Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Would UT sell its soul?

   What do mountaintop removal mining and the fate of the University of Texas Cactus Cafe have in common? This:

   The former looks at a mountain only as what riches it can yield. No value is assigned to the mountain itself, nothing intrinsic. It is but an obstacle to wealth.

    If a UT proposal becomes reality, the very same will apply to the latter. The Cactus Cafe is an on-campus live entertainment venue that maybe doesn't carry its weight, revenue per cubic feet. It has intrinsic value, however, beyond anyone's imagining.

     It provided a venue for Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, among others, when they were young singer-songwriters. It provides open-mike opportunities for great names and voices we've yet come to know.

    And yet the university recently announced it would discontinue the Cactus Cafe, located for many years in the Texas Union, saying the venue has "struggled to maintain profitability."

      Yes, you love the word: "profitability" — that criteria around which the world revolves. Well, not all worlds. Some people see value in non-currency, without percentage points attached.

   You may see the world from the former perspective and have no problem with axing a performing arts institution. So, I'll ask: 

   Would it be OK for the Wall Street Journal to have a swimsuit edition? It would yield big bucks in a sagging industry, even if it compromised an institution's very nature.

    Would it be OK to stack the letters E,X,X,O and N on the side of  the UT Tower? That company, or many, surely would pay handsomely for the privilege. It's revenue. Profit. Why not?

    You say it costs dollars to run something like the Cactus Cafe, dollars Texas supposedly does not have. So, too, does it cost dollars to make the tower glow orange on great occasions. AIG or Mitsubishi would be happy to help pay for that glow, given sufficient logo visibility on the stately facade.

     I'll admit that one encouraging thing accompanies this troubling development: the outrage it has generated.

    Over 24,000 people — students, graduate students and exes — have merged online, registering their solidarity on FaceBook to oppose the move, a virtual sit-down strike. Power to the people! One FaceBook post sees this proposal as a continuation of the privatization of space in the Texas Union that began in the '90s.

      In response to the intense blow back, UT officials have suggested this is simply a "repurposing" of the Cactus Cafe to better suit the needs of students, as opposed to alumni and non-students. If that were the case, dollar signs wouldn't have come into the discussion.

      The magic figure we are talking about is quite modest in the scheme of a huge university like UT. The university says that the Texas Union is subsidizing the Cactus to a tune of $66,000 a year. As one Cactus supporter said, if the university had simply told people of the problem and passed the hat online, it could have solved the problem in a nanosecond.

     So, is this about saving $66,000 a year? Or is it the condition of losing sight of the common good in the parsing of decimals?

     If that's the case, just imagine what a more profitable use of that tower would render, maybe with LED corporate displays on all four sides. I'll bet someone in the sell-off, sell-out world could put a price on it.

     John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:


Anonymous said...

Union Director Andy Smith did report $66,000 as the annual number, but later said it was $66,000 over the two year budget period. So it's only $33,000 a year. Killing the Cactus for only $33,000 a year.

Carl Hoover said...

When I was a UT student in the 1970s, an absurdist (and funny) candidate for Student Body President ran on a platform that included changing the motto on the UT Tower from "The truth shall set you free" to a more realistic "Money Talks."

The more things change . . .