alumni, and as of Jan. 17, the petition had 902 signatures; they say they're very optimistic about reaching their original goal of 1,000 signatures. On Feb. 3, they plan to formally present the petition to Dean Hicke and her staff, hoping to convince the college to fully fund the museum.

The wide variety of petition signatories reflects the broad impact of the museum as both a university and Austin institution. Newcomb says the petition has been signed by Caroline Rose Hunt (Distinguished UT Alumnus and daughter of H.L. Hunt), Shirley Strum Kenny (Distinguished UT Alumnus and former president of the State University of New York, Stony Brook), and Betsy Mitchell, a UT alumna, Olympic gold medal swim­mer, and director of athletics at Caltech. Distinguished UT Alum­ and CEO of Advanced Nano­tech­no­lo­gy Solutions, Hector Ruiz, explained his support via email: "[G]reat communities never have enough museums. And the educational outreach programs this institution offers have become an integral part of the educational process of Texas citizens. I am counting on the wisdom and courage of the university to do the right thing. As it is, these cuts unfairly impact the humanities which are such a key part of a complete education."

John W. Fainter Jr., president and CEO of the Assoc­i­a­tion of Electric Com­panies of Texas (also a Distinguished Alumnus), shares many of the same thoughts on the subject as Ruiz, but it's even more personal for Fainter. "I grew up here in Austin. I spent countless hours as a kid in programs over there touring the museum," he said. He fondly remembers his "very educational and very entertaining" visits to the "iconic" museum and he said, "It hurts me to think that others won't get the experience that I had growing up."

State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, whose district includes the museum and the university as a whole, echoed the unanimous praises of "the treasured institution," as he called it, saying, "The museum clearly plays an important role in enriching the lives of faculty, staff, students, and members of the community, whether we're talking about Austin, the state of Texas, or the whole country. ... It would be a shame and a tragedy if we're not able to come up with the funding, either now or in the near future, to maintain the museum as it presently exists." Asked about possibly increasing state funding of the museum, which is currently $108,000 a year, Naishtat said, "I wish I had the power to unilaterally increase funding from the state in relation to this museum. But I don't." For Naishtat, the situation represents a larger problem: "I would like to remind people that we've put the College of Natural Sciences in a difficult situation, and that the Legislature has been inadequately funding public universities in this state, and in particular the University of Texas at Austin, even going back to the early Seventies."

For Newcomb, the threat to the museum hits especially close to home: Her father, William W. Newcomb Jr., was the museum's director from 1957 to 1978. While countless Austin children have visited the museum, it's even closer to Newcomb's heart, as she "virtually grew up in the museum." She said her father had his own battles over budget cuts, and the current situation is "not a new issue."

Newcomb says she is open to compromise – "I am always open to any kind of discussion" – but she made it clear that "the university needs to be pressed to commit to funding the museum in a meaningful way, and not continue to pester it with budget cuts. I don't think the amount that's being asked for is out of line at all."

Lee Clippard, director of communications for the College of Natural Sciences, responded to the Chronicle's inquiries via email, saying, "There have been no changes in the status of the museum since you last reported on this topic." But he did say the college is "looking forward to talking with representatives from the petition group. ... It will be a good opportunity to learn more about their concerns and to dialogue about the future of the museum."

Newcomb is cautiously optimistic about the upcoming meeting as well, but added that she's "not sure they really realize how important the museum is."

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