The Austin Chronicle

UT Axing Cactus Cafe, Informal Classes

By Richard Whittaker, January 31, 2010, 11:58am, Newsdesk

The legendary Cactus Cafe is in its 30th anniversary year. The University of Texas has been offering its Informal Classes since 1971. Now the University Union has announced that these two key components of its community outreach will be "phased out" in August.

The decision was made by the Union Board on Friday. In the press release University Unions Executive Director Wm. Andrew Smith Jr. said, "Although popular with some audiences, these programs are no longer profitable and do not fit within the core student mission of the Texas Union and Student Affairs."

The press release cites UT President Bill Powers' recent request, following the edict from the state, for all agencies to identify five percent savings in their budgets: But Powers' request was for proposals, not actual cuts. Talking to UT Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty before this announcement, he said that it was still unclear whether the state's request was for permanent or one-off cuts, and whether the five percent would have to be in every office or shared across the entire UT system. He wrote, "We cannot conceive a plan until we have answers to the two critical questions." That was on Wednesday. On Friday, the board dropped the ax on two of its biggest and most established community outreach programs.

The enormous cultural impact of the Cactus Cafe has been well-documented in these pages, while the informal classes have been a significant part of UT's community and ongoing education policy since 1971. This isn't a small cut: According to the union's website, there are currently over 2,000 informal classes on offer, from stock trading to blues guitar to software primers. The board's statement argues that "the Cactus Cafe and Informal Classes were largely used by non-students," which is both true and deliberate. Firstly, due to the massive course load most UT students carry, the number that have enough free time during the semester to take on an extra course is minimal. Secondly, if the union only wanted full- and part-time students in these courses, they shouldn't have offered a slate of discounts for non-students. It seems a bit strange to complain that the pricing structure has produced the customer base it was designed to attract.

It's also not just fun and games for retirees: The UT International Office lists the informal classes program as a provider of English as a second language tuition for the families of foreign students. While union vice president for student affairs Juan Gonzalez wrote that this is about "repurposing resources for the maximum benefit of our students," in this area this isn't trimming fat from the union budget: This is deep into the bone of the supporting community for students.

The Texas Union is part of the University Unions, which also covers the Student Events Center and the new Student Activity Center. There may be some serious questions asked about how this decision and the SAC (worst acronym ever) fit together. In 2006, students voted overwhelmingly for the new center, and the university has just passed a $65 per student per semester fee to cover the costs. The simple fact is that UT has a vested interest in the success of the SAC, because they have decided to cut costs by bolting the new Liberal Arts building on to the side. That's the new Liberal Arts building that they are cutting staff to pay for.

Full statement below:

University to phase out Cactus Cafe, Informal Classes

To reduce costs and repurpose resources to better serve student needs, the Texas Union Board of Directors gave its support on Friday to phase out the Texas Union’s Cactus Cafe and Informal Classes program effective August 2010. The action took place at the board’s first meeting of the spring semester.

Full-time staff affected by the closures will be offered positions at their current salary levels in other areas within the division.

The decision to close the Cactus Cafe and the Informal Classes program was made to minimize the impact of budgetary reductions on students and to protect student core services. President William Powers Jr. recently asked all university departments to prepare plans that prioritize reductions.

"Student Affairs works closely with students, and our services and programs are the direct result of those partnerships," said Juan Gonzalez, vice president for student affairs. "Regardless of economic circumstances, we are committed to repurposing resources for the maximum benefit of our students."

Both the Cactus Cafe and Informal Classes were largely used by non-students, and in recent years both programs required significant subsidies to remain in operation.

"Although popular with some audiences, these programs are no longer profitable and do not fit within the core student mission of the Texas Union and Student Affairs," said Wm. Andrew Smith Jr., executive director of University Unions.

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