AUSTIN (KXAN/Texas Tribune) — The University of Texas’ controversial alma mater song “The Eyes of Texas” once again sparked trouble last year — after hundreds of high-profile University of Texas alumni and donors threatened to halt donations over what they considered “cancel culture” around increasing renouncing of the Confederate-era tune.

In emails obtained by The Texas Tribune, donors and alumni expressed their outrage to UT President Jay Hartzell after a 2020 game when then-Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger stood alone on the field for the playing of the song, a post-game tradition.

The rest of the team left.

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. And Ehlinger later said he only lingered on the field to talk to the 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 in the hundreds of emails to Hartzell, alumni and donors called the image of Ehlinger alone on the field “disgusting,” “embarrassing” and “disturbing.” They demanded the school stand up to “cancel culture” and firmly get behind the song — or else they would walk away.

Email sent to UT-Austin obtained in a public records request. (Illustration by Emily Albracht for the Texas Tribune)

“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 This could very easily be rescinded if things don’t drastically change around here,” wrote one donor in October.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.”

The university president released a statement regarding the song and that a committee to address it will release a report next week.

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.

Jay Hartzell, UT president

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.”

Emails sent to UT-Austin obtained in a public records request (Illustration by Emily Albracht for the Texas Tribune)

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

In response to a wave of protests and demands for social justice over last summer, the retirement of the school song was again brought to the foreground. In July, Longhorns player Marqez Bimage issued a letter to the school on behalf of the UT student-athlete body and the Longhorns: demanding the song’s replacement — in addition to the removal of several on-campus nods to Confederate leaders.

“The recent events across the country regarding racial injustice have brought to light the systemic racism that has always been prevalent in our country as well as the racism that has historically plagued our campus,” Bimage wrote.

The University’s school spirit song was written in 1903 and was debated by the UT Student Government as recently as 2018.

An April 2018 article for the school’s publication “The Daily Texan” titled “The Eyes of Texas: Racist tradition or cornerstone of school spirit?” the Vice Provost for Diversity Edmund T. Gordon said:

“The University of Texas, at least originally, had very clear minstrel connections. “The Eyes of Texas” was first sung and played at a minstrel show which featured performers in blackface.”

Edmund T. Gordon, UT vice provost for diversity

Gordon explained that the song was written during a period of lynchings and pervasive anti-black sentiment — in addition to Jim Crow laws — and questioned whether the song could be about “minstrelsy” and school pride at the same time.

In an October 2018 article in “The Daily Texan,” titled “UT must educate new students on racism of ‘The Eyes of Texas,” author Maggie Lazaroski explains that the author of the song, John Sinclair, was a member of the Varsity Minstrel Show, a performance group that “perpetuated the notion that African-Americans were lesser than whites.”

Lazaroski also posits that UT should be more transparent to incoming students about the songs origins, giving them the choice whether or not they want to participate in the tradition.

Nevertheless, Hartzell continued to stress the importance of learning from the song’s history while also keeping it around. In October, the president confirmed the song would be played during the Longhorns’ first game of the season and that this had always been the plan.

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.”

But many Black students and their allies say these students shouldn’t be forced to participate or tolerate the song. Meanwhile, some of the angry emailers feel Black students’ opinions shouldn’t outweigh opinions of others since the Black UT population is small.

“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.”

Another email read, in part: “Nothing forces those students to attend UT Austin. Encourage them to select an alternate school ….NOW!”

‘Nearly 100% support’

While Hartzell would not say whether donors played a role in his decision to keep the song, 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 the announcement of the committee to review the song, Susswein said that no matter what is ultimately decided, those in favor of keeping it said they’d continue singing it.

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!”

Cancel culture

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.

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.

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.

One 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!”

Much of this article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.