An older photo also spread on social media recently, causing trouble for the group. That photo, from 1988, shows former members, including a current member of the school’s board of trustees, performing an apparent Nazi salute. The older photo resurfaced around the same time members were caught wearing the robes. School officials denounced the salute but said it was not a factor in the suspension.
Karen Durkin, a spokeswoman for the campus, did not say whether lawyer and university board member Greg Hlibok had been disciplined for appearing in the older photo. When asked about the photo, Hlibok referred to a public statement from Kappa Gamma International, the fraternity’s alumni organization.
“It was wrong for us to force this salute on our pledges, no matter what is their background. Most of all, it was wrong for us to ignore the calls for its complete cessation,” the organization said in a statement. “We put our collective existence above the expressed concerns of individuals. We also operated at times with an aura of invincibility. This was arrogant behavior.”
School president Cordano, in a video posted Tuesday to the university’s YouTube page, admitted that her father was a member of Kappa Gamma and said the return of the fraternity’s robes reignited demands for change within an organization that has previously been accused of anti-Semitism and racism.
“They have become the face of systemic racism in our community, with photographs of the salute and use of robes being shared on social media. This behavior is unacceptable,” Cordano said using sign language. “We are in the process of reviewing other organizations and the status of their histories and their efforts to determine if further steps will need to be taken.”
Kappa Gamma President Setthawut Snow said in a Facebook video before the suspension was announced that he’s aware of the organization’s racist past but that the actions portrayed in the photo — more than 30 men wearing blue and gold T-shirts and extending their arms in a salute — are no longer part of the fraternity.
“We want to emphasize that the circulated pictures are over 30 years old,” Snow said in sign language. “We have long since denounced these such gestures and the practices associated with what were shown in the circulation. They are no longer accepted in any form by the present-day administration.”
Snow did not immediately return a request for comment regarding the ceremonial robes.
Hillel at Gallaudet, an organization for Jewish life on campus, also condemned the image of members posing in the apparent Nazi salute.
“The use of the salute and the robes insults the memory of millions of Jewish, LGBT, and disabled individuals, and others who were murdered during the Holocaust, as well as the memory of countless black men and women who have lost their lives to white supremacy,” members of the group wrote in a statement.
Kappa Gamma has faced disciplinary action before; allegations about hazing forced the university to suspend the fraternity from campus each year from 1991 to 1993. Students on the campus have attempted to expose racism within the organization for years.
Cordano did not say how long the current suspension will last.
In her message to the campus, Cordano touched on conversations surrounding racism and white supremacy sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. She acknowledged Gallaudet’s “history of racism and bias”; the institution did not admit black students until 1950.
“Our focus at Gallaudet University is on dismantling racism and supporting the rights and humanity of black people, particularly black deaf people in our community in the spirit of Black Lives Matter,” Cordano said in a statement to The Washington Post. “We must not lose our focus on this systemic work because of the suspension of one organization.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Ed Snider Social Action Institute, applauded Cordano for taking action against Kappa Gamma. The Simon Wiesenthal Center is a Los Angeles-based Jewish human rights organization with offices around the world.
“However, more must be done to remove the stain of racism and anti-Semitism,” Cooper said.
This story has been updated to clarify that new photos, on social media, led to the group’s suspension.