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The Texas Longhorns had just lost to rival Oklahoma for the third time in a row — this time after a quadruple overtime.
The bruising loss was quickly overshadowed when then-Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger stood alone on the field for the playing of the university’s alma mater song "The Eyes of Texas," a postgame tradition. The rest of the team, who typically stay to sing the song with fans at the end of games, had retreated from the field.
For many University of Texas at Austin students who had spent months protesting and petitioning the school to get rid of "The Eyes of Texas," it was gutting to see the student leader seemingly taking a stand. (Ehlinger later said he was only lingering alone on the field to talk with coaches.) The song — played to the tune of "I’ve been working on the railroad" — was historically performed at campus minstrel shows, and the title is linked to a saying from Confederate Army Commander Robert E. Lee.
But hundreds of alumni and donors were more concerned about why Ehlinger was alone. They blasted off emails to UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell, calling the image of the abandoned quarterback "disgusting," "embarrassing" and "disturbing." They demanded that the school stand up to "cancel culture" and firmly get behind the song — or else donors were going to walk away.
"My wife and I have given an endowment in excess of $1 million to athletics. This could very easily be rescinded if things don’t drastically change around here," wrote one donor in October. His name was redacted by UT-Austin, citing open records laws that protect certain donor identities. "Has everyone become oblivious of who supports athletics??"
Hartzell had already publicly stated the university would keep the song, but hundreds of emails obtained through public records requests show that decision didn’t quell the furor among some of the most ardent supporters of "The Eyes."
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 Eyes of Texas is non-negotiable," wrote another graduate who said they’ve had season tickets since 1990 and whose name was redacted by the university. "If it is not kept and fully embraced, I will not be donating any additional money to athletics or the university or attending any events."
This month, a university committee formed to document the song’s history is expected to release its highly anticipated report, likely reigniting the debate within the school community.
While those who emailed represent a fraction of the more than 540,000 UT-Austin alumni, their threats had some university fundraisers sounding the alarms.
"[Alumni] are pulling planned gifts, canceling donations, walking away from causes and programs that have been their passion for years, even decades and turning away in disgust. Last night one texted me at 1:00 am, trying to find a way to revoke a 7-figure donation," President of the Longhorn Alumni Band Charitable Fund Board of Trustees Kent Kostka wrote to a group of administrators, including Hartzell. "This is not hyperbole or exaggeration. Real damage is being done every day by the ongoing silence."
Alumni and donors threatened to cancel season tickets, end donations and boycott games. They complained that Hartzell was not forcefully defending the song and school traditions enough, accusing him of cowing to political correctness.
"It is disgraceful to see the lack of unity and our fiercest competitor Sam E[h]linger standing nearly alone," wrote one graduate whose name was also redacted by the university to protect the identity of a donor. "It is symbolic of the disarray of this football program which you inherited. The critical race theory garbage that has been embraced by the football program and the university is doing massive irreparable damage."
Among the donors who reached out was billionaire businessman and alumnus Bob Rowling, whose holding company owns Omni Hotels and Gold’s Gym and whose name graces a building within the McCombs School of Business.
"I am not advising you or taking any position regarding this issue right now, other than to say 'The Eyes' needs to be our song," Rowling wrote to Hartzell. "I AM wanting you to be aware of the 'talk about town' regarding UT. There are a lot of folks on this email chain who love UT and are in positions of influence."
In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Rowling stood by his email and said Hartzell should be cognizant of donors’ wishes.
"My advice to Jay was these alumni have given and are giving," Rowling told the Tribune. "We're in the middle of a capital campaign right now. ...We're raising billions of dollars right now. If you want to dry that up immediately, cancel 'The Eyes of Texas.'"
Many of the emails were dismissive or hostile toward students.
"UT needs rich donors who love The Eyes of Texas more than they need one crop of irresponsible and uninformed students or faculty who won't do what they are paid to do," Steven Arnold, a retired administrative law judge and UT-Austin law school graduate, wrote to Hartzell. When reached for comment, Arnold said he had not donated to the university in recent years and has been completely turned off of college football after the events of the last year.
Learn from the past
Hartzell was explicit in July that "The Eyes of Texas" would remain a university tradition, but said the entire school community must try to understand its origins.
