The Austin Chronicle

Where's the Outcry Over Informal Classes?

By Richard Whittaker, February 26, 2010, News

When the management of the Texas Union decided to close the Cactus Cafe and end the informal classes program, one thing surprised Executive Director Andy Smith. He said: "When I'm out at cocktail parties or social events in the community, people ask: 'Where do you work? Oh, the Texas Union? I took an informal class.'" Yet, he noted, there has been little public outcry about the termination of a major continuing education program.

It's hardly surprising. The initial media coverage was dominated by the Cactus closure, as was the student response. There's no mention of the executive decision on the Informal Classes website, and two weeks after the announcement, many Austinites found full-color brochures in their mailboxes and a new 28-page course guide on racks around town. Nevertheless, the program will be terminated at the end of the summer session in mid-August.

If the Cactus Cafe is an Austin institution, the same can be said of the informal classes. Founded in 1971 to provide a broad range of reasonably priced continuing education options to the community at large, the program offers courses ranging from online computing to health and fitness across five sessions a year. Their loss will be a severe blow to the university community, including staff members who take them for career development and the families of foreign students who need inexpensive English-as-a-second-language courses near campus.

As with the Cactus, Smith said, all full-time staff will be offered other positions within the Texas Union. But that does nothing for the 190 local experts the Union hires to teach those courses. There are still forms on the Union website asking for staff to teach courses through to December, even though the program is now scheduled to end four months before that date.

Jeanette Cunningham is one of those experts. A professional belly-dance instructor, she's been teaching at the Union for almost two decades. During that time, she said, "there's almost always a waiting list for our classes." Popular with both university members and locals, she says it's developed into more than a simple dance class. "We try to teach a little bit of the culture, the history of the dance, how it's looked upon in recent times, and try to get people interested in taking it a little further," she said.

A year ago, as the recession started to hit, some classes failed to reach minimum enrollment. Cunningham said she had changed the format and schedule of her classes before to match demand and would have done so again if she knew the program was in danger, but the administration told her it regarded the dip as a temporary downturn. In fact, the day before the Jan. 29 termination announcement, she was discussing her summer class schedule with the program's assistant director, Marguerite Elliott. "That following Satur­day night," she recalled, "I was watching the TV news and saw that the Cactus and the informal classes were being cut. Marguerite didn't know about it when I was talking to her on the Thursday."

The Union board said the driving force behind the decision is the need to fund the 2% merit pay raise ordered by President Bill Powers last fall. According to Smith, terminating the program could save the union $106,000 over the next two academic fiscal years. Student Government President Liam O'Rourke called the closure a regrettable necessity and added, "We're just trying to do the best we can to find solutions."

However, Smith and O'Rourke disagreed on whether the classes are a core business for the Union. While O'Rourke said they "meet the vision and the mission of the University Union," Smith said that since total enrollment was dropping and "85 to 90 percent" of course-takers were not registered students, that meant students were subsidizing the nonstudent course participants through fees.

The total number of people taking informal classes has indeed dropped in recent years, from 12,471 in the 2006-07 academic year to 10,188 in 2008-09. However, records obtained by the Texas Observer show that the number of staff, students, and faculty taking classes rose in the same period from 1,246 to 1,366.

The program also attracts nonstudents and non-faculty-members by offering discounted rates for groups including the Texas Exes and retirees. Since the prices were so low anyway and the presence of nonstudents was an issue, Cunningham said, "Either close it down to them or raise their price, because the difference for students and nonstudents is not that much money."

However, no one will have the option of taking informal classes if they are completely canceled. Unlike the calls for creating a successor to the Cactus Cafe, there have been no proposals to save the informal classes program. While Cunningham said some of the contracted teaching staff will miss the average of $1,000 a year they earn (though she says "I have a studio in my home, and I could make a lot more money teaching there"), the cultural loss would be more significant. "It's an outreach," she said, "a service to the students and to the community."

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