An internal investigation conducted by the Office of Student Affairs of the University of Oklahoma found that members of the local Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter learned the racist chant they were caught singing on a video that went viral earlier this month during a national leadership cruise sponsored by the fraternity four years ago.
“Over time, the chant was formalized in the local SAE chapter and was taught to pledges as part of a formal and informal pledgeship process,” said OU’s President, David Boren, as he announced the results of the investigation during a press conference Friday.
The more than 160 interviews conducted during the investigation revealed that:
1. OU’s SAE members learned the chant at a national leadership cruise four years ago
2. The chant was formalized at the local chapter over time
3. There was alcohol “readily available” at the fraternity house before the students boarded the bus where the incident took place and there is evidence that the students consumed alcohol before boarding the bus to Oklahoma City where they were to attend the chapter’s annual Founder’s Day event
4. There were about a dozen high school students present on the bus who were invited as part of the chapter’s recruitment efforts
5. In the four years the chant became known by recent members and the chant became part of the chapter’s culture
Mr. Boren also said that in addition to the two students who were expelled, Levi Pettit and Parker Rice, who are seen in the video leading the chant, disciplinary action was taken against 25 students.
Both students have apologized for their actions.
“In addition to the fraternity being disbanded, as a result of these findings, the university has issued discipline to involved students ranging from permanent withdrawals, community service, mandated cultural sensitivity training,” Mr. Boren read from an investigation findings memo distributed to the press.
Also as part of the disciplinary action, SAE fraternity officers met with local leaders of the African-American community in Mr. Boren’s office before the press conference to apologize.
During the press conference, Mr. Boren classified this incident as a crisis.
“Today we are beginning a new phase of our reaction to the crisis caused by the ugly and reprehensible racist chant that took place here at the University,” he said.
He also outlined some long-term steps to address the problem by announcing the appointment of a VP of diversity sensitivity that will report directly to him and that starting this fall, there will be mandatory diversity sensitivity training for all existing and incoming OU students.
“We are an educational institution. It’s extremely important that we learn from what has just happened,” he said. “And sometimes crises can also be moments of opportunity.”
He also condemned the “epidemic of racism,” that is not exclusive to OU, but a problem across the country and called this an opportunity to end this problem.
“We ask the rest of the country: join us in this policy of zero tolerance for racism in our society,” he said. “I don’t know what’s causing it but I know how we can stop it.”
He also said that he sent a letter to SAE’s national executive director asking that they conduct and share the results of their own investigation into how the chant is “being taught and disseminated” among the fraternity’s members as well as outline the steps taken to “remedy the situation.”
“We can stop it if all of us say we have zero tolerance for racism in America,” Mr. Boren said. “It’s not who we are as Americans.”
A+ for Mr. Boren and OU on crisis response.
The University and the President were quick to act: they promptly acknowledged the video and launched an internal investigation; severed the University’s relationship with the fraternity (after SAE’s national organization terminated OU’s SAE chapter and suspended all its members), held student forums on race, and took disciplinary action against the students involved.
And last Friday, Mr. Boren held a press conference to announce the University’s investigative findings and to announce new policies to address racism going forward.
While it may be a PR team’s dream to send those two students packing and to send a strong message to the University, the community, and the country, expelling the students at the center of the controversy may have been rash on Mr. Boren’s part and could have legal repercussions.
Perhaps a better approach would have been to have the students voluntarily withdraw from the school.
But that doesn’t send as strong a message, does it?