University Unions

More than two years after a controversial recommendation to close down the Cactus Cafe & Bar, University Unions executive director Andy Smith will retire from his position on Aug. 31 after 27 years with University Unions.

“I have great hopes for the new executive director,” Smith said. “[University Unions] will be left in good order. Our budget is in pretty good shape after taking cuts like everyone else.”

Smith said the position is an opportunity to help build on University Unions’ student life centers and its recent expansion.

University Unions recently overtook the management of the Student Services Building and Hogg Memorial Auditorium. University Unions already oversees the Texas Union, Student Activity Center and the Student Events Center.

Smith said the University hopes to hire a new executive director during the summer months to ease the transition.

In 2010, Smith was criticized for a proposal to close the Cactus Cafe & Bar, a historical live music performance venue opened in 1979 in the Texas Union.

The University Union Board of Directors supported Smith’s proposal to phase out the cafe and the UT Informal Classes program to save around $122,000 for a 2 percent staff pay increase during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 biennium.

Students, members of the Austin community and musicians opposed Smith’s recommendations and formed the Save the Cactus Cafe campaign, which garnered more than 8,500 supporters in a Facebook group created by UT staffer Wiley Koepp, who served on the nonprofit’s board of directors.

The University eventually announced Cactus Cafe would remain open in partnership with KUT Radio, which would financially support the venue. KUT hired a new manager to run the cafe, replacing former manager Griff Luneburg.

UT alumna Hayley Gillespie, a critic of Smith’s recommendation, was a graduate student in 2010 and said she worked with the Graduate Student Assembly and Save the Cactus Cafe to attempt to maintain the venue.

Gillespie said Luneburg dedicated his life to the venue only to be replaced after Smith’s proposal.

“I wish the people who made it a better place would get the retirement benefits Smith is going to receive,” Gillespie said.

Despite criticisms, Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly, who oversees UT student life, said Smith was a leader who fulfilled his responsibilities during his time at the University.

Reagins-Lilly said the executive director is required to make many budgetary recommendations, and Smith worked very closely with the Dean of Students office when recommending the closing of Cactus Cafe.

“You never know, with any decision, how people will react,” Reagins-Lilly said. “[That year] is not central to his success.”

Responsibilities of the executive director include managing University Unions’ “student-centric business and service enterprise,” according to the job listing for the position posted on UT’s website.

Candidates for the position should have a master’s degree and 10 years of experience in a director role at a student facility.

Reagins-Lilly said the hiring committee, which will include student leaders, will consider internal and external applications.

Printed on Tuesday, January 15th, 2013 as: University Unions director retires 

Instead of hunting across the many entities on campus in search of meeting space, students will now be able to find reservation information for more than 550 indoor and outdoor spaces using online database “Find A Space.”

Student Government launched the comprehensive database March 5 in an attempt to simplify the process students go through when they reserve a space on campus. SG vice president Ashley Baker said SG received feedback from many students on difficulties finding and reserving a space last year and began working with the Office of the Dean of Students on the database last summer.

The database allows students to search for a room for their needs by specifying capacity and location preferences and informs students if a room has commonly requested items like movable chairs, a stage and a projector. It also gives students contact information for the entity in charge of the space and any amenities included.

“In my sorority when we have an event we go back and forth on what room to use,” Baker said. “We don’t want to have too big of a room where it seems we don’t have enough people, but we don’t have to have a small room and have people be cramped.”

Baker said the database did not cost any money to build, only labor to obtain information and take pictures. She said four volunteers from SG and two employees from the Office of the Dean of Students worked on the project.

Currently, there are several different entities on campus for students to reserve a space from, including Student Activities, University Unions, Recreational Sports, Texas Performing Arts and other departments within the various colleges on campus.

Mary Beth Mercatoris, assistant Dean of Students, said Student Activities has received feedback from students articulating their difficulty knowing which rooms will accommodate their needs based on the resources in each room.

Mercatoris said “Find A Space” is a good example of how students and the UT administration can work together to improve the lives of students.

“I believe students will request the right type of room for the needs the first time they are making the request rather than finding out later that the room they reserved does not meet their needs,” Mercatoris said.

Educational administration graduate student Cecilia Lopez said she was involved in the Student Volunteer Board and the Leadership and Ethics Institute as an undergraduate and at first had difficulty finding an ideal space. She said she needed to research to find out what entity is in control of the space she wanted to reserve.

“Finding a space on campus is huge,” Lopez said. “That is where the big events happen and a lot of the learning takes place. Space is key, whether indoor or outdoor, because that’s where campus life happens.”

Baker said “Find A Space” allows students to see what SG does for them in a tangible way.

While the database does not allow students to reserve most rooms online, Baker said she hopes the “Find A Space” project will live on after her term to eventually have all room reservations made online. SG passed a resolution in support of a centralized online room reservation system Feb. 14.

Jeremy Gatson, Liberal Arts Council program coordinator, said although he has not explored “Find A Space,” he believes there needs to be an online room reservation system like the one in place at the University Unions. He said he liked the idea of “Find A Space,” but believes having contact information on the database will add stress on the staff that works to manage room reservations.

“If you send them an email on top of them having their own way of reserving rooms, it’s more work for them,” Gatson said. “It’s a good thing for people to utilize that, but it’s more stress on the staff side.”

Printed on Tuesday, March 20, 2012 as: SG aims to help students 'Find a Space' with launch