SAE at Sea

An investigation at the University of Oklahoma reveals that members of its Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter learned the racist song they sang during the fraternity's national leadership conference.

March 30, 2015
The 2014 John O. Moseley School of Leadership cruise. Members of the University of Oklahoma chapter learned a racist song while aboard an earlier cruise.

In the 1930s, John O. Moseley, eminent supreme archon of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, told the fraternity’s national council that he was worried about the behavior taking place at some chapters. Moseley said the elected leaders at these chapters were “emphasizing degrading and demeaning behavior.” He wanted to create a school, one that would teach its members how to lead and how to be men.

The council liked the idea, but told Moseley that he would have to come up with the funding himself. Though it was the height of the Great Depression, he managed to cobble together $355 from the brothers and alumni of his own SAE chapter at the University of Oklahoma. Decades later, in 2011, members of that Oklahoma chapter boarded a cruise ship to attend the 76th annual John O. Moseley School of Leadership.

On that cruise, according to an investigation by the University of Oklahoma, the chapter’s members were taught the lyrics to the racist song that has placed the university and SAE at the center of a national conversation about racism, free speech and the future of fraternities on college campuses.

That the chapter learned the song during SAE's preeminent leadership event -- an annual gathering of 800 members -- has challenged the national office’s claim that racist behavior at the fraternity is isolated to a few miscreants. Alumni and critics of the fraternity said the revelation raises questions about SAE’s survival as a national organization.  

“That is where it was learned, and they brought it back from that cruise,” David Boren, Oklahoma’s president, said at a news conference on Friday. “Does it mean that they were taught by some official of the national chapter? No, I don’t think so. But it does mean that it’s known by a lot of people from a lot of places.”

Boren’s comments came two weeks after a video showing fraternity members singing the song appeared online, prompting a university investigation into where the song originated, how long it had been part of the chapter’s culture and which members deserved to be punished. He said about 27 members, including the singers and chapter leaders, have now been reprimanded. The disciplinary actions ranged from formal apologies to community service to expulsion. All members will have to go through mandatory sensitivity training.

Boren said the members learning the song from other chapters does not absolve them of their guilt. “You don’t have to sing something just because you heard it,” he said. In a letter to SAE’s national office, the president demanded to know what the fraternity’s leadership plans on doing to address the song’s pervasiveness.

“It shatters the theory or argument that Oklahoma was this isolated thing, that it was just a couple of racists in one problematic chapter,” said Andrew Lohse, a former SAE fraternity member who famously went public about his experiences at Dartmouth College. “It shows that it connects to a broader narrative of racism that’s implanted in the organization. When you take all these stories together, it forms this history of bad behavior, which is really antithetical to the values of the schools where these chapters are.”

In a statement Friday, Blaine Ayers, SAE’s executive director, said the national office also now believes the Oklahoma chapter learned the song on the leadership cruise. But he said there “was no evidence the song was widely shared across the broader organization.” The national office, which disbanded the Oklahoma chapter within hours of the video appearing online, is investigating claims that the song has also been sung at chapters in Texas and Louisiana.

Last week, it announced a new initiative 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.

SAE recently scrubbed from its website several references to its roots in the pre-Civil War South, and said it is examining every one of its chapters to determine if any other racist behavior has occurred. Known as “the singing fraternity,” SAE has created an extensive songbook, but Ayers emphasized that no racist songs are part of the fraternity’s official repertoire.  

Over the last three decades, accusations of other types of racist or discriminatory behavior have been made against a number of other SAE chapters, including 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, Dartmouth College, the University of Arizona, Clemson University, Oklahoma State University, the University of Texas at Austin and Louisiana Tech University.

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,” Ayers said during a news conference last week. “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.”

The plan to do that continues to fall “woefully short” of meaningful reform, said John Foubert, a professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University and an SAE alumnus. That's especially true, he said, if the song was taught on an SAE leadership cruise.

“I think people tried to limit the analysis to a couple of rogue members of that O.U. chapter, but this is not a one-shot incident where we can say let’s get rid of a couple of members,” Foubert said. “This goes to the root of the culture of the national organization. I’m sure there are chapters doing strong and good things, but I’d be hard-pressed to come up with something that would solve a problem this large. Honestly, I think this raises the question if national should even survive.”

Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said the fraternity needs to “step up” and announce a far more ambitious plan to address “institutionalized bigotry” among its members.

“We really want to see leadership here,” Kruger said. “There needs to be acknowledgment that there’s some serious problems and that they’re going to root this out.”


Back to Top