As a first-generation college student, I learned a lot about university life from films like “Animal House” and “Old School.” They taught me that I’d eventually have to face a powerful enemy in the form of a vindictive, narrow-minded administrator.
Upon joining the Student Event Center’s Distinguished Speakers Committee, I was certain I’d found my nemesis in the form of Andy Smith, the Texas Unions director. He was almost too perfect. Always dressed in suit and tie with a helmet of white hair he could easily pass for one of Dick Cheney’s henchmen. The one Dick Cheney’s other henchmen were afraid of.
I’d heard stories, too, about how he’d ruthlessly killed programs the campus community loved, cutting at the budget like a butcher from his perch in the corner of the Union.
My first few interactions with Smith put us immediately at odds over the budget, over facilities usage and once even over the sleeping habits of people in the Texas Union. It wasn’t just what he thought, but how he presented it. Even when talking about mundane things like the weather he’d recline in his chair and lean his chin forward, lowering his voice conspiratorially, as if the rain we’d been having lately might be part of a larger plot.
Yet the more I worked with him, the more disappointed I was. Or, at least, the part of me that wanted a foe was disappointed. He was hardly the heartless administrator who aimed to consolidate power and money that I’d expected. Even when I disagreed with him, Smith’s machinations had the long-term best interests of the student body and the University in mind.
As a Texan columnist, I met many professors, staff and administrators. All of them mean well, but not all knew how to function in the massive and complex bureaucracy that is UT. Smith understood how the system worked better than anyone I ever met during my time at UT.
Though his role wasn’t as an educator, watching him maintain and expand the Union and allow the expansion of student programming was one of the best educations I got at the University of Texas.
His legacy is obvious. Student programming at UT is among the best in the nation. The original Texas Union is more attractive, more efficient and more student-friendly than it has ever been. The new Student Activities Center, though conspicuously absent of big comfy couches perfect for napping, serves the campus community well.
And if you should find yourself enjoying a late night Frosty at Wendy’s, you owe a small debt of gratitude to Smith. He loves that damn Wendy’s so much. If you’ve never seen Andy Smith excited, try to grab him before he retires and ask him about it.
His other legacy, though, isn’t quite so obvious, but it’s the one that’s more important in my estimation: his impact on students who had the privilege to work with and/or against him. That so many of the former members of the Union Board of Directors now serve as leaders in business and government is encouraging and not at all surprising.
If Smith had one flaw in his leadership, it was a desire for secrecy that some saw as insidious, but was usually an attempt to protect student programming in the face of campuswide budget tightening or to shield students from the whims of public scrutiny in order to give them space and time to make the hard decisions. When it backfired, it backfired spectacularly, as with the Cactus Cafe controversy, but go back and look at any student-drafted Union budget if you want to see the possibilities of competent student leadership under wise administration.
That secrecy also means he’ll probably be the last one to stand up, before he retires, and recount to you all the things he’s done to keep both the physical Union and the idea of a student union alive, so I’m happy to do it for him.
Matt Hardigree is a former SEC president and Daily Texan columnist. He graduated with government and geography degrees in 2005.