A call to fight Powers’ plan

Dana Cloud

In a speech last Tuesday, UT President William Powers Jr. announced plans to turn over all non-academic University services (food, housing, parking, etc.) to private contractors. Expect those contractors to lay off hundreds of workers and cut the pay and benefits — already low — of those who remain. What Powers called “natural” attrition will permanently cut the ranks of UT faculty and staff by one-fifth in the next few years. The plan will also increase costs to students to what the study calls a “fair market level” for basics like food and housing. A report, commissioned by Powers, called “Smarter Systems for a Greater UT,” and the basis of his remarks on Tuesday, concedes that students will be paying up to 50 percent more for food and 150 percent more for parking.

To add insult to injury, the University paid $960,000 to a Committee on Business Productivity to conduct this study, money that could have saved desperately needed faculty and staff positions. Composed of 13 wealthy businesspeople, the committee had no representatives from the faculty or University workers. This committee’s chairperson is an executive of Accenture, known for botching the privatization of Texas’ food stamp program, leaving thousands of people without benefits for which they were eligible. The Progressive States Network reported that in 2005, Texas granted Accenture an $899 million contract to operate the state’s food stamp eligibility program —making Texas’ the worst performing food stamp program in the entire country. The Texas Tribune called the privatization of food stamps “disastrous,” noting chronically low pay of employees of the program.

In his address, President Powers called “best business practices” and for-profit efficiency a “moral imperative.” But there is nothing moral about it. We are already seeing the fallout from privatization at Texas A&M, which is hailed by Powers as a model — increased costs to students, cuts and job insecurity for faculty and staff. These changes will have a terrible impact on UT staff and their families for years to come. Faculty research and teaching will continue to suffer as our faculty, support staff and other resources are shaved away.

In spite of Powers’ spirited defense of our intellectual mission (and call for a tuition raise last year), the call for “smarter systems” is the ultimate salvo in an assault — topping off the budget cuts, tuition increases and attacks on the humanities we’ve seen over the past several years — on the mission of the public university.

This plan is neither moral nor necessary. The state of Texas provides only 13 percent of UT’s budget, down from nearly half in the 1980s. We can demand that lawmakers support the University in proportion to their control over it. In addition, the University has access to millions of dollars in the Available University Fund. The money is there to maintain programs. The money is there to pay staff a living wage. The money is there to make tuition hikes unnecessary. The crisis justifying the bald-faced corporatization of the University is manufactured in the interests of profiteers.

We are in this together. Students, staff, faculty and alumni must unite and raise our voices to challenge this privatization plan, which benefits none of us. The Texas State Employees Union and the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition are two of the organizations on the front lines of this fight. I urge you to get involved and send a message loud and clear: No to budget cuts, no to tuition increases and no to privatization. Restoring a truly public University of Texas is our real moral imperative.

Cloud is an associate professor of Communication Studies and is a member of the Texas State Employees Union.