As people discuss the history of the university’s famous spirit song, “The Eyes of Texas,” it’s worth considering both its present-day and historical contexts.
The song was written in 1903 in response to the campus desire for a UT song. For many years, thousands of Texans of all backgrounds and generations have viewed “The Eyes of Texas” as a song that unites them in their efforts do their best — and lead Texas to victory. It was, however, first sung at a minstrel show, a contextual element that is offensive and speaks to the pervasive racism of Texas in 1903. Reports have suggested it was taken indirectly from a Robert E. Lee quote, but recent research suggests this is not the case.
The context of “The Eyes of Texas” has changed since that first performance now that the song has been sung for 120 years.
Embracing the song’s meaning today should not stop us from seeing its complicated past and acknowledging the many ways people see the song.
In the wake of protests over the killing of George Floyd in the spring of 2020, students petitioned the university to reexamine the legacy of the song. One petition called for acknowledging racist roots of the song, another called for discontinuing its use at all university events, and a third petition from student-athletes asked for an end to a requirement they sing the song. although there has never been a requirement that anyone sing the song.
In July 2020, President Jay Hartzell rolled out a comprehensive set of proposals to create a more diverse and welcoming campus, including plans to allocate Athletics’ revenue to recruit and support Black students, rename the Robert L. Moore Building, and honor Black trailblazers at UT through new campus symbols. President Hartzell said the university would keep “The Eyes of Texas” as the university’s song but would work to own the history of the song while reclaiming and redefining what the song stands for.
In October 2020, President Hartzell announced the creation the Eyes of Texas History Committee and tasked it with chronicling the full history of ‘The Eyes of Texas” and recommending ways to educate the community. The committee released its full report on Tuesday, March 9, 2021.
On March 2, 2021, President Jay Hartzell made this statement in response to reporting that featured emails sent by alumni who were upset some football players were refusing to sing “The Eyes of Texas” after games:
People who target our students with hateful views do not represent the values of the Longhorn community. A few extremist views in the sample of emails the Texas Tribune reported on do not speak for the 540,000 proud Longhorn alumni who actively support our students and university. Out of the many emails I received this fall, a very small number included comments that were truly abhorrent and hateful. I categorically reject them, and they bear no influence on any aspect of our decision-making.
The fact that we don’t all agree on our school song doesn’t mean that we don’t all belong. Next week, the Eyes of Texas History Committee will release its report. Equipped with a common set of facts, we will then continue the conversation about our song. Having spoken to students and faculty on the committee, I truly believe we can be a model for how communities address complex problems and move forward together.
On Nov. 5, 2020, Doug Dempster, dean of the College of Fine Arts, provided this statement to the Austin American-Statesman in response to questions about the Longhorn Band performing the song:
Longhorn Band members continue to discuss the issue of “The Eyes of Texas” among themselves and with university leaders, and these discussions remain unresolved. There has been no change of status, and the university’s alma mater will continue to be played from loudspeakers at the game, not by the band. In-person instruction concludes on Nov. 25, after which UT students are expected to be off campus. The band will also not perform at the final home football game the day after Thanksgiving on Nov. 27.
On Oct. 21, 2020, President Jay Hartzell made this statement regarding the playing of “The Eyes of Texas” at the Oct. 24 University of Texas vs. Baylor University football game:
The Eyes of Texas will be played this weekend as it has been throughout this season – and it will continue to be played at future games and events. While we would love the band to be with our fans at all our games, we never planned for them to perform live this Saturday. We knew this summer that, as we make our campus a more welcoming place, we would face many hard conversations. I remain truly optimistic that we will find ways to join together around our song, which has been so positive for so many Longhorns over the past 120 years.
On Oct. 6, 2020, Doug Dempster, dean of the College of Fine Arts, provided this statement to the Daily Texan in response to questions about the Longhorn Band performing the song:
We are going to work with students in the Longhorn Band to consider the best options for continuing the musical traditions of The University of Texas, including The Eyes of Texas.
There has never been any suggestion from the faculty and staff directing the Longhorn Band, or from any other faculty or administrators, that students refusing to play The Eyes of Texas as a matter of conscience might be punished or penalized. That has always been the case and continues to be so.
However, conversations about students electing individually what songs they will and won’t perform have challenged the unity and viability of the Longhorn Band.
Longhorn Band students and faculty are in the middle of a university-wide and national reexamination of values and cultural symbols. A range of well-informed convictions on this issue need to be considered respectfully as conscientious and honorable. But given the long-standing traditions and mission of a university spirit band, this disagreement needs to be resolved before the Longhorn Band can return to public performance.
In a July 23, 2020 letter to campus outlining a range of actions the university would take to create a more diverse and welcoming campus, President Jay Hartzell explained the university’s approach to questions about the future of “The Eyes of Texas,” writing that UT will:
- Own, acknowledge and teach about all aspects of the origins of “The Eyes of Texas” as we continue to sing it moving forward with a redefined vision that unites our community.
- “The Eyes of Texas,” in its current form, will continue to be our alma mater. Aspects of its origin, whether previously widely known or unknown, have created a rift in how the song is understood and celebrated, and that must be fixed. It is my belief that we can effectively reclaim and redefine what this song stands for by first owning and acknowledging its history in a way that is open and transparent.
- Together, we have the power to define what the Eyes of Texas expect of us, what they demand of us, and what standard they hold us to now. “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. Only then can we reimagine its future, and I look forward to partnering with our campus community to do just that.
Eyes of Texas History Committee
- The Eyes of Texas History Committee Report — March 9, 2021
- Overview Video (YouTube) — testimonies from committee members
- Stories — videos from the committee members on aspects of the history and their personal reflections
The Eyes of Texas – Texas Exes, History and Traditions
The Eyes of Texas History Committee — Scope, Purpose and Mission
Messages to Campus
“Meaningful Conversations and Actions” — Letter from President Jay Hartzell, Oct. 6, 2020
Letter from Dean Doug Dempster to Directors of the Longhorn Band — Sept. 24, 2020
“A More Diverse and Welcoming Campus” — Letter from President Jay Hartzell, July 23, 2020
- Grieder: The eyes of Texas are once again on ‘The Eyes of Texas’ – The Houston Chronicle, April 25, 2021 by Erica Grieder
- University of Texas band members will be required to play “The Eyes of Texas’ or join a different band – CNN – April 23, 2021 by David Williams
- ‘The Eyes of Texas’ remains controversial for UT — The Dallas Morning News, April 2, 2021 by Valeria Olivares
- Letters from University of Texas donors reveal drastic measures some willing to go to preserve ‘Eyes of Texas’ — USA Today, March 1, 2021 by Steve Gardner
- UT committee to examine history of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ — Austin American-Statesman, Oct. 6, 2020 by Madlin Mekelburg
- Texas legends Earl Campbell, Ricky Williams think ‘The Eyes of Texas’ should stay — Burnt Orange Nation, Sept. 10, 2020 by Xander Peters
- Several Longhorn band members still saying they won’t perform “The Eyes of Texas” — Fox 7 Austin, August 31, 2020
- Golden: The song remains the same, but Texas’ changes are tremendous — Austin American-Statesman, July 21, 2020 by Cedric Golden
- Editorial: Now the eyes of all Texans are on UT — July 15, 2020 by American-Statesman Editorial Board
- Texas will keep ‘Eyes of Texas’ as alma mater, rename field after former Heisman Trophy winners — CBS Sports, July 13, 2020 by Ben Kercheval
- UT making sweeping changes in response to athlete requests but keeps ‘The Eyes of Texas’ — Austin American-Statesman, July 13, 2020 by Brian Davis