Powers on the Spot
Footage from the UT budget town hall [video]
By Richard Whittaker,
8:00AM, Fri. Feb. 5, 2010
Tuesday's UT budget town hall was supposed to be about staff cuts and the upcoming tuition hike. UT President Bill Powers deserves some plaudits for putting himself out there even before the storm of public fury about the closure of the Cactus Cafe and the end of the Informal Classes program.
Add those issues, a packed out auditorium, two overspill rooms, the presence of Democratic State Rep. Elliott Naishtat (whose district covers the campus area), and a lot of friends of the Cactus and the classes, and it was a tough crowd for Powers.
On the positive side, he not only heard people's complaints and concerns, but extended the meeting for an extra half hour. Secondly, he agreed to further town hall meetings on the budget.
Yet he took the unpopular stance of being, if not in favor of the decision, at least supportive of the process by which the decision was made. When he made positive noises towards the idea of moving the Cactus to the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center, there was initially some muted support from the crowd. But as they were reminded that not all 150-capacity rooms are created equal, and they don't all come with three decades of musical history flowing through the brickwork, the crowd remained appreciative of the offer, but only as a last, worst option.
The first problem for Powers is that, if the issue of only two campus entities could barely be tackled in two and a half hours, then fixing the entire UT budget will take a lot more than one meeting.
Secondly, he glossed over the loss of the informal classes program: A week into this PR debacle, a lot of Austinites still don't know that they're going. Texas Union Executive Andy Smith, who was the point man on their destruction, has said repeatedly that he expected there to be more of a fuss about their ending than the cafe closure. As the old saying goes, careful what you wish for. The Save Texas Union Informal Classes Facebook page has 843 fans: That may be a fraction of the numbers for the Save the Cactus Cafe group (closing in fast on 20,000), but odds are the group will only get bigger and more organized.
But Powers' biggest problem may be his newest. As people find out more about Smith's top-down decision to ax these programs, and even Powers' own appointees to the union board come out in opposition to that action, it will become tougher for him to say that he stands behind the closures because they were vetted by the student body and went through the proper channels.
Bottom line: The Save the Cactus Cafe group has been very, very careful not to incur the wrath of the athletics community by even suggesting the whisper of an inkling of a possibility of looking to the profits made by the stadium to cover shortfalls. So when John Kelso pens a column that takes a direct pot shot at Mack Brown's salary as a sign of the UT system's out-of-whack priorities, and the normally more-Hook'em-than-thou Statesman boards back that call, there's (as Bill Engvall would say) your sign.