Burned Orange

A clash over a beloved campus music club at UT-Austin portends the gnashing of teeth at schools statewide as a budgetary winter threatens to envelop higher education.

Bill Powers speaks about budget cuts at The University of Texas on Tuesday, February 2nd.

In a cultural Mecca like Austin, it’s hardly a surprise that the proposed closing of the renowned Cactus Café on the University of Texas at Austin campus — an icon to many locals, but a bar catering largely to non-students in the view of some cost-cutting administrators — would cause an uproar.

“I went to the Cactus Café the night before my oral exams” for a doctorate from UT, said Michael Scully, who echoed many others in imploring UT-Austin President Bill Powers to allow newly offered private fundraising efforts to save the Cactus, which is run by the student union. “I’ve gone to 125 shows there. I would have been happy all these years to have donated to Cactus Café. I didn’t realize I could, or that it was necessary. I just went there to see a show and get my three fingers of whiskey.”

But the anguish at a town hall meeting in a packed auditorium on the state’s flagship campus Tuesday ran deeper than a squabble over one music venue. The Cactus, along with informal classes for community members, is slated to be cut to help the university trim the state-financed portion of its revenues by 5 percent. Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus recently demanded such plans from all state agencies, every university and community college included. And such fights will play out all over Texas this year and next  — particularly if the budget knife goes much deeper or tuition rises much higher, as the state grinds through its budget next legislative session. State House Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, recently made rounds telling college presidents to start “storing up nuts for the winter” while simultaneously advising against more than minimal tuition hikes on already financially distressed Texas families.

At Tuesday’s town hall, most speakers focused on the threatened cultural treasure, but others hammered away at President Powers on more fundamental shifts in the ever-more-expensive higher education business model. “I have students coming to me during my office hours telling me they can’t afford their textbooks,” said Snehal Shingavi, an assistant professor of English. “For years, the amount the state pays gets smaller and smaller and the amount the students pay gets larger and larger. In tough times, we should stand for the idea that public education is public — and the burden shouldn’t fall on families facing tougher economic times than the University of Texas.”

In an interview earlier in the day, Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymond Paredes said budget woes are likely to extend well into the academic programs of colleges statewide. “They’re taking a look at consolidating academic programs with relatively few students, and at cutting academic support programs and student affairs programs,” he said. “Institutions that have had ideas about expanding their research ambitions are looking at whether those plans can be delayed or eliminated.”

The institutions, he said, face a “juggling act” in trying to squeeze enough money out of their budgets. “Institutions are pretty good at estimating their student body profiles; they know what sort of incomes their families have, and they know how much they can raise tuition before they start to lose students,” he said. “At the same time, they don’t want to get on the wrong side of the Legislature (with large tuition hikes), and yet they have to make up for declining state support.”

Community colleges face largely the same issues. “I’m worried that they’ll have to pass on more and more costs to students and we’ll eliminate that low-cost option,” Paredes said. “That’s one of the worst-case scenarios I’m thinking about.” Those schools, along with four-year universities serving less affluent populations, such as UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American, may face a more delicate task in raising tuition on the backs of students who already can barely afford it, Parades said.

At UT-Austin, one of the biggest and most financially stable universities in America, a 5 percent cut in state revenue, not including tuition or private financing, amounts to about $29 million. Even for a university with a budget of about $2.2 billion, those cuts will be felt, Powers said.

The initial strategy he laid out at Tuesday’s forum called for making half those cuts in recurring expenses and using reserve funds to make up the rest, while cautioning those reserves will have to be rebuilt at some point. “The question is whether it’s simply to have the cash to make it through this biennium — which can be made up with reserves — or whether this is a harbinger, if this continues into our budget for the next legislative session,” Powers said. All signs point toward the latter.

The Cactus might well survive. Powers took a beating at the forum while declining to give any commitments on whether he would intervene in the decision to close the club, which was made by the separate faculty-and-student governing board of the Texas Union, which runs the venue. Powers said that, for now, he supports the board’s “reasonable” decision. Yet he welcomed entreaties by several speakers to launch fundraising drives to save the venue and said that he was open to offers by the university's alumni organization, the Texas Exes, to move to the venue to the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center.

As this controversy bleeds inevitably into others, such questions will continue to crash into the bottom line of both university budgets and priorities central to the mission. “I didn’t say the Cactus Café is outside the mission of the university — it isn’t,” Powers said after two hours of sometimes shrill criticism. “What I said was that, in tough times, the core mission of educating students needs to be protected.”

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