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UT planned cafe, class closure months before announcement

News release about support for advisory board was prepared before board met.

Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
rhaurwitz@statesman.com
Students rallied Friday on the University of Texas' West Mall in support of the Cactus Cafe.

University of Texas officials prepared a detailed plan to phase out the student union's Cactus Cafe and informal classes nearly two months before briefing the union's student-dominated advisory board.

What's more, the officials drafted a news release announcing the board's support for the plan in advance of the briefing.

These and other aspects of the controversial plan emerge from nearly 300 pages of e-mails and other UT records obtained by the American-Statesman under the Texas Public Information Act.

The e-mails and other records show that university officials decided to phase out the Cactus and the informal classes well before a Jan. 29 meeting in which the Texas Union's advisory board was briefed on the plan.

Juan Gonzalez, the vice president for student affairs, asked Andy Smith, executive director of university unions, on Dec. 3 whether there were any "options or alternatives," including saving the Cactus and sacrificing the informal classes.

"There is no halfway point that gets us to the $121,000 we need," Smith replied, referring to the approximate amount that needed to be freed up so the union staff could get 2 percent merit raises during the next two years under a directive to all university units from UT President William Powers Jr.

Successive drafts of the news release, the earliest of which is undated but was amid other documents from early January, show that a reference to Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen and other singer-songwriters whose careers were furthered at the Cactus was deleted. Language making it clear that UT administrators had decided to shut down the cafe and the classes was recast to emphasize the role of the union's board in deciding their fate.

In fact, the nine voting members of the board — six students and three faculty members — serve in an advisory capacity to UT administrators, meaning that board actions are subject to approval by administrators.

"I was not briefed at all about this plan, or the specifics of it, until the executive session which took place after the union board meeting" on Jan. 29, said Andrew Nash, a theater and dance major who is a member of the board and president of the union's Student Events Center, when asked about the matter this week.

Nash and the four other students who attended the meeting said in a statement earlier this month that they expressed support for the administration's plan but did not vote on it Jan. 29. None of the three faculty members on the board attended that meeting.

The records show that UT officials expected some negative reaction to the announcement but perhaps not the firestorm that resulted, especially regarding the cafe.

"The Cactus Cafe has a loyal following in the Austin community and among musicians, some of whom may choose to contact the president," Smith wrote in a Dec. 1 e-mail.

The six full-time employees of the Cactus and the informal classes program have been offered other positions at their current salaries. The records show, however, that the position offered to Griff Luneberg, the longtime manager of the Cactus, is a temporary slot that would end Sept. 30, 2012.

The union's advisory board was briefed in a closed-door meeting Jan. 29, a Friday, and university officials sent out a news release about 5 p.m. that day announcing that the music venue and classes would be closed in August.

The records show that some university officials complained that they would have to take calls from news reporters during the weekend — even though the officials themselves had decided the timing of the announcement nearly two weeks earlier.

"Must we be on call?" wrote Soncia Reagins-Lilly , the senior associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, responding to a request by university spokesman David Ochsner for a phone number and e-mail in case of weekend media calls.

Ochsner replied that sharing contact information allows university officials to "provide perspective" if the story "goes negative over the weekend." After consulting with another staff member, he said officials could forward calls from office phones to home phones or purchase temporary phone numbers for about $6 each if they wanted to avoid giving out personal numbers for business purposes.

But Gonzalez didn't like the complaining.

"What privacy for management?" he wrote to Ochsner, Reagins-Lilly and Smith. "I view very limited privacy for upper management when it comes to communication needs and public affairs responsibilities."

rhaurwitz@statesman.com; 445-3604