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OU: Frat members learned racist chant at national SAE leadership event

University of Oklahoma students in Norman, Okla., gather outside the now-closed Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house during a rally in reaction to members of the fraternity captured on video singing a racist chant. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
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This post has been updated.

The racist chant that a group of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members sang on a bus this month was brought to the University of Oklahoma four years ago, after members learned it at an annual national SAE leadership event, university officials said Friday.

The university found that the chant — which includes racial slurs against African Americans and a lynching reference — migrated to Oklahoma and had become “part of the institutionalized culture of the chapter” and its pledging process. University officials implied that the chant on the bus, which carried partygoers to SAE Founders Day festivities on March 7, was not an isolated event and instead was part of the local chapter’s recent traditions.

The university’s report also said that as part of the chapter’s typical recruitment process, a dozen high school students had been invited to the event on March 7 and had joined fraternity members on the bus, where the chant erupted. Many of the students were drinking before the event, the report claims.

A racist chant sung by members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon was learned at a national fraternity leadership cruise, University of Oklahoma President David Boren said Friday. (Video: Reuters)

A video of  the chant lit up social media and prompted a national debate about race relations and fraternity culture on the nation’s college campuses, and it spread widely. A student at Duke University reported being taunted with the same chant this week.

The local SAE chapter in Norman, Okla., was immediately shut down after the video surfaced and two students seen participating in the chant were expelled and have since publicly apologized. More than two dozen others have been disciplined.

But one question that lingered was whether the chant was something limited to the Oklahoma chapter or something more prevalent across SAE nationally. The fraternity is one of the country’s largest, with some 15,000 current members and 200,000 alumni.

SAE’s national leaders on Friday confirmed that members of its former Oklahoma chapter likely learned the racist chant while attending a national Leadership School about four years ago. SAE hosts an annual event — often on a cruise ship — where hundreds of the fraternity’s leaders participate in classes, seminars and other educational functions.

They also socialize during the six-day retreats, and fraternity leaders said it is likely that individual members shared the racist song among themselves.

“The song is horrific and does not at all reflect our values as an organization,” said Blaine Ayers, SAE’s national executive director. “If we find any other examples of this kind of behavior currently occurring, we will hold our members accountable, just as we’ve done in Oklahoma.”

[Is SAE racist or did a racist chant on a bus tarnish 15,000 brothers?]

Ayers said that SAE has no evidence that the chant is widespread across the fraternity’s 237 groups, but the fraternity is continuing an investigation to determine if the chant is used at other local chapters. The fraternity is one of the country’s largest, with some 15,000 current members and 200,000 alumni.

“We remain committed to identifying and rooting out racist behavior from SAE, and we are actively investigating all of our local organizations to determine whether there are issues in any other location,” Ayers said. “We intend to conduct a thorough and complete investigation, and this will take time. However, we will share the results of our investigation when it is complete. Our current findings at the University of Oklahoma are similar to those announced on Friday by University of Oklahoma President David Boren. But our investigation to date shows no evidence the song was widely shared across the broader organization.”

SAE leaders, who have adamantly denied that the chant is part of the fraternity’s traditions, recently announced a sweeping national initiative to eliminate racism from all of its chapters, including a hotline for people to call to report troubling incidents, hiring someone for an executive-level position overseeing diversity issues, and an investigation into its more than 200 local groups to determine whether there are racist traditions there.

[Read more about that initiative]

But OU’s investigation concluded that local SAE chapter members learned the chant while meeting with other SAE members, and that they “formalized it” as part of their chapter’s operations, teaching it to pledges during the past four years.

David Boren, Oklahoma’s president, wrote in a letter to SAE that while there is no indication the chant was formally taught by the national chapter, it is clear that it was widely known and circulated on the national leadership cruise.

He wrote that he recognized that the fraternity had disbanded the chapter at Oklahoma and condemned the chant, but said he could not consider the matter closed “until the culture at the national level has also been addressed.”

The fraternity’s national Web site promotes the annual leadership cruise, this year stopping at the private island CocoCay:

“More than 700 undergraduates, alumni, staff and faculty will meet on Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas for our 80th Leadership School this summer. Delegates will explore their leadership abilities, learn new skills and interact with interesting undergraduates and alumni from around the Realm.”

The Web site includes lots of photos from past voyages and the planned itinerary for this summer, including sessions on etiquette for the “true gentleman” (SAE’s motto), sexual assault prevention, alcohol awareness, building brotherhood, planning philanthropic and service events, and financial management.

And there’s this session:

“PR NIGHTMARE Associate Executive Director of Communications Brandon Weghorst presents a shockingly graphic, yet amusing, crash course in how Sigma Alpha Epsilon and our brand are perceived in our eyes versus the public’s eyes. He uses real examples of the biggest PR follies our members make in social media and other media and explains what it’s like to be the public spokesperson for us.”

And this one:

“SONGS OF SAE If you want to use Sigma Alpha Epsilon songs to help members preserve tradition and build chapter spirit, learn the introductory techniques to choral singing.”

SAE officials said the chant is not an official part of the fraternity’s traditions, which date to the antebellum South, and they refer to the organization’s traditional songbook, with tunes and serenades such as “Dear Old SAE”, “Friends” and “Her Loveliness”.

[See SAE’s full official songbook.]

Mark Koepsell, the head of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, said: “Any time people come together for a conference event there is a lot of learning that occurs. Some of that is in the formal curriculum setting and some of it comes from the after-hours sharing and connections. This is true of every formal institute or convention I have been a part of.

“I don’t believe the national office staff or board had any idea that this was being shared.”

Based on the people he knows from SAE, he said, “I do believe that if they had, they would have shut it down.”

OU quickly expelled two members of the fraternity who participated in the chant on the bus. They have both publicly apologized; one student recently met with civil rights leaders.

Former University of Oklahoma student Levi Pettit, who was seen in a video singing a racist song with Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members, met with civil rights leaders to apologize. (Video: Reuters)

After the investigation, 24 more students were disciplined, said Corbin Wallace, an OU spokesman, and will undergo additional ‘sensitivity training.’ The university is adding additional education on such issues for all students, he said.

Anthony R. Douglas, NAACP president for the state of Oklahoma, said he is glad the university continued to investigate the bus chant and believes that SAE’s national leadership, “has to take responsibility for their actions.”

Douglas did not agree with Boren’s decision to expel the students, but he supports the efforts to expand education and teach the impact words and actions can have to try to prevent problems in the future. “These young people, they may not know how harmful their chant was … they have learned from this. They will have to live with this for the rest of their lives. My heart goes out to their families as well.”

The next step, Douglas said, is to make it a broader conversation – not just about racism at OU, but about racism in the community, and around the country. “We need to be serious about the talks we’re having,” and how they raise issues, including use of the racial slur in music and casual conversation.

“We have an opportunity as leaders to change their minds, to change their hearts, to look at things from a different perspective,” Douglas said. “Most kids are not born racist – they’re taught.”

Danielle King, who graduated from Oklahoma State University in December and is a youth leader in the state’s NAACP chapter, said SAE’s national leadership should “come clean. Just own up to it. Just apologize for it, shut it down. Not owning up to your history is going to — there’s always going to be a backlash.”