Even in this era of students posting intimate details of their lives online and in a season when students have shown no shame about posting photographs of offensive parties online, "The Pit Breakup" stands out:
Ryan Burke, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, invites his girlfriend from North Carolina State University to meet him at the Pit, a central meeting point on his campus, for a Valentine's Day surprise. She arrives and finds hundreds of students (some estimates top 1,000) whom he had invited via Facebook. Her boyfriend starts by introducing an a cappella group -- not to sing some romantic melody, but the Dixie Chicks' defiant hit "I'm Not Ready to Make Nice."
When the song is done, Burke tells his girlfriend that she has been unfaithful and that he's dumping her. They exchange harsh words -- several of them four-letter epithets -- while the audience watches, laughs and jeers. At one point, the crowd starts chanting "slut, slut, slut" at the woman. She fights back (verbally), telling her by-then-ex that if he needs an audience to break up with her, he must have the problem. Many of those watching have cameras and are filming throughout, and numerous videos quickly end up on YouTube, where in less than two weeks they have attracted more than 500,000 viewers -- along with parody videos, Facebook groups pro and con, and much debate.
Much of the discussion has focused on whether or not the breakup was real or staged. Immediately after the incident (on an interview posted on YouTube), Burke claimed it was real, but he has been ambiguous in some local press interviews. Neither student responded to interview requests for this article. In an article in today's Charlotte Observer, both students said that the event had been staged and that they hadn't even been dating. Many on the campus and elsewhere have been convinced from the start that the whole thing was staged. A university student affairs administrator who saw the event and has been investigating what to do about said he was assuming it was real, although he acknowledged a "lack of clarity." ( Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version.)
To some people, the reality that hundreds watched the event in person -- without evidencing much concern about what was going on -- is enough to be worried about, even if the event was staged.
"I am aware that there are allegations the incident was staged. The idea that this was premeditated is even more upsetting," wrote Donna M. Bickford, director of the Carolina Women's Center, in a letter about the incident to The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper . "I wonder why the audience, men and women both, found it entertaining to witness the public humiliation of a woman. I wonder why the audience, men and women both, found it appropriate to chant 'slut, slut, slut' while they were shaking their fists at the woman involved. I wonder why shouts of 'slap her' were met with enthusiasm instead of outrage. I wonder how anyone is supposed to feel safe on a campus where this is seen as an acceptable activity."
Others are less concerned. While the Daily Tar Heel has published a number of letters to the editor about the incident, it never wrote an article about it. Joe Schwartz, the editor in chief, said he believed the event was staged and that the hundreds of students who were watching were "just enjoying the moment" in a central campus location and weren't necessarily cheering on a public humiliation.
"I think this is another example that we are stuck in the gee whiz era of the Internet," said Dianne Lynch, dean of Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College and an expert on digital culture. "People have been expressing or sharing intimate details forever. We don't make a big deal when someone proposes marriage on a billboard or at a football game on the scoreboard. We write stories that say 'isn't that sweet?' But all of the sudden when it is associated with the Internet, we raise all these questions about whether this has significance, and the answer is No."
Lynch added that "if I truly believed that a thousand students turned out to watch the public humiliation of a woman in a public way, I'd be concerned," but that she thinks what happened was very different. "I think people said 'there's going to be this YouTube thing' and they knew it would get a reaction," so they joined in. "It was just a stunt."
Winston Crisp, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs at Chapel Hill, saw the event live when he got word about what was going on and headed over to view it. Since then, he has tried to get definitive word on whether it was real. "We have communicated with the students and there is some lack of clarity," he said. "Depending on who you talk to and when, you get different answers, but as far as we know, we think it's real."
Regardless, Crisp said, "we take it very seriously," adding that "the concerns are valid either way" and that he is sure that many of those watching thought at the time that they were witnessing a real breakup. "This was the public humiliation of another person," he said. "And there were hundreds of people coming out to view this as a spectator event." He cautioned, however, that not everyone there could hear and that that YouTube video may give a false impression that the entire crowd was chanting.
