Last year on March 9, Sigma Alpha Epsilon made an unprecedented rule, in an effort to change the culture of what had been labeled the nation’s “deadliest fraternity”: No more pledging.
After a decade of increased hazing that, according to Bloomberg, led to at least 10 deaths of SAE brothers, more than any other Greek organization in the country, the fraternity’s “Eminent Supreme Archon” Bradley M. Cohen wrote in a public message that it was time for dramatic change.
“Our insurance premiums have skyrocketed and, as a result, we are paying Lloyd’s of London the highest insurance rates in the Greek-letter world. Universities have been denying us the opportunity to colonize on their campus, and we have had to close 12 chapters over the past 18 months for hazing or hazing-related situations.”
A year later, as the fraternity marks its 159th Founders Day, its leaders are grappling with this: A video of young men in tuxedos chanting and cheering what sounds like, “There will never be a n—r SAE/There will never be a n—r SAE/You can hang ’em from a tree, but it will never start with me/There will never be a n—r SAE.”
The fraternity’s leaders took quick action.
Less than an hour after Unheard, an activist group on campus posted the video on Twitter, Cohen had responded:
I know I speak for all when I say I'm disgusted and shocked by the video involving our @sae1856 chapter at Uof OK. They will be dealt with.
— Brad Cohen (@SAE_ESA_brad) March 9, 2015
By early Monday, the fraternity had a strong statement apologizing “for the unacceptable and racist behavior of the individuals in the video, and we are disgusted that any member would act in such a way,” and announcing that the national headquarters had closed the chapter at the University of Oklahoma, all the members were suspended and those responsible could have membership permanently revoked.
The University of Oklahoma’s president, David Boren, also reacted swiftly with a statement Sunday night. At a rally on campus Monday, he announced:
“To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you. You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. …
“Effective immediately, all ties and affiliations between this University and the local SAE chapter are hereby severed. I direct that the house be closed and that members will remove their personal belongings from the house by midnight tomorrow. …
“All of us will redouble our efforts to create the strongest sense of family and community. We vow that we will be an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue.”
There was plenty of outrage and disgust on social media Monday — many pointed out that lots of people joined right into the chant, clearly knowing the words. They linked to allegations on Reddit and blogs that the same chant had been heard at other campuses, and posted photos of Confederate flags. But there was also praise for the quick and decisive responses:
— Rjay (@rjayproblems) March 9, 2015
— KEISHA (@K_Jette) March 9, 2015
Note to those in Ferguson's gov & PD, this is how you quickly do damage control pic.twitter.com/K5YFasEPmP
— Darth Kriss (@insanityreport) March 9, 2015
A new diversity position is being created in recruitment after conversations with OU Unheard
— Unheard (@OU_Unheard) March 9, 2015
— britt. (@CoolStoryB) March 9, 2015
SAE, which is one of the largest fraternities in the country, has about 15,000 undergraduate members and some 200,000 alumni.
And it has had a series of tragic incidents, such as in 2011, when a pre-med student at Cornell died from alcohol poisoning after being kidnapped by SAE brothers during pledging.
“Nationally, I think SAE is doing a lot to change the culture,” said Mark Koepsell, executive director of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors.
“There’s acknowledgement within that organization that historically, there have been problems in that organization, and their current executive leadership is working hard to turn that around. It’s a big task to change culture. … I applaud their efforts” and their honesty in “being able to look in the mirror and identify what they need to do to make those changes,” Koepsell said.
But Koepsell is worried that when pledging is banned, it can go underground and lead to worse abuses.
It’s an ongoing national issue for Greek organizations taking on drinking and drug abuse, sexual assaults and hazing, he said — and the first two are problems every college campus is facing as well.
But membership continues to grow nationally, despite all the bad headlines. “I think Greek life is changing,” he said. “Certainly as you look at chapters across America they’re becoming racially integrated. More and more people are choosing to join for career advancement and what those organizations offer in terms of training, skill-building. There’s a much bigger emphasis on service,” like all the money raised for the Children’s Miracle Network by fraternities.
Sometimes when a case has so much media saturation, college and Greek leaders take more time to respond in order to ensure due process, Koepsell said. He was quick to add due process and fairness is important, but that in this case there seems “a pretty clear indication of what’s going on. They’re sending a very strong message that there is zero tolerance for this kind of behavior,” he said.
“There are universities that drag these out, there are [national Greek] headquarters that drag these out,” Koepsell said.
The response to the Oklahoma incident, he said, “is a great showpiece for others to follow.”
With social media, the reaction can be so intense and instantaneous that it forces officials to move more quickly.
And there were plenty of people online Monday vowing to keep forcing problems into the open.