'A' Is for Axed: UT Chops Cactus, Cuts Classes

What will the loss of the Cactus Cafe and informal classes mean to the UT community?

UT President Bill Powers addresses a crowd of more than 300 at the budget town hall meeting Feb. 2.
UT President Bill Powers addresses a crowd of more than 300 at the budget town hall meeting Feb. 2. (Photo by John Anderson)

According to its mission statement, UT-Austin's Texas Union is dedicated to "serve as a unifying force in the quality of campus life by fostering a sense of community, emphasizing collaboration, and cultivating enduring regard for the University of Texas." Yet a Jan. 29 decision by the Union board to support an executive decision to end the informal classes program and to close the iconic Cactus Cafe has caused a storm of protest and raised the question of who is included in that "community."

While the announced closure of the Cactus Cafe after 31 years caused an immediate outpouring of anger from the music community (see "Off the Record," Music), the quieter loss of the informal classes is equally significant. Founded in 1971, the program is designed to provide short, affordable courses for the whole Austin community. It offers everything from a one-day small-business boot camp ($36) to a 10-session English-as-a-second-language course ($72). The classes take place in a variety of locations on the UT campus, as well as in local businesses and online, and roughly 25,000 people now take part annually in the more than 2,000 classes offered.

Requests to talk to the Union board (which is drawn from the student body, Student Government, and faculty members appointed by UT President Bill Powers) were initially referred to University Unions Executive Director Andy Smith, who argued that he presented the cuts to the board as a matter of priorities. "Last fall," he said, "the university informed all departments that they should prepare a plan to accommodate a 2 percent merit-pay pool in each of the next two years out of existing funds." He had to find $122,000 over the next two years to cover that recurring cost, he said, and in looking for cuts, "the president had indicated that we should pay close attention to our mission."

The standard Smith decided to use was simple: "How much are the students involved in each of these areas?" Two areas stood out. "In informal classes," Smith explained, "probably 85 to 90 percent are not students, and in the Cactus Cafe, it's probably 90 to 95 percent, if you looked at the audience in there." Since the Union has been subsidizing both entities for several years, he made what he called the "sad and regrettable" decision to cut these programs.

'A' Is for Axed: UT Chops Cactus, Cuts Classes

Student Government President Liam O'Rourke, who sits on the board, was eager to correct one common misunderstanding. "The Texas Union board did not vote on the matter," he said. "We gave our input as an advisory body." The only option presented by Smith at the meeting was for the cuts, and while the board asked about alternative revenue sources like reducing Student Events Center funding or shorter opening hours instead, Smith told the board those options would not work. O'Rourke said, "We rely on our advisers to give us good information, and my experience to date hasn't led me to believe that we had false information."

The question remains whether the board had any real role in the cuts: While Powers repeatedly told the crowd at his Feb. 2 town hall budget meeting that this was a decision by the student body, in fact the decision had already been made by Smith. The board merely acted to endorse it.

According to figures provided by Smith at the town hall meeting, in the 2008-09 biennium, the Union subsidized the cafe to the tune of $66,000 (in earlier conversations he put that figure nearer $50,000), and the informal classes for $106,000. Canceling them would produce the $122,000 he was looking for while allowing retention of staff. As things stand, the funding for the two programs will end Aug. 31, at the close of the university's fiscal year, but Smith said he expected the programs will simply not return from their normal midsummer hiatus.

As an auxiliary operation funded through student union fees, the Union would reap any benefits of the changes: "The savings from the Union will stay with the Union," said UT Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty, who also added that full-time staff from both programs will be offered alternative employment. That concession likely provides little relief for the class lecturers who are drawn from throughout the community and paid by the hour for the courses they teach.

The current controversy is not Smith's first. Throughout his 23-year tenure with the Union, there have been frequent complaints regarding his actions, such as his decision to replace Union Dining Services facilities with leases to corporate fast-food franchises including Wendy's and Chick-fil-A. In 1997, there were widespread calls for his resignation when he oversaw the termination of the Texas Union Film Program and the removal of veteran film booker Steve Bearden (see "The Last Picture Show," Jan. 23, 1998). Filmmaker Kyle Henry, whose 1999 documentary University Inc. followed that controversy, believes that these latest cuts are simply a rerun of that experience. Smith "speaks as if he acts in students' best interest," said Henry. "He used financial data to say they're not voting with their pocketbooks. He used budget figures with the Union where he used the program cost versus box office, not taking into account that students' fees are supposed to pay for losses."

Smith argues that these latest changes will better serve students while stabilizing the Union budget. Yet the UT community – which the Union is supposed to serve – includes more than just full-time undergraduates. Smith's estimate that only 10-15% of informal class attendees are UT students does not acknowledge that altogether, students, their families, and UT staff make up 35% of informal class attendees. In some classes, the majority of participants are directly affiliated with the university. And Smith rejected outright the idea that the program could have increased tuition by a few dollars per student per class to cover the shortfall. "Raising prices when there is not a general reason to do that, like an increase in your raw product, is not something that drives in additional business," he said.

The university will still provide services through its open enrollment Division of Con­tinuing Education. But these courses are much closer in nature (and in price) to college courses than to the informal classes. Austin Community College trustee Tim Mahoney argues that the Union board's vote is simply a sign that the state's flagship academic institution is failing in its core task – to educate the population of the state. "They have to understand," he said, "that having that as part of their mission is fundamental to their economic sustainability."

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UT informal classes, Texas Union, Andy Smith, Cactus Cafe

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