by Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune.
As outrage swirled among University of Texas at Austin students last fall over the school’s alma mater, “The Eyes of Texas,” and its early association with campus minstrel shows, President Jay Hartzell made a classic higher education decision: He organized a committee.
This one, he said, would include 24 Longhorn athletes, historians, professors and students who would investigate and “chronicle the full history of ‘The Eyes’ and recommend ways we can openly acknowledge, share and learn from it.”
But by the time the group released its final report in March, a new name had quietly been added to its ranks: Brad Deutser, a Houston consultant who helps organizations with everything from company culture to crisis communications and branding.
In fact, UT-Austin had hired Deutser and his company to two contracts worth up to $1.1 million to revamp the image of the alma mater, along with broader organizational projects including a new communication and engagement strategy for the university, and defining “what it means to be a Longhorn,” according to copies of the contracts obtained by The Texas Tribune through an open records request.
Ultimately, the committee’s report concluded the intent of the song was “not overtly racist,” and could not find primary documents that tied the phrase to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, as previously asserted by some members of the school community.
Deutser’s involvement in the group’s work was so significant that he was listed as a chair of the committee in its final report.
“Brad Deutser relentlessly supported our work by interviewing hundreds of members of Longhorn Nation, participating in our committee work, and orchestrating many of the products of the committee such as the videos — a truly dedicated Longhorn,” wrote UT-Austin professor and committee co-chair Richard Reddick in a letter accompanying the report.
Hartzell tasked the Eyes of Texas committee with researching and documenting the history of the song last November after a group of students and student-athletes demanded the school stop singing it in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. Students have raised issues with the song’s origins, including that it premiered at a campus minstrel show where students likely wore blackface.
According to the contract, Deutser also was required to “align Eyes of Texas History Committee findings with cultural imperatives” and “leverage results to build out desired culture and necessary understanding.” He also was required to develop a communication strategy for the report.
Deutser, who is white, was also assigned to handle multiple diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, including to “develop the plan to create a more welcoming campus and community.” One particular task includes engaging with education leaders in Texas to “understand perspectives of black high school students.”
While Reddick was complimentary of Deutser’s work with the Eyes of Texas committee, multiple student leaders who met with Deutser and other university administrators throughout the spring semester said they had different takeaways from the meetings they attended.
Some students characterized the meetings held after the university’s report was released as “lectures” where they felt Deutser tried to convince them of the school’s position on the song, rather than foster a true dialogue or respond to student concerns. Other students said they were confused by his presence and felt like he didn’t take their opinions seriously.
“It was very much like he was trying to really convince us of what they thought, in terms of ‘this is what the song means,’” Brianna McBride, a recent graduate who led the Black President’s Leadership Council at UT-Austin, said.
Alcess Nonot, another recent UT graduate and former president of the UT Senate of College Councils, said she also attended some virtual meetings with Deutser after the Eyes of Texas report was released. She said hearing what the contract included now raises questions for her about the intent of those meetings.
“It just sounds like his job was to make sure that everyone was happy, and like the arguing would just stop,” she said. “If the goal was for him to bring students together, I don’t really know if that is what happened after the report was published.”
Hartzell declared the song would remain last July — months before the committee’s report was issued — while announcing a variety of diversity initiatives and changes to help make the campus a more welcoming place. The committee, he said, would allow the university to “fully own, acknowledge and teach about its school song.” The report ultimately confirmed the song debuted at a minstrel show, but could not find evidence directly linking the song to Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee, as was previously asserted by the song’s opponents.
“These historical facts add complexity and richness to the story of a song that debuted in a racist setting, exceedingly common for the time, but, as the preponderance of research showed, had no racist intent,” the report states in its executive summary. “‘The Eyes of Texas’ should not only unite us, but hold all of us accountable to our institution’s core values.”
Nonot said many students questioned the committee report’s findings after another UT-Austin professor, Alberto Martinez, released a second report that provided additional information and analysis about the song not included in the university’s report. Martinez asserts that his research shows the phrase “Eyes of Texas” is inspired by a story former UT-Austin President William Prather read about Gen. Lee, and was specifically written for a minstrel show.
The Black President’s Leadership Council, a group of leaders of Black student groups on campus, similarly slammed those meetings with university administration after Martinez’s report raised questions about the thoroughness of the information in UT-Austin’s report.
“On the day of the initial report’s release, hours worth of meetings were called last-minute to address its findings,” the council wrote in a March 31 letter to Hartzell and the board of regents. “Given that those finds are incomplete, we spent those hours being gaslit, our intelligence being disrespected and our time being wasted.”
In May, the Senate of College Councils wrote a letter to Hartzell and other university leaders calling on the university to abolish the song at all university events, pointing to that report as evidence.
“There is no doubt that “The Eyes of Texas” has not only an explicitly racist past, but harmful effects in the present,” the letter reads. “No student should be made to feel unwelcome at UT, but “The Eyes of Texas” prevents many Black students from feeling valued, respected, or heard.”
UT-Austin has stood by its own report publicly, “understanding that others would review their work and arrive at their own conclusions, which is the nature of scholarship,” according to a statement from spokesperson J.B. Bird. Yet Deutser was more critical of Martinez’s report in at least one meeting with students, according to an audio recording obtained by the Tribune between Deutser and UT-Austin student tour guides this spring.
Deutser had met with the guides in April before they went on strike over a dispute regarding whether to remove a plaque with the Eyes of Texas lyrics from the university welcome center. In that meeting, Deutser called Martinez’s report “more of an opinion piece.”
“They didn’t have access to the documents, they chose to ignore some documents. There is some information that overlaps exactly. But unfortunately, the facts don’t support the story. This is a disgruntled employee who is suing the university,” Deutser told the students. “It’s complicating it because, what does the media want? They want to pick up controversy.”
Martinez filed a lawsuit against UT-Austin and his former department chair in 2020 accusing the school of gender discrimination and retaliation after he released a report detailing pay inequity for Hispanic faculty.
Martinez denied to the Tribune that his research about the song is related to his grievance with UT-Austin.
According to the contracts, Deutser was helping the university from August through the end of 2020 with a maximum total compensation of $150,000. UT-Austin officials then signed an additional contract with Deutser’s company in December to last throughout 2021 with a maximum payment of $900,000, including service fees and travel expenses.
The university has paid Deutser’s company at least $400,000 so far, according to monthly invoices filed by his company and provided through an open records request.
Deutser and UT-Austin did not respond to multiple requests for an interview about the contract deliverables or how Deutser came to serve on the committee of volunteers.
Beyond his work with the Eyes of Texas committee, Deutser was also required to work on something called the “Longhorn Way,” which would define what it means to be a Longhorn, and develop a book and tools that will be incorporated into new employee and student orientations.
While the committee report on the song is complete, it remains to be seen whether students will accept its findings. Some UT-Austin students said they believe the return to in-person campus life during the fall semester will bring a renewed energy to the discussion throughout the rest of this year and beyond, especially as UT-Austin continues to implement its plan to become a more welcoming campus.
Nonot said moving forward, UT-Austin should tap the intellectual capital that already exists on campus without bringing in outside help.
“We have really amazing faculty, Black faculty, [people of color] faculty that do [diversity, equity and inclusion] work and do it really well and teach students,” Nonot said. “I wish that the university would rely more on the resources that we already have so we can have those hard conversations.”
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.