Andy Smith

The Division of Student Affairs announced Monday that Mulugeta Ferede will be the new University Unions executive director, replacing Andy Smith, who resigned from the position in August.

The unions executive director supervises a staff that works directly with students and manages the Texas Union, Student Activity Center, Hogg Auditorium and Student Services Building. The director also oversees Campus Events + Entertainment and business and food services at the Union.

Smith officially retired from the position in August after 27 years with the unions. Three years before his resignation, Smith was criticized for a proposal to close the Cactus Cafe & Bar in the Union.

Smith will continue to work with the unions until the end of the year, at which point Ferede will take over. Gage Paine, vice president for student affairs, said she appreciates Smith’s willingness to work with the unions in the interim period. 

Ferede, who has worked with unions for almost 20 years, will leave his post of eight years as senior associate director of the Illini Union at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In his time at UT, Ferede said he hopes to build an energetic atmosphere. 

“My interest is really the students,” Ferede said. “I must be a teacher at heart — I’m interested in helping and mentoring students.” 

Paine said she is excited Ferede has experience in working directly with students and managing facilities. 

“He brings a business sense and student engagement sense into the mix,” Paine said. “I have expectations that he’ll bring great energy into our programs. … When a new person comes in, no matter how strong an organization is, a new person sees new things and asks questions that someone who has been there for 27 years doesn’t ask.” 

Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly said during the interview process Ferede demonstrated qualities she was looking for — including integrity, passion and a student-centered mind-set. 

“I’m hoping that the student body will have the opportunity to get to know him and share their vision of what they would like to see as we continue to build on the excellence of our program and facilities,” Reagins-Lilly said. “I am looking forward to a collaborative process to determine the future growth that includes students at the center.”

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.

More than two years after a controversial recommendation to close down the Cactus Cafe & Bar, University Unions executive director Andy Smith will retire from his position on Aug. 31 after 27 years with University Unions.

“I have great hopes for the new executive director,” Smith said. “[University Unions] will be left in good order. Our budget is in pretty good shape after taking cuts like everyone else.”

Smith said the position is an opportunity to help build on University Unions’ student life centers and its recent expansion.

University Unions recently overtook the management of the Student Services Building and Hogg Memorial Auditorium. University Unions already oversees the Texas Union, Student Activity Center and the Student Events Center.

Smith said the University hopes to hire a new executive director during the summer months to ease the transition.

In 2010, Smith was criticized for a proposal to close the Cactus Cafe & Bar, a historical live music performance venue opened in 1979 in the Texas Union.

The University Union Board of Directors supported Smith’s proposal to phase out the cafe and the UT Informal Classes program to save around $122,000 for a 2 percent staff pay increase during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 biennium.

Students, members of the Austin community and musicians opposed Smith’s recommendations and formed the Save the Cactus Cafe campaign, which garnered more than 8,500 supporters in a Facebook group created by UT staffer Wiley Koepp, who served on the nonprofit’s board of directors.

The University eventually announced Cactus Cafe would remain open in partnership with KUT Radio, which would financially support the venue. KUT hired a new manager to run the cafe, replacing former manager Griff Luneburg.

UT alumna Hayley Gillespie, a critic of Smith’s recommendation, was a graduate student in 2010 and said she worked with the Graduate Student Assembly and Save the Cactus Cafe to attempt to maintain the venue.

Gillespie said Luneburg dedicated his life to the venue only to be replaced after Smith’s proposal.

“I wish the people who made it a better place would get the retirement benefits Smith is going to receive,” Gillespie said.

Despite criticisms, Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly, who oversees UT student life, said Smith was a leader who fulfilled his responsibilities during his time at the University.

Reagins-Lilly said the executive director is required to make many budgetary recommendations, and Smith worked very closely with the Dean of Students office when recommending the closing of Cactus Cafe.

“You never know, with any decision, how people will react,” Reagins-Lilly said. “[That year] is not central to his success.”

Responsibilities of the executive director include managing University Unions’ “student-centric business and service enterprise,” according to the job listing for the position posted on UT’s website.

Candidates for the position should have a master’s degree and 10 years of experience in a director role at a student facility.

Reagins-Lilly said the hiring committee, which will include student leaders, will consider internal and external applications.

Printed on Tuesday, January 15th, 2013 as: University Unions director retires