It was the University of Texas administration that decided, with no student consultation, to close the Cactus Cafe. It was student and community protest that forced administrators to reconsider that decision. Now the same students fear they are being deliberately and aggressively sidelined as the administration rushes to a final decision.
On April 21, Vice President for Student Affairs Juan González held a public forum on the future of the venue. The good news, he told the crowd, is that "the Cactus Cafe lives on." Texas Union management was no longer considering handing the space over to a private firm (an easy decision to make, since IRS rules about the space handed over to private firms in public bond-issuing entities made that option effectively impossible). While the administration has said it will take feedback through May 7, that leaves two options to be presented to the union board on April 30: 1) an undefined self-operating model that would keep the cafe within the union and 2) handing management over to KUT Radio.
In promoting the plans, González said, "We've looked at student involvement, student participation, student access." That actually represents a major policy change. On Dec. 1, 2009, University Unions Executive Director Andy Smith informed González and Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly that he planned to close the Cactus Cafe and end the informal classes program. They then spent two months exchanging e-mails about how to announce the closure, never once seeking student input. Since the announcement of that decision Jan. 29 and the ensuing public outcry, the administration has sought feedback through Cactus Conversations – a series of six hourlong meetings with invited student and community stakeholders. But now the structure of the conversations is being used against the participants.
At the forum, Student Events Center President-elect Taylor Steinberg accused "a few students of speaking a lot," and as a result, "the voice of a lot of students isn't being heard." SEC Executive Vice President John Meller went further, attacking "the purist attitude embodied by a few very vocal people." In fact, it's been the student representatives in the conversations that have asked the administration to bring in more student participants. On March 12, Student Friends of the Cactus Cafe co-founder Hayley Gillespie suggested modeling outreach on "the year of very positive and helpful student meetings regarding the design of the new [Student Activity Center.]" That idea fell on deaf ears. On March 18, undergraduate representative Matt Portillo added that he was concerned that the meetings had become "closed-door." He suggested including other student groups, such as the Graduate Student Assembly, the College Councils, and Student Government (all of which voted to approve resolutions opposing closure or repurposing). That expansion came April 15, when the administration invited other student leaders to a single meeting.
Still, Meller praised the administration for the process so far. "It was their initiative to even do this in the first place, and I don't understand why they're under such attacks," he said. During the forum, Union board member Basil Awad also thanked the administration, then went on to hold a straw poll of how many attendees were staff, students, or members of the broader community. The result was fairly equally split, a result González called "interesting." That count fed into a meme, repeated by several speakers, that the cafe doesn't really serve students, who shouldn't have to financially support an entity they claim is mostly used by nonstudents.
Since the admin's original argument for closing the cafe was to find money to cover a 2% merit pay raise for staff, that idea of the greater community bilking students is a new twist. It's one that Gillespie rejects, not least because the venue also serves as a working cafe during the school day. She also firmly rejected the idea that Student Friends oppose all changes and noted that the group is working on its own proposal. This would take the cafe's current operations and management and add artist-in-residence and intern programs to increase student involvement. The proposal would also involve forming new fundraising operations and potentially new partnerships with KUT and the university's student-run station, KVRX. However, this is the one option that the administration has not discussed in depth. Gillespie said, "There are so many great proposals that have been thrown out there by students, but since the administration didn't seem to want to work with us to develop the business plan, we're going to do our best with the information we have." She added, "I wish we could have come up with these things in collaboration." Instead, she described the admin's attitude as, "If you can think of something in time, I guess we'll read it."
Gillespie's biggest concern is over the lack of concrete proposals. The self-operation model has barely moved beyond an outline, and even though KUT has said it has no business plan (see "Off the Record," Music), it seems to be the proposal getting the most traction with the administration. Texas Performing Arts assistant director of marketing and Cactus Conversations member Cameron Smith, backed by several students from his class on artist and venue management, was vocal in his support, as was Student Events Center President Andrew Nash. After the forum, Nash wrote to González: "Thank you for hosting today's open forum. ... I feel that much productive discussion was had, and [attendees] were able to see the progress that has taken place." On the same day, Nash sent an e-mail to Gillespie and Student Friends co-founder Zachary Bidner, in which he said he was "deeply saddened by the lack of respect that you both displayed" at the forum.
That left Bidner stunned, especially after Meller and Steinberg's critical comments about a vocal minority. However, his biggest worry is that the final decision will be rushed through and approved by UT President Bill Powers with a veneer of consultation. He said, "If [Powers] is going back to the students, which students is he talking to?"
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