The week of October 4, 2015

Can SAE ever overcome its racist past?

By Samantha Rogers

A group of mostly white fraternity men are on a party bus, dressed in blazers and ties. Some are sitting, some are standing. Their dates, wearing bodycon dresses, sit. The men sing fervently, pumping their fists in the air. They sing louder and louder, phones held aloft, recording videos and taking photos. More men stand as the song gains momentum: “There will never be a ni**** in SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me. There will never be a ni**** in SAE.”

The men belonged to the University of Oklahoma chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity; this moment, captured in a nine-second video on the bus to a formal event celebrating the fraternity’s founding, went viral in early March. “This is not my video. I am sharing this to get this out there and make a change. This is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated,” reads the disclaimer on YouTube, where the video has been viewed more than 3 million times. It was also sent anonymously to the university’s assistant director of student life, the student newspaper, and a campus organization.

Official reactions came swiftly. According to its press release, “within an hour of learning about the video,” SAE’s national leadership temporarily suspended the chapter; soon after, it was permanently shut down. University of Oklahoma president David Boren cut all ties with SAE and ordered the chapter house, owned by the university, vacated. “The house will be closed, and as far as I’m concerned, they won’t be back,” he said in a press conference. The university later expelled two students who’d sung the “exclusionary” chant on the bus, with Boren saying they’d created a hostile learning environment.

Months later, with the fall semester having begun at schools across the country, Brandon Weghorst, the associate executive director of communications for Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, said he sees an opportunity amid the shame. “[We] see this as a teachable moment,” Weghorst told the Kernel. “As horrendous as it was, our members learned a lot. Learned the ramifications for that type of behavior.” He reiterated that the chant doesn’t reflect SAE’s values. “That’s not how we expect our members to act,” he said. “There’s no way that sort of culture should be taking place in any of our chapters.”

In its March press release, the fraternity said it has “no current evidence that the chant is widespread” among its 237 chapters, but that it will continue to investigate. According to Weghorst, the findings are not yet available and will later be posted on the fraternity’s website, though he did not specify when. He also said the chapter will not be reopened.

Six months following the video’s release, SAE has had time to implement its new plan to promote “a culture of diversity and inclusion.” It’s hired new staff, launched an anonymous hotline, and produced a position statement on diversity and inclusion.

Is that enough to transform Sigma Alpha Epsilon into a truly diverse, tolerant and inclusive fraternity, and—possibly—encourage fellow Greek organizations to do the same?

• • •

An “antebellum fraternity,” Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity was first established nearly 160 years ago on the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Other chapters opened throughout the South, but according to Thomas Chappell Cook, an SAE member who would later serve in the Confederate Army, “the constant agitation of the slavery question was a barrier to northern chapters, as it would preclude the possibility of harmony.” At the onset of the Civil War, SAE had fewer than 400 members; 369 fought for the Confederacy, while seven joined the Union.

This information used to be found on the fraternity’s history page, and via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, can still be seen. But as Gawker first reported, soon after the racist chant video went viral, the details of SAE’s contributions to the Confederate cause during the Civil War disappeared from its website.

“[We] look at our history: this is where we were, where we are now and most importantly, where we’re going.”

“It would be the wrong thing to go back and rewrite our history or delete parts of it,” Weghorst said recently. “[We] look at our history: this is where we were, where we are now and most importantly, where we’re going.” He did not suggest who had removed the information and claimed to be unaware of which page Gawker had cited. He did not respond to requests for clarification.

If the disappearing history was an unacknowledged response to the viral video, SAE also announced a four-pronged initiative to promote “a culture of diversity and inclusion:” hiring a diversity director, developing a diversity education program for all members, creating a national advisory committee to maintain diversity and inclusion across the chapters, and establishing a hotline to anonymously report any “inappropriate, offensive or illegal behaviors” to the national leadership.

According to Weghorst, if anyone has a concern with anything related to Sigma Alpha Epsilon, they are encouraged to use the hotline. Since its introduction, however, SAE hasn’t received any calls.

“It’s interesting, but it still exists, of course,” Weghorst said. “It’s in effect.”

