Philip Gossett, a world-renowned authority on Rossini and Verdi who teaches at the University of Chicago, used to squirm whenever his school’s alma mater was played at academic functions. “The song has always been, shall we say, problematic,” he explains. “It fails to touch the deeper regions of the heart. Then as a number of us became more and more sensitized to its lyrics, we started saying to ourselves: ‘Can’t we do something about this?'”

The anthem’s sexist lyrics–“Today we gladly sing the praise of her who owns us as her sons,” it starts out–and its music, appropriated from the University of Rochester’s alma mater, have embarrassed U. of C. students, faculty, and alums for years. In 1985, updated lyrics provided a temporary fix. Now the school is looking to replace the song entirely in time for its 100th birthday.

The anthem was conceived back in 1894, its words hastily put together between dinner and dessert one night by a young U. of C. English instructor, who later admitted that the first line may be among the worst in the English language.

Nonetheless, up until five years ago, the U. of C.’s musical emblem served its purpose unobtrusively, if without distinction: obligatorily performed at convocations, it was forgotten immediately afterward. Few alumni or students were aware of its existence; and had they been, many would surely have preferred a Handelian tune. During my undergraduate stay there, I heard the alma mater only once–at a football game–and mistook it for a parody. Still, in 1985 the growing annoyance felt by Gossett and others prodded university officials into action.

The song’s total disregard for one of the sexes has been an embarrassment partly because the eminent bastion of liberalism has as its head–its chief representative at school ceremonies–a woman. President Hanna Gray said she found it “bizarre that an institution that’s been coeducational from its founding refers to ‘sons’ of alma mater.” The dean of the college ordered emergency surgery. The offending passages were purged of sexism: the U. of C. had both “daughters and . . . sons,” and moreover it loved her “children” not just her boys. Still, the music remained undistinguished. Gray vowed to find a suitable replacement in time for the university’s centenary.

So Professor Gossett is conducting a worldwide contest for a new alma mater. As chairman of the search committee, Gossett oversees the sensitive task of selecting a winner, to be premiered at a ceremony one year from now that will kick off the 100th-anniversary festivities.

A school’s official song can stir hearts, even at colleges that place academic excellence above collegiate tribalism. That’s why a school as well as its song is called the “alma mater,” Latin for “nurturing mother,” a term of endearment and respect often used for an institution by former students. (The terms alumnus and alumna are derived from the same linguistic root, and mean “foster son” and “foster daughter.”) The alma mater, a feminine spirit, can also be personified in a painting, statue, or memento. At the University of Illinois, for example, a sculpture by Lorado Taft symbolizes for eternity the spirit of the Illini. A mural in the U. of C. student union depicts a Botticelli-esque matron, supposedly modeled after the wife of its first president, as the alma mater. But it is through its song that a college articulates its aspirations and image to its extended family and to outsiders.

As a musical subgenre, the alma mater gets no respect. Encyclopedias are mum about its origins, and musicologists like Gossett are hardly more enlightening. However, it can be safely assumed that even the earliest universities had their songs. Records show that Latin schools in 16th-century Amsterdam played “carmina scholastica” during religious holidays. The great choral tradition in England sired the anthems associated with Oxford and Cambridge, and their sense of pomp and circumstance must have found favor with Harvard and Yale, whose official songs are indeed lofty and somber. The example of the Ivies was passed along eventually to colleges in the midwest and beyond. As a rule, an alma mater should convey dignity and purpose without sacrificing too much collegiate jingoism.

“We are not interested in Tin Pan Alley stuff,” Gossett says. “We want a tune that has real presence–a certain amount of dignity. Think of ‘Old Nassau.’ Princeton men–I mean, men and women–sing it with much spirit because of the nature of the song.” How about something contemporary? Like rap music? “By all means,” he chuckles. “Let’s just say we have to take every entry with the seriousness it was submitted. Hopefully, the contest will allow us to look at fresh ideas that come over the transom. We are not looking for great compositions, just an alma mater for the next 100 years. We did think about commissioning one–maybe a piece from Philip Glass, who is an alumnus. But it occurred to us if we didn’t like what we got, we’d be obligated to use it.”

The U. of C. has assembled a panel of judges that includes, besides Gossett, such notable sons and daughters as novelist Robert Coover (“He’s got an ear for certain types of whimsical songs,” observes Gossett), music scholar Ellen T. Harris, violinist Joel Smirnoff of the Juilliard String Quartet, and professor emeritus Edward W. Rosenheim. As added enticement to contestants, the school is offering $2,500 to the winner. Then there is the tunesmith’s vanity. “I think it would be foolish to pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to write the alma mater for a great university,” says Gossett. The criteria are simple: “Something that can be sung by a group, not too difficult to sing, catchy enough, with a feeling for the institution and for fun.” The official specification calls for entries that are “suitable for performance by professional and amateur choral groups (soprano, alto, tenor and bass with piano or organ accompaniment), and for community sing-alongs.” Gossett urges all contestants to “send us the written form of the music as soon as possible. Don’t worry about the arrangement, we can fix that up ourselves. All we want is the tune.”

One caveat: the competition is open only to “individuals or groups who are or have been associated with the University of Chicago in any capacity such as students, faculty, alumni, staff and their families.” The U. of C.’s centennial planner Kineret Jaffe promises, “We will interpret an entrant’s connection with the university very, very loosely.” All entries must include lyrics and music, and they should be submitted in six copies by March 1, 1991, to Alma Mater Competition, Office for the Centennial, University of Chicago, 5801 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL 60637. The winning composition is assured of performance at the university’s centennial convocation on October 3, 1991.

“We reserve the right to retain the old song, of course,” Gossett says. “But believe me, we do really want there to be a winner.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.