"'The Eyes of Texas' should not only unite us, but hold all of us accountable to our institution’s core values. But we first must own the history," Hartzell said in a July letter to the university community.
Commitment to the song has been echoed by the Board of Regents and by Steve Sarkisian, the new football coach who was hired in January.
From the start, Sarkisian signaled he would take a different approach than former coach Tom Herman, who said he would respect players who did not want to stay to sing the song.
"I know this much," Sarkisian said, "'The Eyes of Texas' is our school song. We're going to sing that song. We're going to sing that proudly."
Criticism about the song has percolated for years, but this summer as protests swept cities across the nation over police brutality against Black people in the aftermath of George Floyd's death, students demanded universities shed relics of the past that memorialize racist figures.
Before the season started, student athletes threatened to stop showing up at donor events if the university didn't take action and many players left the field when "The Eyes" started playing after the first two home games of the season. In September, students started a petition to boycott the song coinciding with a social media campaign called "Rewrite, not Reclaim."
"If something offends a certain demographic of people, and they've been outspoken about it, and they have every right to be offended by it, I think we should be listening to them," said Madison Morris, a freshman who is part of the Longhorn Athletic Agency within UT-Austin student government.
In early October, Hartzell announced Richard Reddick, a professor and associate dean in the College of Education, would chair a committee to review and document the history of "The Eyes of Texas," providing options for how the school can share and learn from its past — even as it had no intention of abandoning the song.
The committee announcement caused some alumni to again question whether the university was leaving the door open on the song. Rhetoric among donors and alumni intensified as pleas to keep the song over the summer turned into frustration that Hartzell needed to take a more aggressive approach. They demanded students and players be required to participate in the university tradition. Some of the emails were racially charged.
"It's time for you to put the foot down and make it perfectly clear that the heritage of Texas will not be lost," wrote another donor who graduated in 1986. Their name was also redacted by UT-Austin. "It is sad that it is offending the blacks. As I said before the blacks are free and it's time for them to move on to another state where everything is in their favor."
At least two people argued that because the Black student population at UT-Austin is small, their voices should not outweigh the larger wishes of the alumni base.
"Less than 6% of our current student body is black," wrote Larry Wilkinson, a donor who graduated in 1970, quoting a statistic UT-Austin officials have stated they’re working to improve. "The tail cannot be allowed to wag the dog….. and the dog must instead stand up for what is right. Nothing forces those students to attend UT Austin. Encourage them to select an alternate school ….NOW!"
Wilkinson reiterated his opinions in an interview with the Tribune. "Everything in life all comes back to money," he said. He said he did not get a personal response to his email from Hartzell, only a generic message that said the song would remain.
Trial by fire
The controversy of "The Eyes" has been a trial by fire of sorts for Hartzell, who started as interim president in April and was officially offered the job in September.
In an interview with the Tribune and follow up emails last fall, Hartzell acknowledged the fierce debate the song had created.
"Many believe the song is a positive unifying force that inspires Longhorns to do their best. We also recognize that some feel differently. This is why we have taken the approach that we did, conducting an in-depth study of the history and origin of the song," he wrote in an email. "My hope is that with clarity of the facts, we can begin the process of learning about and reckoning with 'The Eyes of Texas' in a way that can be a model for having difficult conversations, bridging divides and understanding diverse points of view."
Hartzell would not say whether donors played a role in his decision to keep the song, but emails show that staffers in his office closely monitored and tallied the messages from people weighing in on the song.
"Went through the [Eyes of Texas]-themed mail inbox again this morning," Gary Susswein, former chief communications officer, wrote to Hartzell and his deputy, Nancy Brazzil, in mid-October. "Nearly 100 percent support for the Eyes of Texas."
After Hartzell sent out a letter announcing the creation of the committee to study "The Eyes," Susswein also documented the reaction on social media.
"Opponents of the song worry the upcoming work will amount to only a justification for keeping 'The Eyes' intact," Susswein wrote. "Those who favor the song say they’ll continue singing it regardless of what the university may decide."