Earlier this year, Ashlee Canty was hired as Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s new director of diversity and inclusion. According to the fraternity’s website, “Canty’s position is the first such staff role established by a major North-American fraternity or sorority.”

Though she boasts extensive experience working with fraternities and sororities on various campuses across the United States, Canty’s LinkedIn account does not list “diversity and inclusion” as a focus for any of these previous positions.

Canty will also be the chief staff liaison to the Diversity & Inclusion Committee, established in April by SAE leadership. As listed on the website, the group consists of undergraduates, fraternity alumni, and nonmembers who are experts on diversity and meets to offer suggestions to SAE leaders. The committee also developed SAE’s position statement on diversity and inclusion, which can be read in full here.

Weghorst describes this four-point plan as another component to bring awareness to members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

“Because you are branded as an SAE, you are categorized as such,” he said. “But, that’s why SAEs need to be the leaders, role models and the gentlemen we say they are. Ultimately, [it’s] going to help our members be better in their life.”

• • •

“Actions speak a lot louder than words,” said Matthew Hughey, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut.

According to Hughey, SAE’s new four-part plan mirrors the response of every other organization or institution who has been caught exhibiting racist behavior.

“Should we really be shocked that a [fraternity] more segregated than [the college] campus says racist things?” he said. “With any type of segregated elitist organization, you have songs that have to do with the elite, segregated character.”

Many of these fraternities and sororities are traditionally (and historically) 95 percent white, according to Hughey.

“If people really cared about this [plan to encourage diversity and inclusion], it would have been done years ago,” he said.

Hughey suggests these Greek-letter organizations first be transparent as to what exactly these “diversity and inclusion” plans are. Second, that they consult social scientists, who can empirically study the chapters and organizations in order to offer solutions.

“With organizations that are so segregated, we need to look at the reality [rather] than the verbiage that comes out after they’re embarrassed,” he said.

Ernest DelBuono, managing director of the crisis consulting practice for Control Risks, a global crisis management firm, says you can’t get out of a crisis with a news conference or a press release.

“With organizations that are so segregated, we need to look at the reality [rather] than the verbiage that comes out after they’re embarrassed.”

“I always say you can’t spin or paper your way out of problems,” he said. “In a crisis, you need to take action; it has to be more than words and paper.”

According to DelBuono, when an organization is facing a crisis, it must first acknowledge there was an issue. Next, it needs to fix the issue and establish a plan to prevent it from occurring again. Lastly, the organization in question must communicate to the public regarding what happened and finally, how it has improved.

“At the end of the day, no matter what the national organization says, it’s going to come down to the maturity level and leadership of the local chapter,” he said.

• • •

While the SAE chapter at the University of Oklahoma has been permanently closed, the school now requires incoming students to complete a five-hour course on diversity.

It is also unknown whether the remaining fraternity chapters at the university will approach diversity and inclusion differently in the 2015-2016 year. All 18 of the fraternities on campus were contacted for this story: One declined an interview and another asked not to be contacted again, while the others chose to not respond to the email inquiry.

The National Panhellenic Conference, an umbrella organization for 26 international and national sororities and women’s fraternities, declined an interview, instead offering a statement from NPC Chairman Jean Mrasek: “NPC supports the individual rights of its 26 member organizations to select their own members. NPC does not dictate nor determine prospective membership policies. NPC member sororities are single-sex organizations as recognized under Title IX of the Education Act Amendments of 1972. Each member organization must follow its own membership selection policies, procedures and all applicable state and federal laws that pertain to single-sex organizations.”

The North-American Interfraternity Conference, a “trade association representing 74 international and national men’s fraternities,” passed on an interview.

The University of Oklahoma’s Panhellenic president did not respond in time for this story; the president of the Interfraternity Council also did not respond to an email inquiry.

While Weghorst said it’s hard to speculate as to whether other fraternities and sororities will follow SAE’s lead as far as its new initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion are concerned, he hopes they will.

“We hope to inspire change, just as we hope to learn from other organizations, too.”

Illustration by J. Longo