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University of Texas at Austin students will hold referendum on “Eyes of Texas”

By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune

University of Texas at Austin students will hold referendum on “Eyes of Texas”” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Student government leaders of the University of Texas at Austin are planning to hold a referendum at the end of the month to gauge student opinion on the university’s divisive alma mater, “The Eyes of Texas.”

According to a press release sent Sunday, Student Government Assembly leaders have been working with UT-Austin’s Office of the Dean of Students for over a year to get approval to add the nonbinding referendum to the ballot for next year’s student leadership election.

Student leaders said the desire to include the poll stems from a 2021 university report that documented the song’s origins and history after students demanded the school get rid of it over concerns about its connections to minstrel shows. Ultimately, the report authors concluded the song was “not overtly racist.”

The referendum, which will be held Feb. 27-28, will not force any immediate changes to the school song, which UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell has stated will remain the university alma mater and will continue to be sung at the end of sporting events.

But the referendum is likely to rekindle conversations on campus about whether the song should be replaced, even as many groups of students and alumni view it as a unifying force.

“Throughout this whole entire process, we never got to hear from students what they think,” said Kevin Roberts, speaker of the Student Government Assembly, in a press release. “I believe it’s time we let students have their voices heard and that we let them be the ultimate body that decides what our school song should be, not donors and not university administrators.”

In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Roberts said that if the majority of students want the song replaced, university officials should go on the record and say they are going to divert from student sentiment and keep the song.

University officials did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

The student assembly approved a similar referendum in November 2021, but the university rejected the request to put it on the ballot on procedural grounds because the student body president did not sign the legislation. Roberts said the president had forgotten to sign it.

The assembly passed the referendum again in February 2022. This time, it was properly signed and the university approved it. Student government leaders decided to put it on the ballot this February.

The student assembly will hold its own internal vote Tuesday on whether members believe the “Eyes of Texas” should be removed.

UT-Austin student leaders have debated whether the school should replace “The Eyes of Texas” for years, largely because it debuted at a student minstrel show where students likely wore blackface. There was also a longstanding belief that the phrase came from a statement that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee used to say to soldiers during the Civil War, telling them, “The eyes of the South are upon you.”

That debate intensified in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, when a group of UT football players wrote a letter in June of that year calling on the school to replace the song with one “without racist undertones,” among other demands.

The following month, Hartzell announced a list of initiatives to make UT-Austin a more diverse and inclusive campus, which included renaming at least one building and honoring Black leaders on campus.

Hartzell said the school song would remain, but the university would “own, acknowledge and teach about all aspects of the origins of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ as we continue to sing it moving forward with a redefined vision that unites our community.”

A few months later, Hartzell announced the Eyes of Texas History Committee, a group of professors, historians, alumni and students who documented the song’s history to provide more context around its origin and meaning for various groups of students and alumni over time.

Throughout 2020 and 2021, the song continued to be a source of controversy across campus, particularly on the football field.

In one instance, the university band could not find enough musicians who were willing to play the song. The football team drew swift condemnation when athletes left the field at the end of a game without singing the song. Student tour guides went on strike over a plaque with the song’s lyrics in the university welcome center.

Meanwhile, dozens of donors threatened to pull contributions or stop their support if UT-Austin got rid of the song.

The Eyes of Texas History Committee published its report in March 2021, noting it could not find any primary source documentation directly linking Lee to the phrase “Eyes of Texas.”

The report concluded that the intent of the song was “not overtly racist” but acknowledged that “it is similarly clear that the cultural milieu that produced it was.”

“The fact that the song was, for decades, sung and revered on a segregated campus has, understandably, blurred the lines between intent and historical and contemporary impact. This complicates its understanding and explains how different people experienced the song in vastly different ways,” the report said.

Student government representatives said they will spend the next few weeks spreading awareness of the vote on campus and on social media, and educating students on the history of the song using the university report, as well as other sources.

They’ll announce the results of the referendum on March 6.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter 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.

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