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Next fall, University of Texas at Austin students who play on the football team or watch in the stands can choose whether to sing the “The Eyes of Texas” at the end of the game.
But members of the Longhorn Band will be required to perform the university’s embattled alma mater, according to a press release posted on the Butler School of Music website Wednesday.
The university also announced it is creating a separate, not-yet-named university marching band whose members do not need to play the song to participate. It’s the latest development in a debate over the university’s alma mater that has deeply divided students and alumni.
“We need to celebrate and nurture what makes UT special, and the Longhorn Band is one of those great organizations that shape our campus culture, elevate school spirit and provide amazing opportunities for our students,” UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell said in the release, which also stated that Hartzell approved the plan. “Our multi-million-dollar commitment over the next five years will support the Longhorn Band in restoring — and even going beyond — its former glory, while also providing strong support for our entire portfolio of university bands.”
Both students in the Longhorn Band and the newly created university band will receive $1,000 scholarships on top of merit scholarships that will continue to be awarded. Section leaders in all bands will receive a minimum $2,500 scholarship.
According to the release, which was first reported by The Daily Texan, the new approach was born out of ongoing financial issues and concerns with “The Eyes of Texas,” which ramped up in earnest last June in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer. Black students and athletes called on the school to stop playing the song, citing that it originally debuted at a campus minstrel show where performers likely wore blackface.
Last July, President Hartzell said the song would remain, but the university would organize a taskforce to study its history. That entity’s report, which was released last month, found the song was not “overtly racist,” but did premiere at a minstrel show where students likely wore blackface and performed skits that perpetuated racist stereotypes of Black people.
Band members had previously refused to play the song at events due to its history and origins. Before the football game against Baylor University in October, the band said it would not perform the alma mater because a survey revealed they did not have “necessary instrumentation” to play the song. At the time, Hartzell said the band was never expected to play the song live at the football game due to COVID-19 precautions.
But emails show UT-Austin administrators had started to assess the band member’s temperature about the controversy in mid-June. Band director Scott Hanna provided an open-ended prompt to gauge members’ feelings of the song in June, according to an email Doug Dempster, dean of the college of fine arts, sent Hartzell.
“Remember, the clock is ticking down to fall ceremonial occasions and/or football games and we’re either going to have to play/sing the Eyes or not,” Dempster wrote to Hartzell.
According to emails obtained by the Texas Tribune, the debate over the song had also sparked anger and frustration among hundreds of donors and alumni who emailed President Hartzell pleading with him to keep the song. Dozens of donors mobilized to keep the song and others threatened to pull funding.
Emails sent to UT-Austin obtained in a public records request.
Credit: Illustration by Emily Albracht for the Texas Tribune.
Those emails also show the song caused internal conflict between administrators in the Butler School of Music.
After athletic officials said football players would not have to stay on the field for the song after games, Mary Ellen Poole, director of the Butler School of Music, told band members that if students did not have to sing the song, “our students deserve the same consideration.” Poole wrote to students that band members would not have to play the song and would not be penalized if they chose to opt out.
“After meeting with student leadership of the Longhorn Band and the Butler School, I can confirm that they as leaders are uncomfortable with continuing to feature ‘The Eyes of Texas’ as a representation of their values,” Poole said. “I encourage each ensemble to decide for itself what its position will be on future performances of the song.”
Dean of the Fine Arts School, Doug Dempster, forwarded that email to Hartzell with an apology.
“Mary Ellen sent this out without advance warning or notice,” Dempster wrote. “Never consulted with me about it. Were you aware of this?Of course, no one has ever imagined ‘penalizing’ students who might refuse to play the Eyes. But this is a clear push from a department chair and a push against your decision as president, Jay. I’m sorry.”
Poole nor Dempster responded to email requests for comment or answered questions clarifying how the specific situation was resolved. In October, Dempster said in a statement on the university’s website that no one ever suggested penalizing students who don’t perform the song.
“However, conversations about students electing individually what songs they will and won’t perform have challenged the unity and viability of the Longhorn Band,” he said.
“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.”
UT-Austin spokesperson J.B. Bird said the release published Wednesday represents the university’s views and did not answer emailed questions.
UT-Austin has multiple university bands besides the Longhorn Band and the Longhorn Pep Band, which performs at basketball and volleyball games. University bands include concert bands and ensembles. There could be opportunities for the Longhorn Band and the university bands to perform together.
Disclosure: Baylor University and University of Texas at Austin 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.