The Eyes Have It


The Eyes of Texas, penned in 1903 and associated with the University of Texas at Austin for the entire time, will remain the alma mater. This affirmation comes following the work of the Eyes of Texas History Committee, which itself came into being as the song was called into question amid other racial injustice on campus in the summer of 2020. Students - notable among them student-athletes and Longhorn Band members - included the Eyes of Texas amid other demands aimed at making the University of Texas a more inclusive campus, such as the renaming of buildings and removal of statues. The Eyes of Texas' inclusion cited racist undertones, and as a subheading to its removal, the demands urged lifting the requirements for student-athletes to sing it.

The resulting report spans 60 pages, though the executive summary within and the website, which includes video, make it at good deal more digestible. Existing at the intersection of history, school spirit, campus culture, and social justice, I found the full report a page turner, but understand that others' mileage may vary. I would caution against any headline- or tweet-level hot takes, as the full picture is a good deal more complex. Those seeking to simplify on either side could land at either of the following conclusions: "UT ignores student requests to discontinue the Eyes of Texas;" "Campus committee deems Eyes of Texas not racist." Either would be a disservice to the work of the committee, whose findings were far more nuanced. If there were a one-liner that could sum up the report, it's this: "The history of the Eyes of Texas parallels the history of America." Whether ones considers that absolving or damning is wherein the real story lies.

I entered into the report skeptically. Preambles about discovering the true history of the song's beginnings seemed as though they'd be heavily focused on the song's intent while ignoring its impact, but I found the report gave due credence to both. It spoke of times the song was present throughout the school and state's history and how its use aligned with progress or lack thereof. 

The report addresses the key pieces of evidence of the song's racist origins. Among them: The song debuted at a minstrel show being held as a fundraiser for the track team; and that the phrase "the eyes of Texas are upon you" was derived from a common saying of Robert E. Lee. That the piece debuted at a minstrel show cannot be denied, though my thought has always been: Ask not why your school song debuted at a minstrel show, but rather why your school was putting on a minstrel show in the first place. As for the potential tie-ins to the confederacy's most well known general - and notably, Lee was the president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) when Texas president William Prather attended - it seems the phrase is no more attributable to him than it is to numerous historical figures before and since.

While the committee would have likely have had to overcome a significant burden of proof for the alma mater to have actually changed, they work they did was enlightening nonetheless. Also notable is that the commended the initiative of the students who spoke up to make the committee a necessity in the first place. While there was certainly some Texas-sized self back-patting, they really did put in the world of the hard conversations that ensued during the committee's convening. 

The song is not going anywhere, and in this way it differs from recent changes at other universities: Among them, the removal of the Gator Bait chant at the University of Florida; the discontinuing of Tara's Theme from Gone with the Wind at Georgia, and the cessation of the state song at the University of Maryland College Park. The committee did come up with 40 recommendations directly related to the song itself, and a handful more that exceeded their scope, but that they thought were important for the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus. Among these: Creating an alumni fund for student-athletes to continue to have a voice in effecting social change; honor and contextualize Black history at the University of Texas; and giving full historical context of the Eyes of Texas in the form of exhibits, websites, and a "high quality" documentary. 

But perhaps the most curious outcome of the committee's work - not a direct recommendation, but a reaction - came from the school of music. The most visible of the school's ensembles is the Longhorn Band, a Sudler Trophy-winning marching band that performs in front of 100,000 fans at each Texas home game. The "New Approach," as the Butler School of Music calls it, introduces a "to be named" university band "...for individuals who want to perform in a marching band, with a focus on leading/directing bands and community engagement." The new unit will begin in Fall 2022, and its introduction goes to great lengths to highlight that this band would not be required to play the university alma mater or fight song. In a vacuum, I can see the pedagogical merit to such a band. The Longhorn Band, by its very nature, may not be the best incubator for music educators who may ultimately find their home in a competitive high school program or drum corps. A marching unit that edges closer to that tradition has a logical place within the ensembles of the School of Music. Still, unveiled in this context, it seems suspiciously like a "separate but 'equal'" ensemble for students who choose not to play the alma mater. Before the new band comes into being, the release also makes it a point to include that the scholarship will still be honored for students who choose to opt out of Longhorn Band participation in Fall 2021. While it will be fascinating to see the new marching unit come into being, rising from this controversy is quite the inauspicious start.