March 9, 2021
Dear UT Community,
Everything we do at UT Austin comes back to three things: research, teaching and changing the world. Our work around “The Eyes of Texas” is no different. In particular, the work of the history committee focused on research. Next, we will focus on teaching and changing the world. In part, that means continuing to foster an inclusive campus where all Longhorns belong and are welcome.
I want to thank every member of The Eyes of Texas History Committee, which has now released its report, for approaching this task with open minds, conducting their work with academic rigor, seeking the truth, and braving many difficult topics. Not only have they created a piece of interdisciplinary research that will benefit future generations, they have modeled an approach to a complex and emotional issue that we can replicate across campus — indeed, across society. This model is vital because we’re not moving on from this — we’re moving forward … together.
One of the ways we’re moving forward is through the committee’s excellent set of recommendations. We can enact many of them, and a few really spoke to me — for example, leveraging alumni to build a more robust mentoring network, creating history exhibits and teaching modules, and working with the Texas Exes to establish scholarships that encourage a more diverse Longhorn Band. These ideas, along with those we committed to during the summer, show how our goal of creating a welcoming campus goes far beyond discussions of our alma mater.
At the same time, I understand our conversations around the song will continue. Thanks to the committee, we move forward in those discussions equipped with a common set of facts. It’s now very clear to me, having read the report, that the history of our alma mater is complicated — more complicated than perhaps any of us knew. As the report’s executive summary points out, the story of “The Eyes” mirrors the greater history of this university, indeed that of our state and nation. Parts of that history are inspiring and surprising. Other parts are disappointing, even painful.
One aspect of my decision to keep “The Eyes of Texas” as our school song leans on this concept of mirroring. There is much we would like to change about American history. But while the American story is imperfect, I believe it is positive overall, even as we need to continue to teach and learn from the imperfections. Embracing the past means embracing both the tragedy and triumphs of our history — confessing the former and celebrating the latter.
Another aspect of my decision leans on the concept of free speech. For this reason, let me be very clear: As always, no one is or will be required to sing “The Eyes of Texas.” As Professor Rich Reddick, our committee chair, has said, “Traditions do not endure through disrespect, coercion, or threat.” I wholeheartedly agree — and in the same spirit of free speech, no one should shout down those who wish to continue in the tradition of singing. My hope is that we can sing it together, mindful of our university’s past and proud of the progress we’ve made since the 19th century.
The report makes it clear to me that “The Eyes of Texas” is a song of accountability that has been used to bring Longhorns closer together. I truly believe “The Eyes of Texas” can again be a force for accountability and unity among our students, faculty, staff and alumni. We need only look at the past for evidence. Our song started out as a request for students to do the right things at all times to protect a fledgling university from risking its future. Over time, it was sung by an increasingly diverse community of students and scholars, becoming a rallying cry for excellence as our university matured and grew into the true flagship of our state.
Finally, on some special occasions, the song was used to fight injustice. For example, Texas suffragists deployed the song in defense of voting rights during the 1910s. In another example, students sang it during the 1940s at the Texas Capitol in defense of academic freedom and educational opportunities for Black students in our state. In those special moments Longhorns flipped the script. The eyes of Texas were no longer upon them. Instead, they became the eyes of Texas, fixing their gaze on some of society’s most pressing problems and controversies.
I hope we can recover more fully this part of the song’s legacy. I would love to see “The Eyes” become one of our rallying cries as we hold ourselves and others accountable, fostering a welcoming campus and seeking a more just world. How do we do that? What do we set our eyes upon?
We will find the answer together. And it will come back to those three things I mentioned earlier: research, teaching and changing the world. Because that is what we do here — all the livelong day.