By Eliott C. McLaughlin
(CNN – March 9, 2016) — Even with the national chapter shutting down the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house at the University of Oklahoma, the school president said the university’s affiliation with the fraternity is permanently done as a campus group called for the expulsion of fraternity members.
The members have until midnight Tuesday to get their things out of the house, university President David Boren said in a Monday afternoon news conference.
“The house will be closed, and as far as I’m concerned, they won’t be back,” he said, adding that the university is exploring what actions it can take against individual fraternity members.
A Saturday video showing party-bound fraternity members on a bus chanting a racial epithet found its way anonymously to the school newspaper and a campus organization, which both promptly publicized the nine-second clip.
The students on the bus clap and pump their fists as they boisterously chant, “There will never be a ni**** SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me.”
By Sunday night, SAE’s national chapter had suspended the University of Oklahoma members and threatened lifelong suspensions for anyone responsible for the chant, but Boren took it a step further.
President declares ‘zero tolerance’
First, he appeared at a campus rally and told students over a bullhorn, “I have a message for those who have misused their freedom of speech in this way. My message to them is: You’re disgraceful. You have violated every principle that this university stands for.”
In remarks to a reporter from KOKH-TV, he said the SAEs were no more on the Norman campus.
“All of our ties to that organization on our campus are severed, and I’ve given them till midnight tomorrow night to get their things out of the fraternity house. After that time, it will be totally closed and they’ll have to make special arrangements to even get their belongings out of the house,” he told KOKH. “And as they take their belongings out of the house, I hope they reflect on what they’ve done.”
In a statement that mirrored what he told students earlier, Boren said the fraternity members’ behavior is not indicative of what University of Oklahoma students represent.
“Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect. Real Sooners love each other and take care of each other like family members,” he wrote.
At his news conference, he added that those responsible “don’t deserve to be called Sooners. They’re misusing our name.”
How it surfaced
The student newspaper, The Oklahoma Daily, received the video in a Sunday email, said print Editor Katelyn Griffith. The fraternity celebrated its Founder’s Day on Saturday, and the video showed members traveling to a formal event that evening, she said.
“We decided that this was definitely a story they needed to cover without question,” she told CNN. “This was something that we knew wouldn’t be tolerated by the students at OU and the university at large.”
Unheard, a campus organization launched in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, received the video Sunday via anonymous text and immediately moved to “let our community and our university know that this behavior is not tolerated, that’s it’s unacceptable and it’s extremely, extremely offensive,” said the group’s co-director, Chelsea Davis.
This mentality is not new to campus, Davis told CNN, but it’s the first time people have been caught on video. She said the only acceptable response is to expel — not suspend, as that would send the wrong message — all the students involved.
“I was hurt that my fellow peers that I walk to class with every day, people that I see every day, could say such hateful things about me and my culture, about my friends, about my brothers and my sisters,” she said.
In his news conference, Boren said the school was looking into punishing the individuals involved, especially against those “who have taken a lead” in the chanting. While expulsion is an option, any punishment must be “carefully directed” if it’s to pass constitutional muster. One key will be whether the offending students created a hostile environment on campus, he said.
Boren emphasized that “there is no room for racists and bigots” at Oklahoma.
That sentiment echoed throughout campus, as a large crowd of students attended a protest at the university’s North Oval, some of them arriving with tape over their mouths with the word, “Unheard,” written across it.
Other students took to social media to express their disappointment, with one person urging students to change their profile picture to an image that says in Sooner crimson, “Not on our campus,” the “ou” in “our” offset in gray. OU is shorthand for the University of Oklahoma.
‘Racism is alive’
Unheard posted the video online Sunday with the comment, “Racism is alive at The University of Oklahoma.” It was addressed to @President_Boren, the university president’s Twitter handle. Boren quickly threatened to throw the fraternity off-campus if the allegations were true.
The SAE’s national chapter also moved promptly, saying in a statement it had closed the chapter “following the discovery of an inappropriate video.” The group further apologized for the “unacceptable and racist behavior of the individuals in the video.”
“I was not only shocked and disappointed, but disgusted by the outright display of racism displayed in the video,” SAE national President Bradley Cohen said in a statement.
A group of students gathered to pray over the racist insults. One of them told CNN affiliate KFOR-TV he was “nauseated, frustrated,” but he was happy with the SAE headquarters’ decision.
“We should be past this. This is disgusting,” he said.
Spray paint marked a wall of SAE’s fraternity house at the university. “Tear it down,” the graffiti appeared to say. Police posted squad cars in front of the house.
Backlash extended beyond campus as well, with hip-hop star Waka Flocka Flame saying on Instagram that he was canceling an upcoming show for the SAEs.
“All races partying have a good time and enjoying themselves together peacefully. That’s what Waka Flocka is all about. For that reason, I must say I’m disgusted and disappointed in the actions of the SAE fraternity at University of Oklahoma and I will be canceling my scheduled performance for them next month. Racism is something I will not tolerate,” the Atlanta rapper wrote.
Forced to change
SAE was founded March 9, 1856, at the University of Alabama, five years before the American Civil War, according to the fraternity website. When the war began, the group had fewer than 400 members, of which “369 went to war for the Confederate States and seven for the Union Army,” the website said.
The fraternity now boasts more than 200,000 living alumni, along with about 15,000 undergraduates populating 219 chapters and 20 “colonies” seeking full membership at universities.
SAE has had to work hard to change recently after a string of member deaths, many blamed on the hazing of new recruits, Cohen wrote in a message on the fraternity’s website.
The fraternity’s website lists more than 130 chapters cited or suspended for “health-and-safety incidents” since 2010. At least 30 of the incidents involved hazing, and dozens more involved alcohol.
However, the list is missing numerous incidents from recent months. Among them, according to various media outlets: Yale University banned the SAEs from campus activities last month after members allegedly tried to interfere with a sexual misconduct investigation connected to an initiation rite. Stanford University in December suspended SAE housing privileges after finding sorority members attending a fraternity function were subjected to graphic sexual content. And Johns Hopkins University in November suspended the fraternity after two members were charged with raping a 16-year-old girl.
“The media has labeled us as the ‘nation’s deadliest fraternity,’ ” Cohen said. In 2011, for example, a student died while being coerced into excessive alcohol consumption, according to a lawsuit.
SAE’s previous insurer dumped the fraternity.
“As a result, we are paying Lloyd’s of London the highest insurance rates in the Greek-letter world,” Cohen said.
Universities have turned down SAE’s attempts to open new chapters, and the fraternity had to close 12 in a period of 18 months over hazing incidents.
CNN’s Ben Brumfield, Chuck Johnston, Nick Valencia, Tristan Milder, Lindsey Knight and Emanuella Grinberg contributed to this report.