Powers Gets Frank On The Cactus Cafe, Football Salaries, And Other Hot-Button UT Issues

Imagine UT President Bill Powers on Oprah’s couch, and you’ve got the flavor of the relaxed — and remarkably candid — interview he sat down for recently. At the Midland Exes Chapter’s Texas Independence Day dinner, Powers eased into a plush armchair in a country club banquet room for 40 minutes of free-ranging questions from Texas Exes executive director Jim Boon. The format gave everyone in attendance the feeling that they’d just sat down for a casual conversation full of inside information on the University. 

Boon asked about Powers’ family, including what it’s like to have a daughter at UT (she’ll call if she has printer problems and a paper due, asking if she can print at his office, Powers said). And while Boon joked that he’d refrain from asking the president about boxers versus briefs, Powers answered anyway (boxers, he deadpanned).

But once what Boon called the ‘easy questions’ were over, he got Powers to address every sticky situation (“challenge,” in administrative speak) UT faces — essentiallly, every substantive University topic that’s been in the news over the past year.  

Here are a few of his standout comments:  

On developing the Brackenridge Tract (which could force the closure of Lions Municipal Golf Course): “Especially in difficult times, we need to focus our resources on that core mission of teaching and research. It is not our mission to support golf in West Austin. We’re happy to do it — until we have to think, ‘Can those assets be used to support our students?'”  

On potentially closing the Texas Union’s Cactus Cafe, a storied venue for folk artists in particular: “Our students want student bands in that venue. They want the kind of music that was going on in the Cactus Cafe, but also the kind of music they’re interested in, and also student bands, student improv. In the ’60s the students sort of took control of that space, and they were not having Guy Lombardo as the music. I think our students now are going through that same process. There are negotiations, and it will come out where there is a lot of the kind of music that was there, but I think the students want to be in control of that. My view is I’m going to back our students on this.”  

On whether UT (and other Texas higher ed institutions) get sufficient state funding: “Places that we’re competing with — California, North Carolina, Michigan — typically spend about 3.5 percent of their GDP on higher education. We spend about 2.5 percent. We need to be on a path to correct that balance with the other important needs of the state.” 

On cutting UT’s budget by 5 percent for the next year: “Any time you go through that, there’s going to be a lot of stress in any organization. We’re actually in a better position on capital projects than on the recurring budget. And then there are units — Athletics is one of them, the Advanced Research Unit on the Pickle campus gets federal funding — that generate their own money. And they have a little bit more leeway.”  

On the management of UT Athletics: “We’re very careful. We have fewer sports, but we do them well. I am probably one of a handful — four, five, six college presidents in the country — that doesn’t have to say, ‘What am I going to have to do to bail out the $30 million deficit in our athletics program?'”  

On investing in top-tier football coaches: “Going forward, it is critical we don’t go through the same situation we did when Coach Royal retired, with no continuity.”

On working with legislators: “I actually enjoy that work. Maybe it comes from lawyering, meeting with people. Now, by the end of the session — even chocolate fudge cake, by your fifth piece or so, you might want to take a couple days off.”   

On capping automatic Top 10 Percent admissions at 75 percent of the freshman class (a measure that passed the Legislature last spring): “This is a huge step forward, and something that, to be quite candid, avoided what would have been a disaster for the University if this had not gone through. I must have spent more time on that during the legislative session than any other issue. And thank God.”  

On recruiting for more geographic diversity: “We can’t be the university for five suburban districts in the state of Texas.”

For more of Powers’ take on the issues, check out these exclusive videos.



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