For now, Crisp said, the university is "trying to understand the student reaction and the impulse to do this." He said he didn't see any sort of formal action coming because "the student didn't break any rules," but he said that the incident pointed to the need for "some kind of education."
The university hasn't issued any statement about the event because -- however upsetting the incident was to many -- doing so could undercut education efforts, Crisp said. "I think a lot of this is generational. These students live in a very different generation, and a very public, open generation, with Facebook and other sites," he said. "We don't want to do something so we just have the students coming out and saying that we are the old people who don't understand anything."
Given that today's students were raised on reality television, "they are anesthetized to this," Crisp speculated. He said that he hoped this was a case of "the train wreck they couldn't turn away from watching," but that on the question of why students would turn out for such an event: "I certainly don't have the answers."
Other experts say that when things like this happen, university leaders should speak out strongly and immediately.
"The first thing you do is jawbone. Moral leadership is required of university administrators," said Kirk O. Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. In the case of the Pit breakup, "this clearly is an invasion of privacy of the woman and shows incredible disdain for the dignity of another person," Hanson said. If the event was staged, "it still demonstrates a set of values that it's acceptable to belittle and humiliate another person. This is not innocent entertainment."
Hanson said he views the incident -- while perhaps extreme in being as public as it has become among students -- as part of his pattern. His university, a Jesuit institution with a strong emphasis on student values, is currently debating a party at which students dressed as stereotypical, low-income Latinos. As with other parties that have caused controversies on campuses this semester, the theme became public when students saw photos posted online. Hanson said higher education should realize it has a problem because -- whether by staging events in public or posting photos for all to see -- students don't see anything wrong with what they are doing. "The lack of shame demonstrates how far we have gone," he said.
Colleges may be better off trying to get students to talk about diversity issues not theoretically but through specific discussions among themselves, he said. If white students realized how hard some Latino students and their families struggled to pay for college, the white students might be less likely to mock Latino janitors. "We've got a lot of students coming in without ethical grounding. They need to understand what these things mean to fellow students," he said.
Many students at Carolina and elsewhere don't see any big ethical issue raised by the breakup. Caitlin Legacki is a senior at the university and one of the organizers of a Facebook group called "I Saw Ryan Burke Break Up With His Girlfriend in the Pit and It Was AMAZING." As of Monday afternoon, the group had 1,421 members, with students writing in from colleges nationwide to join. Comments being posted rally around Burke, with students writing posts like "Go Ryan!" Some students praise the video they saw (or the real event) as hilarious, while others seem to take it more seriously. A recent post from a student at Seton Hall University said: "RYAN we're with ya. screw that chick!"
Legacki, a friend of Burke's, said that the event "was just such a spectacle" and she wanted to create a place to talk about it where people wouldn't criticize Burke. Legacki said Monday she believed the breakup was real and that the unusual process helped Burke. To those upset about the public humiliation factor, she said that Burke didn't expect the event to attract as much attention as it did.
She also said that there were positive factors to consider. "I'm a journalism and public relations major," Legacki said. "I was impressed by the word of mouth that catalyzed this and how it's grown completely. To me it's more amazing how it got to where it is than the fact that Ryan publicly humiliated Mindy," she said. "Any time you can get a group of college students that big in one place is impressive," Legacki said, adding that she did agree that it would be good "to figure out how to use that for better causes."
Bickford, the women's center director, said she too agreed that the size of the crowd was notable, and that's what worried her. "To me, the question of whether it was staged is not the important issue. The issue that needs more attention is the reaction of the crowd. That some found it entertaining to watch a public humiliation, that's the concern."
Since the incident, Bickford said, some professors have been talking about what happened with students, as she has. She wrote her letter to the student paper in part so people would know that there were places where people didn't view what happened as acceptable or just some college humor. She added that those trying to minimize the event by saying it was staged are engaged in denial. "It's much easier to just say 'it was staged, so I don't have to deal with it,' than to think about what this means."