Universities as parks and rec

One of the challenges to higher education is reflected in a Texas Tribune story (“Burned Orange”). Some people are concerned that the Cactus Cafe on the UT campus will be lost. The Cafe has long been a gathering place for people from on and off campus and some residents see it as a tradition. In “Would UT sell it soul?” one opinion writer for the Austin American Statesman writes why UT can’t afford $66,000 a year to subsidize the Cactus Cafe without once referencing education in his plea to protect the “soul” of the university.

I spent my share of time in the Cactus Cafe. Unlike some, I’ve come to accept that enjoying someplace did not make a sacred ground that future generations must forever honor and preserve. Sure, some talented people sung on that stage. However, you can find many places like that in Austin.  I witnessed the disappearance of (to name a few) Raul’s, Club Foot, Liberty Lunch, Armadillo World Headquarters, and more iterations of Soap Creek Saloon than I can recall. All of the venues hosted acts every bit as important as those who passed through the Cactus Cafe. Why is it the university’s job to rescue a slice of Austin’s music history when no one else has bothered?

Mize Azalea Garden Entrance

The entrance to the Mize Azalea Garden on SFA's campus

The problem is that many citizens regard universities as a source of subsidized entertainment, a parks and recreation department, or tool for economic development. Nacogdoches citizens complained about the possibility of my school (Stephen F. Austin State University) removing trees along University Drive because it would impact the beauty of the area. That’s certainly a valid concern. However, every business along that street had already bulldozed almost every single tree on their property to maximize their use of the space. SFA was expected to retain undeveloped property and maintain its appearance to beautify the city in a way that most local business never considered. (SFA did its part. SFA’s Mast Arboretum is now flanked by an elaborate system of hike and bike trails on university property.)

Universities already place a huge value on their contribution to the community. Fine arts departments relish the opportunity to bring arts and entertainment to their community. Many campuses (like SFA) provide some of the most beautiful spots in their town. More and more universities are emphasizing community service and integrating it into curriculum. Athletic events draw large crowds to town and help fill hotel rooms and restaurants. None of these things are free and school’s ability to provide them is limited.

The mission of a university is education. People need to quit demanding more from universities in at time when the state’s contribution to higher education is declining. Much of the funding for all the landscaping, theatrical productions, and music venues increasingly ends up coming out of the pockets of students. People need to look at their own efforts before demanding that universities do more.

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