Cut the A.C., not affordability

At 10 a.m. yesterday morning, UT President William Powers Jr., sporting a burnt orange tie and a no-nonsense look, gave a 36-minute address about the future of the University’s finances. Powers introduced “Smarter Systems for a Greater UT,” a report in which a 13-member committee convened by Powers in April 2012 presented “recommendations on increasing [UT’s] efficiency and effectiveness.” The University commissioned Accenture, a consulting firm, to write the report, which cost $960,000.

The report identifies three sectors of University affairs that could stand cost-cutting or efficiency-improving measures: administrative services, university assets and technology commercialization.

The recommendations come at a time when virtually all budgets feel tight. A protracted economic recession and decreased state funding for higher education have left students, families and University departments wary of spending money. 

But Powers’ address raises questions about who will be forced to bear the financial burdens that will likely result from the committee’s recommendations. Specifically, a proposal to bring “UT’s food, housing, and parking rates more in line with market values” rings especially problematic for students, who face consistently increasing housing costs. As the neighborhoods around campus develop their own skylines dominated by high rises rivaling those of downtown, many students will cringe at the idea of facing equally high if not higher prices for on-campus housing, which has historically served as a relatively affordable option.

Powers did not shy away from provocative words like “outsourcing,” which will likely lead some University staff to worry about job security. Outsourcing presents an opportunity to cut costs, and Powers made sure to remind his audience that it “is not a new concept for us.” Indeed, the University has a history of exporting services to the private sector. Some, like the recent UTMail product managed by Google, have proven successful. But outsourcing also comes at the expense of a loss of control on the University’s part to control aspects of its public reputation. Last year, a food services company contracted by the UT Athletics Department came under scrutiny for workers’ rights violations, but UT officials were virtually powerless to effect any change in the company’s policy. 

Fortunately, other proposals by Powers are sensible, and will likely be well received. Foremost among these are efforts at conserving energy, which are consistent with the sustainability initiatives the University is keen to advance. We stand behind less air conditioning. Jester, for instance, is freezing right now, and not because of the cold January Texas weather. 

At the end of his speech, Powers compared the report to an endeavor by Pope Sixtus V in 1586 to move a heavy obelisk to a new location. The proposed changes will require years to take full effect, and they will have far-reaching consequences. Powers’ comparison is an interesting one, because Sixtus was widely despised by his political subjects for the often radical changes he proposed. But Powers isn’t just talking about relocating an obelisk; he’s facing hard choices about the University’s increasingly difficult search for funding. His anodyne words betray the grimness of the funding prospects, pledging only to make changes “with the least negative impact.” But in choosing the lesser of available evils, Powers should avoid putting the heaviest financial burdens on those students and staff who can least bear them and evaluate their costs in that regard.