A signpost outside the international headquarters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon in Evanston, Ill., on March 10, 2015. (Teresa Crawford/AP)

The University of Wisconsin-Madison suspended its chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon after a member reported multiple instances of racist, anti-Semitic and anti-gay behavior, including one in which he said he was choked and called a racial slur.

The fraternity, one of the biggest in the country with about 15,000 members and 200,000 alumni, drew national attention last year after a video of University of Oklahoma chapter members shouting a racist chant on a bus went viral. That was followed by other reports of racism at chapters elsewhere in the country, and a national initiative by the fraternity’s leaders to combat the problem.

The university’s chancellor, Rebecca Blank, wrote a letter to  SAE  Executive Director Blaine Ayers decrying the fraternity’s failure to stop bigoted behavior. It read, in part:

I am deeply disappointed in the chapter’s failure to address persistent reports of discriminatory behavior, as well as the national body’s inability to address discrimination within its chapters.

… I understand that your organization attempted to address these issues across all chapters in the wake of the Oklahoma incident, but clearly incidents such as these persist within SAE. It suggests that your efforts to address an intolerant and discriminatory culture have not been effective. The conduct in this situation must not be repeated.

… I would like both you and the SAE chapter president to visit with me in Madison before the current suspension is lifted to explain how your organization and the local chapter will prevent a recurrence of these issues and bring about lasting change.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon responded with a written statement that says, in part:

The national headquarters has been investigating details of racial intolerance with several members of our chapter at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Chapter leadership issued sanctions in response to the discriminatory behavior, which is what we teach as part of our education at events and on campuses throughout the year. Sigma Alpha Epsilon apologizes for the actions of these former members, because they do not represent our mission and values.

… We disagree with the university president’s observation that Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s national organization has an inability to address discrimination in our chapters. In fact, the fraternity has enacted a large number of initiatives in the past year to combat intolerance, discrimination or morally unacceptable behavior.

In July, they wrote, they were the first major Greek organization in North America to hire a director of diversity and inclusion to lead these efforts.

The university offered a timeline: In March, a student complained to the university’s committee on student organizations that there had been a pattern of bigoted incidents at the fraternity over the past year-and-a-half. The first was at a Halloween party in 2014, when, the student, said a fraternity member called him a racial slur and choked him for about five seconds until other members stepped in. Fraternity leaders said that they did not know there was a racial element but that the student, who has since graduated, was disciplined by the chapter.

In March  2015, a fraternity member ran down the street yelling racial slurs; he was expelled from the chapter but continued to hang out there sometimes. In the fall of that year, the student who reported problems to the university said he continued to hear members using racial, anti-Semitic and anti-gay slurs and his objections to other members were ignored. The chapter members had been required to undergo training as part of the national initiative to eliminate racist acts that year. In December, he heard a member yelling a racial slur outside the house; fraternity leaders said they couldn’t identify who it was. In February of this year, he said a member kept repeatedly singing lyrics with a racial slur; the member denied it.

In early March he made his complaint to the university.

After an investigation and hearing with the chapter, the university announced Tuesday that the chapter is suspended until Nov. 1, that it cannot recruit new members in the fall, and that members will have to undergo mandatory training before it can be reinstated.

Read the chancellor’s letter to the national chapter here:

Read the full statement from SAE headquarters here:

The national headquarters has been investigating details of racial intolerance with several members of our chapter at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Chapter leadership issued sanctions in response to the discriminatory behavior, which is what we teach as part of our education at events and on campuses throughout the year. Sigma Alpha Epsilon apologizes for the actions of these former members, because they do not represent our mission and values.

When we find that the behavior of any member is inconsistent with our expectations, we work to eradicate that behavior. Since the beginning of the academic term, our field-staff team has completed nearly 600 visits to our groups to provide additional education, awareness and training on many important topics, including diversity and inclusion. In addition, we make sure our members understand bystander behavior and intervention. We teach that if anyone witnesses behavior that deviates from our values, that person has a responsibility to speak up and stop it.

We disagree with the university president’s observation that Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s national organization has an inability to address discrimination in our chapters. In fact, the fraternity has enacted a large number of initiatives in the past year to combat intolerance, discrimination or morally unacceptable behavior. We view our relationship with colleges and universities as a partnership.

Last March, Sigma Alpha Epsilon launched a four-pronged initiative to address diversity and inclusion, as well as cultural awareness, in our organization. All of our collegiate members were provided a diversity-and-inclusion training program as part of our comprehensive training modules, and all new members must complete similar training before they can be initiated into the fraternity.

In July, the organization hired our director of diversity and inclusion, Ashlee Canty, who is responsible for overseeing the development, promotion and implementation of strategies that lead to enhanced diversity within our organization. Her position is the first such staff role established by a major North American fraternity or sorority. In her role, Canty meets with chapters to ensure they are implementing initiatives set forth by the fraternity’s leadership and attends leadership conferences to have conversations with undergraduates and alumni about their personal identity. The education we provide focuses on empowering our members to create a culture of acceptance, to ensure their chapter is welcoming and to educate them on bystander behavior in incidents of bias.

Canty also serves as the chief staff liaison to our Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, a group that consists of undergraduates, alumni and non-members who are subject-matter experts on issues related to diversity. The committee also proposed our Position Statement on Diversity and Inclusion, which was approved unanimously by delegates at our national convention last summer.


Sigma Alpha Epsilon Executive Director Blaine Ayers discusses steps the fraternity is taking to eliminate instances of racial discrimination among its members during a news conference  in 2015 in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Read the full report from the university committee here.