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Former Longhorn quarterback Colt McCoy, who recently signed with the Arizona Cardinals, was among a group of connected University of Texas at Austin donors who organized an effort last June to pressure university leaders to keep the alma mater song, “The Eyes of Texas,” according to new emails provided to The Texas Tribune.
Last month, the Tribune reported that dozens of UT-Austin donors threatened to pull funds if the university got rid of the song, which has been the subject of student protests. After the story ran, UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell released a statement that said he received a “small number” of hateful emails about the issue and they “bear no influence on any aspect of our decision-making.”
Then, after the Tribune inquired about missing records, UT-Austin identified more than 550 additional emails that should have been provided in response to an open records request.
“The Eyes of Texas” became a flashpoint at the university this summer when athletes and other students urged the school to stop singing the song because it originated at a campus minstrel show in 1903, where students likely wore blackface and performed skits making fun of Black people. A recent report commissioned by Hartzell determined the song was not “overtly racist,” though it was written in a racist setting.
The new emails reveal more powerful donors and alumni than were previously known who mobilized on the issue in June right after the student athletes went public with their demands. Many of the people who wrote or were included in the emails are graduates and supporters of UT-Austin’s McCombs School of Business, where Hartzell worked for nearly two decades, including as dean for the last four years.
They include two athletes inducted last year into the UT Athletics Hall of Honor, multiple multimillion-dollar donors and the past chair of the University of Texas Development Board, who told other donors in June that he would soon host the UT-Austin president at his Santa Fe home.
In addition to McCoy, the list of heavy hitters includes Bud Brigham, an oil tycoon who recently donated an undisclosed five-year gift to the school; Bill Stanley, a chemical engineer and entrepreneur who has donated at least $2 million; and Mickey Klein, an independent oil and gas producer and philanthropist, who has donated nearly $28 million to the university, according to documents included with the emails.
The emails also show that UT-Austin officials had at least two direct conversations with some of the donors to discuss their concerns about the brewing controversy, including one between a UT-Austin vice president and Stanley, who wrote in an email that the anti-song effort was being driven by “socialistic groups that are using the blacks as pawns.”
Within a few weeks of the donors reaching out, Hartzell announced on July 13 that UT-Austin would keep the song.
McCoy and Brigham were part of a large group email of Longhorn donors and fans who discussed the controversy among themselves on June 29. Other former Longhorn athletes, including former NFL player Jordan Shipley, were included in the group message.
“It’s not looking good,” Brigham wrote to the group about protests against the song. “[Athletic Director Chris Del Conte] was trying to manage the situation but without help it doesn’t sound like there is enough support for our perspective, at this point, to stop the movement.”
In a matter of hours, Brigham set up a conference call with McCoy and other alumni to update them on the situation and solicit potential solutions and ideas.
“We need some reasoned and courageous former black athletes to step up, that share our/your perspective, or it may be game over for the song,” Brigham wrote in another email directed at former athletes.
Brigham did not respond to requests for comment. The Tribune attempted to contact McCoy through UT-Austin, a family member and the Arizona Cardinals but he could not be reached for comment.
After the call with Brigham and McCoy, Scott Ingraham, another alumnus and brother of former UT-Austin football player Rick Ingraham, told the roughly 75 people on the email chain the consensus was to email Hartzell and Del Conte and urge them not to make an immediate decision. Rick Ingraham told the Tribune he did not join the conference call, but said he spoke with some Black former teammates about the issue and said they did not have an issue with the song.
Scott Ingraham also said in that email that the same group on the conference call also pitched a task force of “ideally 50% African American and 50% non-Black” Longhorn athletes from varying backgrounds to examine the song. Emails show Brigham suggested the task force should last a year and include a lawyer.
“A diverse group to illuminate the history and also the value of the song for ALL the stakeholders would be a healthy and beneficial process, as opposed to what is happening now with demands, or else,” Brigham wrote to Hartzell on June 29. In that email, Brigham said McCoy may suggest a similar task force to Del Conte.
In October, Hartzell announced a committee to “chronicle the full history of ‘The Eyes’ and recommend ways we can openly acknowledge, share and learn from it.” The committee included current and former athletes, historians, professors and students. The committee released a report last month concluding that while the song was written and performed in a racist setting, it had “no racist intent,” and the lyrics were not “overtly racist.”
J.B. Bird, a spokesperson for UT-Austin, said the university’s committee to study the song was not formed at the suggestion of donors. Hartzell declined to be interviewed for this story and his office referred the Tribune to his March 2 statement. He did not answer questions about whether other donor conversations and threats to pull money influenced his thinking.
Scott Ingraham told the Tribune he had not intended for the email to be public. But he said he's proud of Hartzell for organizing the task force and "for researching the history of The Eyes of Texas and affirming the song is about school pride, accountability and unity.”
The new emails also showed UT-Austin officials solicited feedback from donors who had concerns, including a meeting between Hartzell, Klein and his wife, Jeanne. In an email, officials said the purpose of the meeting was “to gain our guests’ perspective on the Eyes of Texas controversy.”
Mickey Klein had written a letter to the athletes urging them to reconsider their demand that the song go.
