Informal Asses: UT Decides to Shut Down Cactus Cafe and Community Learning Programs

A few weekends ago, after a hard deep freeze that kicked off the beginning of January in Austin, I drove home along 12th Street and noticed that one of the older, thornless prickly pears, the height of a man and adorning a Clarksville resident's yard, had fallen victim to the cold. Its gray, platter-sized branches drooped down, the top of the plant looking like a stooped elderly, resigning himself to the winter's wrath.

This weekend, amid another blast of cold, Austin lost another cactus.

The deflated feeling I had driving by that old, dead cactus hit me the same way upon hearing of the University of Texas's decision to shut down both the Cactus Cafe and their Informal Classes program. The Cactus Cafe is an Austin institution and one of the few remaining places in Austin where, on a good night, you can park on the street, grab a seat and actually hear the music. The last time I went, on a rainy, cold night probably about a year ago, The Shake Russell band was milling around with the audience before the show. There were no wristbands, no bathroom lines and no Dillo Dirt. Simply put, the Cactus Cafe was what live music in Austin should be like all of the time.

Like the City of Austin's decision to "scale back" the Trail of Lights, the Texas Union board (which, notably, is comprised mostly of students) cited the fact that the Cactus Cafe and the Informal Classes have not been profitable or, like the UT football program, "self-sufficient," meaning that they rely on funds from the University budget to subsidize their expenses. The two programs have an operating cost of around $1.3M, and the decision to shut them down will save around $120,000 annually, an amount that presumably has been taken from the UT budget in the past.

Governor Rick Perry had called earlier this month for state agencies, including higher education establishments, to submit budget reduction plans (read Perry's letter to the agencies here [PDF]. For UT, this means that they will cut 5 percent, or $29 million, from the state-funded portion of their two-year budget. However, in his Tower Talk blog on January 15 ("The Recession Catches Up with Texas"), UT President Bill Powers wrote that "The governor does not call for cuts at this time, only that we prepare a plan that prioritizes reductions." This leads me to wonder, why is the decision to shut down two popular community programs happening right now?

Whatever the answer, I'm disappointed in the near-sightedness of the Texas Union board. If it is in fact mostly made up of students, then I'm ashamed of this generation that UT is preparing for the real world. Slashing programs in an effort to save a (relatively) small amount of money is only one of the options that I could see someone bring to the table. What about finding a way to have the programs generate more revenue? By this afternoon, nearly 3000 people had joined a new Facebook group to "Save the Cactus Cafe." If each one of them gave $50 to become sustaining members, you would have a $150,000 to help cover the operating costs.

With all of the bright minds at UT, you'd think someone could have come up with a better solution and a better business plan to keep these two parts of Austin's history and culture alive. After all, isn't that what all of those MBA's are for?

How You Can Help:

-Write a letter to the Texas Union Director and the VP of Student Affairs expressing your support of keeping the Cactus Cafe and Informal Classes. Letters from students and alumni are especially helpful.

Andy Smith

The University of Texas at Austin
Texas Union Director
PO Box 7338

Austin, TX 78713

Juan Gonzalez

The University of Texas at Austin
VP Student Affairs
PO Box 7699
Austin, TX 78713

-Attend President Powers's town hall meeting on Tuesday.
This is a meeting for students, faculty, and staff to present their ideas, but it is also open to the public. Facebook event here.

4 Response to "Informal Asses: UT Decides to Shut Down Cactus Cafe and Community Learning Programs"

  • Blueberry Says:

    The TX Union Board doesn't seem to understand that the value of something is not always measured by how much money it brings in. The Cactus Cafe is priceless.

  • el_longhorn Says:

    Total lack of leadership on this. Close the Cactus to save $66,000? Really? You can't raise that somehow - donors, a concert, etc.? You are paying your football coach $5 million and you can't come up with $66,000 to keep a musical institution open?


  • Angie Says:

    Hi Rachel-

    As a UT grad and employee, I am also saddened by the decision to cut both the Cactus and Informal Classes. I can tell you part of the reasons why this was done now: 1) there has been a lot of cutting at UT prior to Perry's announcement, including many jobs, because UT is trying to make room in the budget for salary increases for top faculty. Some increases are to balance out the disparity between male and female professors of the same rank, others are to attract top researchers from other universities. 2) apparently the current students don't identify with the music as much as they used to- this was reported to me by a friend who attended the town hall meeting.