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A Frat's Response to Racism

In wake of racist video, SAE says it will hire a director of diversity and require diversity education, but some say its plan is inadequate.

March 19, 2015
 

The national headquarters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon -- which disbanded its University of Oklahoma chapter last week after its members were caught on video singing a racist song -- announced a new initiative Wednesday that the fraternity said will “combat instances of racial discrimination and insensitivity” among its members.

The plan includes hiring a director of diversity and inclusion, which the fraternity says is the first position of its kind at any major fraternity; requiring members to participate in mandatory diversity education, which will begin with an online certification training program; creating a toll-free telephone hotline for members to call and report troubling behavior; and appointing a national advisory committee on diversity and inclusion.

The initiative does not include any plans to aggressively recruit minority members. About 20 percent of SAE’s members identify as “non-Caucasian,” the fraternity said. Only about 3 percent of its members are black.

“I want to reiterate that this type of behavior is not reflective of what SAE stands for, nor is it reflective of the overwhelming majority of our 15,000 undergraduate members and 200,000 living alumni members across the country and the world,” Blaine Ayers, SAE’s executive director, said during a news conference Wednesday. “However, we are unified in moving forward to do what needs to be done to make sure that our actions reflect our values and our creed.”

But others, including some alumni of the fraternity, aren’t sure the new plan can accomplish such a large cultural change. John Foubert, a professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University and an SAE alumnus, said the actions fall “woefully short” of addressing the issues present in many of SAE’s chapters.

"I find the plan that was discussed woefully inadequate at best,” Foubert said. “And I am offended as a brother of SAE that the national office would offer such a Band-Aid-like plan for a complex issue that deserves, using this analogy, radical surgery.”

While Ayers described the incidents as isolated, over the last three decades accusations of racist or discriminatory behavior have been made against a number of SAE chapters. Those chapters, listed here in chronological order of incidents, include those at the University of Cincinnati, Texas A&M University, Oglethorpe University, Syracuse University, Ohio Wesleyan University, the University of Memphis, Baylor University, Valdosta State University, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Arizona, Clemson University, the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, the University of Texas and Louisiana Tech University.

SAE leaders said Wednesday that they are still investigating claims that fraternity members at Texas and Louisiana Tech have also sung the song featured in the Oklahoma video. In addition, the fraternity said it is examining every one of its chapters to determine if similar behavior has occurred. The Oklahoma chapter was disbanded by SAE within hours of the video surfacing online.

SAE’s handling of the Oklahoma chapter's prominence as a national news story echoes how it responded to another hit it took to its public image last year, after an investigation by Bloomberg found that SAE was the country’s deadliest fraternity.

While many SAE members rushed to the fraternity’s defense and attacked the Bloomberg story, the national office eventually acknowledged that it had a substantive problem. SAE soon announced that, in an effort to curb the number of deaths caused by hazing, it would ban pledging at all of its chapters.

Like last year, the fraternity said this week that its tarnished image was not the motivating factor behind the changes. In addition to the plan announced on Wednesday, SAE also recently scrubbed from its Web site several references to its roots in the pre-Civil War South. “Our reputation certainly has been damaged,” Ayers said of the new initiatives Wednesday. “But we are doing this not to repair our reputation, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

Benjamin Reese, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education and the vice president of institutional equity at Duke University, said even if the new plan is not solely an attempt to repair SAE’s public image, it is still a response to a specific crisis, and that could be cause for concern. Reese on Wednesday said his association had not been contacted by the fraternity, but he invited it to do so.

“It does show some responsiveness, but it’s understandably a response to a crisis, which is different than a thoughtful, more comprehensive approach,” Reese said. “I applaud them for taking this first step, but it’s a crisis response. The challenge is changing the culture and climate of a chapter or a whole national organization. I’d be interested in what the director of diversity and inclusion’s responsibilities will be.”

According to a job posting on SAE’s Web site, those responsibilities will include “overseeing the development, promotion and implementation of innovative strategies that lead to an enhanced and sustainable diversity within the Sigma Alpha Epsilon community.” While the specific expectations of the job are somewhat vague, Ayers's comments on Wednesday made clear that the director will not be overseeing any effort to actively recruit more minorities to join the fraternity.

“Our commitment is to getting the best young man,” Ayers said repeatedly during the news conference when asked if the fraternity was committed to increasing black membership. “With this education, all of our chapters will have a better understanding to make sure you look at everyone who comes to the door. We absolutely hope our African-American membership raises.”

Foubert said that whether the planned diversity programming could accomplish that goal is difficult to determine because the current plan is “way short on specifics.” 

He said he would like to see every member in every chapter be required to attend an in-person diversity workshop, and to attend at least three diversity programs on campus every year. Outside diversity consultants, not fraternity employees, Foubert said, could assess problematic chapters and recommend whether its members should be educated or just disbanded. He said he was worried about the current plan using an online, rather than in-person, diversity education program.

"This makes it very easy for a brother to ask a ‘new brother' -- in functional reality, a pledge, it seems -- to do the online training for him,” Foubert said. “What is in place to make sure that brothers are engaged, really paying attention and taking to heart the messages?”

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