Emails reveal Texas alumni threatening to stop donations over 'Eyes of Texas'

Hundreds of Texas alumni threatened to rescind their large donations if the school didn't fully back the controversial song, "The Eyes of Texas," emails obtained by the Texas Tribune show. The messages flowed in after quarterback Sam Ehlinger and a few of his teammates were the only ones to remain on the field for the traditional postgame playing of the song following an October matchup against Oklahoma.

"My wife and I have given an endowment in excess of $1 million to athletics," a donor wrote in an email to UT-Austin president Jay Hartzell in October, via the Tribune. "Has everyone become oblivious who supports athletics??"

The song, viewed as racist because of its origins in campus minstrel shows and links to Confederate Army Commander Robert E. Lee, was part of changes requested by student-athletes in June 2020. It has become a controversial topic within the community.

Donors threaten to stop supporting school

There are more than 540,000 UT-Austin alumni, per the Tribune, and approximately 300 people emailed Hartzell about "The Eyes" from June to late October.

More than 70 percent were in support of keeping it. And around 75 people, or about one-quarter of responses, "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 Tribune wrote.

A few of their emails, via the Tribune:

"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."

"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."

Steven Arnold a retired administrative law judge and UT-Austin law school graduate, wrote that the school needs its rich donors "more than they need one crop of irresponsible and uniformed students or faculty who won't do what they are paid to do." Another wrote in hopes the school takes into account conservative viewpoints.

Some large donations emailed the president to warn of the financial impact of removing the song. A Texas A&M University study looking at the impact on donations if the school removed a controversial campus statue found short-term donations would drop, but long-term fundraising would largely be the same.

There were a small number of alumni who urged the president to get rid of the song and some of them also threatened to pull donations unless it went away. Others emailed with creative suggestions for revising the lyrics and message.

'The Eyes of Texas' controversy

Texas players stand on the football field in front of socially distanced fans in stands.
Texas players stand for 'The Eyes of Texas' after playing Baylor in October 2020. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Student-athletes first raised collective concern about the song after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor prompted a nation reckoning on race last summer. The student government discussed the song in 2018.

They also asked to re-name certain buildings, create a permanent Black history exhibit in the Hall of Fame, donate to Black organizations and movements and name something for Julius Whittier, the first Black football player at the school.

It was the alma mater that garnered the most attention and ensuing controversy, so much so that other emails to Hartzell went unanswered. Hartzell publicly stated before October that the school would keep the song, though he was criticized for not "forcefully defending" it, per the Tribune.

After Texas players left the field against Oklahoma and skipped the traditional playing, then-head football coach Tom Herman said there was mandate to stand for the song even though athletic director Chris Del Conte said athletes should stand as "a unified group" for it.

Members of the marching band later refused to play the song for the Longhorns' final two home games. School administrators then announced the band wouldn't be there at all.

In January, Texas hired Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian as its new head coach. During his first day on the job he fielded questions about "The Eyes of Texas."

“I know this much, ‘The Eyes of Texas’ is our school song,” Sarkisian said. “We support that song. We’re going to sing that song, we’re going to sing it proudly.”

He added later, "we're fired up to sing it."

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