At the University of Texas-Austin, tradition and football play a pivotal role in the institution’s culture. But sometimes our traditions come back to haunt us.
Last year, a petition was started to boycott the school song, “The Eyes of Texas.” As Jacey Rosengren explains in the petition, “For over a century, ‘The Eyes of Texas’ has been the alma mater of The University of Texas at Austin. Sung at sporting events, graduation ceremonies and more, the song has been a staple of the UT experience. But in doing this, UT has upheld a song with an undeniably racist history. ‘The Eyes of Texas’ premiered at a minstrel show on UT’s campus in 1903. The lyrics are tied to the white supremacist beliefs of Robert E. Lee. Even the melody has racist connections.” (Additional resources and history about “The Eyes of Texas”: http://bit.ly/rnrresources)
As David Leffler explains, “At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests last June, student-athlete coalitions voiced numerous concerns about systemic racism at the university.” Last fall, The Longhorn Band refused to perform the song at games, and members of the football team refused to participate in the song’s postgame recitation.
As our country reckons with the genocide, colonialism, and slavery it was build on, these types of controversies will continue. Our central institutions, including higher education, face essential questions—What is worth preserving? How do we remember and honor those who shaped and founded our institutions when they held values that are no longer socially acceptable? How do institutions acknowledge and grapple with their own problematic histories?
What role do students play in these discussions? What about donors?
Earlier this month, The Texas Tribune obtained and reported on emails that show alumni and donors threatened to stop supporting the university if it didn’t keep the song. As Kate McGee reports, “From June to late October, over 70% of the nearly 300 people who emailed Hartzell’s office about ‘The Eyes’ demanded the school keep playing it. Around 75 people in emails explicitly threatened to stop supporting the school financially, calling on the university to take a heavier hand with students and athletes they believed were disrespecting university tradition by protesting it.” The article includes screenshot examples of the emails:
In response to the controversy, UT-Austin put together a 24-member committee that recently released “The Eyes of Texas History Committee Report.” The report shows that the song debuted at a minstrel show where white students likely wore blackface, but the committee concluded the intent of the song was “not overtly racist.” The committee also recommended a list of tactics and strategies the university could use to recognize the historical context of the song going forward, including to “Continue allowing students to choose if they want to sing the song” and “Teach the history of ‘The Eyes’ and the university at student orientations.”
As I’ve written about before on this blog, major gifts from an ever-shrinking number of donors make up the lion’s share of philanthropy to colleges and universities. As state funding dries up, higher education institutions need major donors to survive and thrive. But they also need students—students who are invested in the institution’s future and proud to be a part of its story. How do we balance the legacy of our schools with changing norms, values, and expectations?
For institutions facing issues like this one, our post on how to address mounting campus controversies may serve as a useful read. In it, we outline six specific steps, with examples and models, institutions can take to address these controversies.
As far as what happens next at UT-Austin, Leffler writes, “With spring football practices set to begin this month, it’s unclear if players will resume their fight, given how taxing it was for them last season. Also, questions remain about how seriously UT will consider the findings of its history committee, and more importantly, how they’ll implement any substantive action. That means (pending a successful distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine) there’s a real possibility of a noticeable dissonance between singing fans and a quiet—or even absent—band when the Horns take the field against Louisiana-Lafayette this September. Whether the Texas faithful know, or care, about the reason for the discord could be a conundrum that plagues the university for years to come.”
We’ll continue to follow this story as it evolves.