Between disheartening data on the state of campus illiberalism, academe’s leadership in efforts to cancel The Cat in the Hat, and higher ed’s enthusiasm for the Biden administration’s new push to undermine due process on campus, it can sometimes feel like higher ed is a lost cause. But that kind of fatalism is exactly what the woke mobsters want. Like all bullies, they thrive on intimidating and isolating their victims — and are far less fearsome when sensible people stand up and push back.
Well, University of Texas President Jay Hartzell just provided an exceptional model of how university leaders should stand up and push back against extreme wokeness.
During summer 2020, a number of activists and commentators claimed that the school song “The Eyes of Texas” was racist, noting that the song title was allegedly inspired by Confederate General Robert E. Lee and that the song was first performed in a minstrel show. In response, UT formed a committee of alumni and faculty to scrutinize these claims. After months of careful investigation, the committee found no evidence linking Lee to the song and, while acknowledging racism “existed in the setting and culture” whence the song debuted, “the preponderance of research showed” that the song was composed with “no racist intent.”
Given these facts, Hartzell published a letter Tuesday explaining — respectfully but unapologetically — that he hears activists’ concerns but has no intention to accede to them.
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.
That’s not so hard, is it? A measured, respectful, and principled defense of complicated history, free speech, and the importance of noble traditions. Hartzell did the sensible thing here and deserves to be recognized for it, if only to reassure other leaders in higher education that they’ll find support when they muster the nerve to reject the demands of the woke mobsters.