Recently, Texas A&M University examined what the impact on donations could be if they removed a campus statue of a former university president and Confederate general, Lawrence Sullivan Ross. The university has been embroiled in similarly tense debate over the monument there. According to the report, interviews with fundraising groups at Texas A&M found that the university could expect a short-term drop, but long-term fundraising would likely remain unaffected.
A UT-Austin spokesperson said they have not done a similar review.
Meanwhile, Hartzell has skillfully avoided sharing his personal opinions on "The Eyes" in interviews. But in emails, he shared his feelings that the raging debate had been weighing on him.
"I woke up yesterday, and my dog had pooped on my kitchen floor," he responded to a friendly alumnus who emailed him applauding his leadership during the firestorm. "I thought that was a metaphor for my week!"
Emails show the issue privately consumed the president’s office, even as school was reopening during a pandemic.
When an email from a UT-Austin parent sharing her son’s mental health issues appeared to go unintentionally unanswered, a student affairs employee asked if Hartzell’s office wanted to respond directly. But the president’s office declined.
"If you think we can help [redacted], then please proceed," wrote Geoff Leavenworth, a former communications director at UT-Austin who was hired temporarily to help the office with correspondence this fall. "I'm afraid The Eyes of Texas issue is requiring a lot of bandwidth right now."
In one email chain, alumnus Trey Hoffman circulated a letter in support of keeping the song which garnered 257 signatures. He also shared criticism and worries about the committee tapped to review the history of "The Eyes of Texas," headed by Reddick. The email contained a large photograph of Reddick, who is Black.
"This professor is in charge of the team/ that tells us whether the song is racist or not? His Twitter account is filled with race baiting and cry baby [Black Lives Matter] junk," the caption below the photo read. "UT better get it together and use its brains, not this biased 'victim' professor at UT!"
Hoffman’s email was flagged for Hartzell’s attention noting his history of donations to the school.
"His opinions are uninformed and inaccurate," wrote Scott Rabenold, vice president of development, who pointed out Hoffman has donated $70,000 to Longhorn athletics. "But his message is/will resonating."
When reached for comment, Hoffman walked back his criticism of Reddick. He said he didn’t author the comments in his email criticizing Reddick, but did copy them from a post he saw online.
"I happen to believe that Professor Reddick is a long time supporter of UT and its traditions," he said. "While his committee has not completed its report, I am hopeful that they will produce a positive outcome that everyone can live with."
Emails show other alumni argued the committee promoted "Marxist ideology" and called it a product of "cancel culture." Multiple alumni who emailed the university called students "snowflakes," a term made popular by the alt-right to criticize progressives they think are too sensitive.
Nearly a dozen emails questioned whether conservative voices would be represented on the committee and accused the university of silencing non-liberal students on campus.
"I truly hope that you value diversity of opinion...but if you are similar to today's academia you will shut down conservative viewpoints and true facts," wrote one alumni identified as Myers, who called themselves a "disgusted alumni" from the class of 1984. "I do not support UT anymore (even though my family has 3 generations of graduates) because it has become a bastion of far liberal indoctrination and only teaches one point of view...liberalism. Sorry, but it is clear at UT that the white male is totally screwed unless you are 'woke'."
In an interview, Reddick said he’s mostly received support and encouragement from people over the committee’s work, but said he was prepared for the split opinions.
"I do public scholarship all the time. I'm used to people having strong opinions about what's done, and I'm used to people maybe not really approaching with open minds," he said. "But this is a collective effort. It’s not the work of Rich Reddick. It's the work of the 25 people in our community. And we stand behind the work that we do."
While the vast majority of those who emailed pleaded with UT-Austin to keep the song, a small handful of alumni urged the president to get rid of the alma mater, with a few threatening to pull donations unless the song went away.
And some creative alumni suggested simply rewriting the lyrics to the disputed song.
Alumnus Ken Knowles suggested renaming the song to "The Might of Texas."
He submitted the lyrics: "The Might of Texas is upon you/Hail the Orange and White/ The might of Texas is upon you/Together we will fight."
Another alumna and her grandmother also submitted revised lyrics which included a new second stanza, "Do your best to be a Texan — From night till early in the morn! The skies of Texas are above you, Till Gabriel blows his horn!"
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, UT-Austin’s McCombs School of Business, Texas A&M University and Robert B. Rowling have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.