Still Prickly: UT Students vs. Cactus Cuts

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Still Prickly: UT Students vs. Cactus Cuts
Illustration by Leah Lovise

Ever since the University of Texas at Austin administration launched its public relations offensive over the decision to close the Cactus Cafe and cancel the informal classes program, UT President Bill Powers' mantra has been that the decision was made by the student body, for the student body. Yet the resistance of several of the campus' biggest student groups – and a recording of the Texas Union board meeting on the day of the budget-cut announcements – casts a shadow over that claim.

Under the Texas Open Meetings Act, the Chronicle requested and received a copy of the audio recording of the Jan. 29 board meeting. Based on that recording, the Cactus closure was not mentioned at all in the 25-minute meeting. The attending board members (it is unclear exactly which of the nine were in attendance) simply received copies of the budget report, and there was no discussion of its contents. The recording indicates that immediately after the meeting, there was an executive session with staff and two board members, and it seems likely that it was during that session that, as explained by Texas Union board member and Student Govern­ment President Liam O'Rourke, the board "gave our input as an advisory body." (See "Five Misconceptions.")

Now the student body is really having its say. On Feb. 11, campus newspaper The Daily Texan published a guest column authored by the elected presidents of 18 college councils. The closure decision, they wrote, "lacked transparency," and they "demanded accountability and responsibility from administrators on campus." The day before, the Graduate Student Assembly unanimously passed a resolution to preserve the cafe as it stands, adding that the GSA "opposes any decisions regarding the Cactus Cafe made without the direct input of graduate students." Resolution co-author Hayley Gillespie, a graduate student and teaching assistant in the School of Biological Sciences, said, "The Texas Union board does not have any grad representation on it," and so there was no voice for the 12,000 graduate students – all of whom pay fees for student services – in that discussion. Since the cafe is one of the few working bars on campus, she said, "Probably graduates use the Cactus Cafe more frequently than undergraduates, though I'm pretty sure there's no actual data out there." As for University Unions Executive Director Andy Smith's claim that only a small percentage of customers attending Cactus gigs are students ("'A' Is for Axed," Feb. 5), Gillespie said, "They don't keep track of who is who when they come walking through the door." Gillespie is also a founding member of Student Friends of the Cactus Cafe, an officially registered student body that aims to work with the board "to keep the Cactus in operation as a live music venue under current professional management." Condemning the Union process so far and questioning whether the board had complied with its own handbook, Gillespie said: "Our views have not been represented in this. How can they be thinking about making a closure?"

While students are fighting to have their voices heard, Smith does seem to have used alumni to bolster his case for closure and Student Government resolve. On Feb. 8, Smith forwarded an e-mail from attorney and former board member Amy Welborn supporting the board's official statement on the closures. In it, Welborn wrote: "I remember all we went through when franchising the Union. You'd have thought that we were burning down the building. Of course, now being able to get Wendy's and other food in the Union is dearly loved." Welborn confirmed that she wrote the e-mail, without any prompting, as a member of the Stewards of the Texas Uni­on. However, in his forwarding introduction, Smith wrote, "We are nominating [Welborn] for the Union Advisory Council. As you can see she has gone on to be very successful in her career after her time on the Board."

This isn't the first time the current Student Government – and, particularly, O'Rourke's apparent connection to the university establishment – has been controversial. In 2009, Election Supervisory Board Co-Chair César Martinez Espinosa resigned amid accusations of favoritism after sending a controversial e-mail to a group of 21 current and former students calling themselves "The Eyes of Texas," asking them to campaign for O'Rourke as "a personal favor, a favor for Liam, a favor for Eyes." At the time, Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly – who also sits on the Texas Union board – told The Daily Texan that because Martinez did not use his title in the e-mail, there was no violation of Union rules. (As a result of the controversy, the process of selecting the election board has since been reformed.) O'Rourke said at the time that he knew nothing of the e-mail. The issue came up in passing during the Jan. 29 meeting, and an attendee (identified from the recording as Reagins-Lilly) said to the board while laughing, "We protected you from the truth."

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UT Informal Classes, Cactus Cafe, University of Texas, Texas Union Board, Liam O'Rourke, Hayley Gillespie, Andy Smith, Student Friends of the Cactus Cafe

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