I’m a University of Oklahoma graduate, Class of ’65. I’ve always been proud of the school and felt I got a good education there. Today, however, I am deeply concerned that a small group of thoughtless, possibly drunk students have brought so much negative national attention to the school.
It would be hard for anyone watching the news to miss the video that surfaced Sunday showing a busload of SAE fraternity members singing an ugly racist song.
At least one news outlet reported the young men on the bus were freshmen who didn’t actually live in the SAE fraternity house. That may or may not be true. Nevertheless, OU President David Boren announced the immediate closure of the house and ordered everyone living there to move out by midnight tonight. Angry, he said the university would not help anyone with their move or with finding new housing. At the same time, SAE headquarters announced the permanent closure of the OU chapter.
Swift action was certainly called for. Optics, you know. Defend the university’s image. Racism will not be tolerated. But the reaction was misdirected and overly broad. The people on the bus should be identified and punished, perhaps with suspension until next fall, or expulsion. But the entire chapter should not have been punished unless and until it is proven that racism is endemic there. It’s entirely possible that the offensive song existed in SAE’s past but has not been sung in many years and was resurrected just this week by a group of unthinking, partying, likely drunk young men. It’s also possible that those involved made it up on the spot. In either case, I don’t think the entire chapter should be punished and the house closed, much less the chapter shut down permanently (SAE is thinking about optics too). Where are those displaced students supposed to go on such short notice? It seems unfair to force them all into the street if they weren’t participants on the bus. For that matter, it’s quite possible not all on the bus were singing or wanted to be involved in the singing.
Boren got it backwards when he immediately closed the SAE house. He should have first identified and punished the guilty students. Then, if an investigation proved racism is an inherent part of the SAE culture, close the house and banish the fraternity.
The unfortunate effect of Boren’s actions, beyond possibly punishing innocent people, is that for a long time to come, the public will question the morality and civility of SAE members from OU. A lot of SAEs who weren’t on that bus may have to deal with and live down an ugly racist incident in which they had no part.
I’ve always had great respect for David Boren. But I think he mishandled this.
(Note: Boren announced this morning that two students have been identified as having had “leadership roles” in the incident and have been expelled. The investigation continues. One individual seen leading the song in a second video has been identified as Parker Rice of Dallas, Tex. The other, Levi Pettit, was identified by his parents.)
Update, March 13, 2015: Former members of the SAE chapter closed this week by OU Pres. David Boren have hired an attorney and are considering a lawsuit against either the school or Boren himself. They object to Boren’s statements that painted everyone in the chapter as racists and bigots.