According to the Kleins, UT-Austin reached out to them to see what information or documents they had about the song’s origin.
Jeanne Klein is a granddaughter of Lewis Johnson, one of the students who believed the university needed a school song and who was in the quartet that performed “The Eyes of Texas” for the first time at a minstrel show.
Mickey Klein said in a phone interview with the Tribune that while minstrel shows are “disgusting,” he supports keeping the alma mater song and wants the university to get to a place where “everyone, Black [people], people of color are comfortable with the song.” The Kleins said they would continue to support the school financially regardless of Hartzell’s decision over the issue.
“This is not something that we can sweep under the rug, there has to be an open dialogue and discussion,” Mickey Klein said. “There have to be signs of good faith, which the University has started showing,” pointing to the recently erected statue of Julius Whittier, UT-Austin's first Black football player, and the renaming of the Physics, Math and Astronomy Building, which used to be named after a UT-Austin professor who supported segregation.
Another UT-Austin official, Scott Rabenold, vice president of university development, spoke directly with Stanley, the chemical engineering department donor, and his sons about the letter Stanley sent about the song, according to the emails.
“This current, highly emotionalized and factually inaccurate movement is counterproductive, will generate more divisiveness and also destroy the progress made in integration up to now,” Stanley wrote in a letter in mid-June criticizing Hartzell’s leadership for meeting with the athletes, which was forwarded to Hartzell by donors nearly a dozen times. “It is being fomented by socialistic groups that are using the blacks as pawns. It is regrettable that the University has accepted this movement. If black athletes really want to improve the general situation for the black community, they should work within themselves.”
Stanley did not respond to requests for comment through his company. Hartzell declined to comment directly on Stanley’s email.
Rabenold’s meeting with Stanley was referenced in an email sent by prominent donor John Adams to other wealthy donors, including Harold and Bitsy Carter, who have a scholarship in their name in the McCombs school.
“After that conversation, [the Stanleys] appeared to be more understanding after knowing the process Jay [Hartzell] is using and why,” Adams wrote to other donors.
Adams, who has donated at least $7 million to the university according to a document included in the emails, defended Hartzell’s leadership on the issue while noting their close friendship.
“Jay...ha[s] stayed with us and [is] doing so again in two weeks at our home in Santa Fe,” Adams wrote. “He and I have talked at least twice recently. … He meets my requirements for trusting his decisions.”
Adams confirmed in an interview that Rabenold told him he had spoken with the Stanleys. He said he saw the letter sent multiple times and felt it did not accurately reflect the situation and Hartzell as a leader.
The latest emails from UT-Austin also included more examples of direct threats from donors over the song. Kenneth Aboussie, co-founder of Stonelake Capital Partners, was waiting to sign paperwork on a $1 million commitment until the university made a decision on the song. He said he would not donate if there were changes to the university song and traditions, according to a UT-Austin employee in university development who spoke with him and shared the details of their conversation with Hartzell via email. Aboussie did not respond to emails and calls seeking comment.
Another donor, whose name is redacted, said while the players' other demands were valid, eliminating “The Eyes of Texas” was “totally unacceptable.”
“I have donated to the Engineering department every year since I graduated as well as most years to the Texas Exes,” the donor wrote. “Finally, a sizable portion of my estate is directed to the university in my will. All of this will unfortunately have to end.”
Hartzell has said the report released by UT-Austin earlier this month was meant to provide a “common set of facts,” but the controversy remains.
While university officials have insisted that no one will be forced to sing the song, two Longhorns football players told the Tribune that athletics leaders said they must stay on the field for the song because their protests were upsetting donors and alumni.
On Monday, state and local NAACP chapter leaders, state lawmakers and UT-Austin students again shared their issues with the song at a press conference at the Capitol.
“It’s humiliating to be required to sit for the song or be in the presence,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP. “It’s not whether you have to sing or not, it’s humiliation that requires you to be there while others stand and sing and pay homage or honor to a racist song.”
The UT-Austin Black Presidents Leadership Council, a student group, recently gave the university a May 1 deadline to complete a list of other demands to improve the Black student experience on campus.
Last week, another UT-Austin professor released a second report examining the song’s history, offering a different interpretation. He argued that the evidence shows the phrase “The Eyes of Texas” has a direct connection to a statement about General Robert E. Lee and the song was written explicitly for a minstrel show. UT-Austin officials said they stand by their report.
Despite the threats to pull funding, at least one donor, Robert Reeves, who is the chief technology officer of Liquibase, offered to make up the difference if alumni made good on those threats.
In a public post, Reeves said that he supported the song as a student, but now is the time to listen to the Black students who are a part of the university just as any other graduate.
“I’m serious as a heart attack about mitigating any fundraising dips that occur because of alums that don’t share our thoughts on diversity and inclusion,” Reeves wrote to Hartzell in mid-June. “Though I do not think that will occur, you can count on me for donations and to personally rally the Longhorns that will support the 40 acres always.”
Disclosure: Mickey Klein, Texas Exes, University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas at Austin - McCombs School of Business and University of Texas at Austin - Texas Enterprise - McCombs School of Business have been financial supporters 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.