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University of Utah weighing changes to 'discriminatory' fight song

Published April 8, 2014 7:20 pm

Students, faculty, alumni and fans will be invited to chime in on the debate about possible changes to the 1904 lyrics.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

University of Utah student leaders are ready to reopen the discussion on revising the school's fight song, "Utah Man."

"I know people really love that song, and many would oppose changes. I definitely want and support a dialogue about why students feel the way they feel and why some changes would be good for this campus," said sponsor Sam Ortiz, president of the Associated Students of the University of Utah (ASUU).

"The idea that man means both female and male is a little antiquated," Ortiz said. " ... This, in my opinion, is really just a small thing we can do to make campus more inclusive and just let students know their voices are being heard."

Originally written in 1904, the song is four stanzas long. It begins and ends with variations on the line, "Utah man am I," and declares "Our coeds are the fairest and each one's a shining star."

The ASUU assembly in March unanimously approved opening a public discussion into revising the song to be more inclusive, and the U.'s faculty diversity committee is also talking about changes.

The process for changing the song isn't entirely clear, and no one has yet proposed new lyrics, though changing from "Utah Man" to "Utah Fan" is a possibility.

Talks will continue at least into next school year, and everyone who cares about the song — alumni, sports programs and students — would be a part of the conversation, said social work professor Joanne Yaffe, a past president of the President's Commission on the Status of Women.

"I don't think I'm being hyper-PC, I'm just thinking about not really being included in the song," Yaffe said, adding that "fairest" could also be interpreted as a reference to skin color. "I think that the U. can feel like a very isolating, unwelcoming place, and maybe this song is part of that."

Though she's never been a fan of the song, Yaffe, a 30-year veteran of the U., said she was "shocked" when it became part of graduation ceremonies last year.

"I've seen a lot of change. I've seen the place become more female oriented ... [and] more inclusive, but it's not all the way there yet," she said. "Even if the lyrics change, we're not going to run around like police telling people they can't sing the song the way they want."

This isn't the first attempt to change the song, which is based on a burlesque or folk tune called "Solomon Levi." In 1984, a U. vice president floated changing the lyrics "Who am I, sir? A Utah man am I" to "Who am I, friend? A Utah fan am I." And, in 2000, there was an effort to repeal and replace it with a ditty written by a Mormon Tabernacle organist.

Those changes never caught on, but at least one switch did. The song once contained the line, "We drink our stein of lager and we smoke our big cigars," a sentiment that was replaced with the line about fair coeds.

U. student Jackie Bafford, 21, has sung the fight song countless times. She's "super involved," attending nearly all the football and basketball games with MUSS, the Mighty Utah Student Section. But despite her love for U. sports, she can understand why a change could be in order.

"That's been something that's gone through most girls' minds," the 21-year-old said while walking through campus Tuesday. Still, "it would be hard to do. It's so catchy."

Another student, 24-year-old Becca West, said she's had a few conversations with friends since hearing the news.

"I would say definitely change it, because the only good reason I heard not to is that most people don't know the lyrics anyway," she said. "If no one cares, why not change to make it more gender neutral?"

Other students like the tradition.

"It's fun, gets everyone excited," said Logan Kupitz, 24. "I'd say I'd be disappointed if they change it, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it."

Craig Murray, a 23-year-old English major, said he'd want to see how the song would be different.

"You can't say you want to change it without a valid idea," he said. "It's part of history."

Other fans aren't so sure either. Saratoga Springs resident Andrew Lawrence, 29, said he and his family have been longtime season-ticket holders, and changing the fight song may cause it to lose its value.

"A lot of fans would just mock it," Lawrence said. "I'd be frustrated by it. It's a pride thing. You've been doing it your whole life, and all of a sudden now you have to change what you're saying?"

Talk in recent years of ditching the school's drum-and-feather logo or dropping the Ute name altogether has aggravated Lawrence. He believes ASUU's proposal to change the fight song is based on a manufactured controversy.

"One student wants to change the 100-year tradition," he said. "I've never met one person who thinks anything of it."

U. President David Pershing said the decision isn't in his hands, but he's aware of the issue.

"I certainly know it is a concern to some of our students, particularly female students, and some of the faculty," Pershing said. "We're taking it very seriously."

Watching the football team practice Tuesday, Utah donor Spence Eccles said he'd be on board with a man-to-fan change, while head coach Kyle Whittingham said he hadn't heard about the initiative and "it's not my concern."

Trustee chair Clark Ivory said it's a matter of balancing the school's past and its future.

"It's always a balance between maintaining tradition while at the same time being progressive enough to make changes that are inclusive and support our overall student body."

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst

Tribune reporter Matthew Piper contributed to this story. —

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