“Words cannot begin to explain how gut-wrenching it has been for me to witness the hurt so many have felt and continue to feel regarding the Lambda Chi Alpha incident,” said Jeffrey Armstrong, president of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, in a lengthy statement issued last week. “I know the discomfort I sit with cannot compare with what so many of our students, faculty and staff of color feel.”
Last week, tensions ratcheted up on the campus. Professor Neal MacDougall discovered multiple racist messages over a few hours. A racial epithet was scrawled in a men’s bathroom. Fliers were posted on the professor’s bulletin board stating that African people have lower IQs and a higher propensity for rape and murder. And a poster attached to the professor’s office door declaring his willingness to help undocumented students was defiled, apparently with a sharp object.
“If you’re physically posting something — even horrible stuff — there’s kind of a passive element to it,” MacDougall, an instructor in Cal Poly’s agribusiness department, said. “But when someone kind of saw that sign and decided to take out whatever sharp object that they had and slashed that sign, that was a bit disturbing. I see that as a fundamentally violent act, and that made me uncomfortable.”
The actions by administrators at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo follow clampdowns at other universities prompted by alleged assaults and racist and hazing episodes. Syracuse University in recent days expelled an engineering fraternity because of a “racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic” video. Temple University last week suspended a fraternity after receiving “multiple credible reports” of sexual misconduct and underage drinking.
In January, UCLA banned its fraternities from having parties with alcohol after the former president of Theta Delta Chi was arrested and charged with assault and intent to commit rape, according to Campus Safety Magazine. In November, Florida State University suspended all of its fraternities and sororities following the death of Andrew Coffey, a 20-year-old pledge at Pi Kappa Phi, during an alleged hazing episode.
Last week, nearly 15 months after a Penn State student died in a fraternity hazing incident, the Pennsylvania Senate approved a bill to make hazing at fraternities a felony and to allow authorities to seize frat houses where hazing occurs.
The reports of racist acts at Cal Poly emerged as the campus and city prepared for a Thursday appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative writer who calls himself a free-speech fundamentalist and whom critics call a hatemonger. The event, co-sponsored by the Cal Poly College Republicans, is billed as a panel about fake news, and is scheduled to include Yiannopoulos and other alt-right speakers.
The mayor of San Luis Obispo decried Yiannopoulos’s planned talk.
“On April 26th there will be speakers in town that preach a message of hatred and bigotry,” Mayor Heidi Harmon said in a statement. “We all must join together to take a stand for equality, inclusion, and kindness while supporting all people, especially those in marginalized groups.”
The other sponsor of the event is the campus’s new chapter of Turning Point USA, which last year became known for producing a “Professor Watch List” naming U.S. professors who “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”
Situated between San Francisco and Los Angeles on California’s central coast, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo takes a “learn by doing” approach and emphasizes technical skills, with separate colleges for agriculture, business, engineering and liberal arts.
In the coming days, the administration is expected to delineate terms of the fraternity and sorority suspension, which the school’s president described as “indefinite,” and the conditions by which those organizations can return to active status, Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier said.
“Various Greek organizations have been the sources of numerous problems over the past few years,” Lazier said last week in a statement. “These problems have included racially charged and insensitive events, sexual assaults, hazing and alcohol-related deaths, and violations of the university’s code of conduct regarding hosting social events.”
“This is not an attempt to get rid of Greek life at Cal Poly,” he said. “Rather, it is a pause and a reset.”
The headquarters of Sigma Nu, one of the fraternities linked to offensive behavior, has suspended the membership of the three students in the “la familia” photo at Cal Poly, a spokesman said, though he added that the party was not affiliated with the fraternity.
“The conduct exhibited by these members is not congruent with the principles of the fraternity,” said Drew Logsdon, director of communications with Virginia-based Sigma Nu Fraternity, in a statement.
Tensions on campus have been evident since the initial photo surfaced. During Cal Poly’s open house in April for incoming students and their parents, Nimrah Aslam, the student government’s secretary of inclusivity and diversity, addressed an auditorium of families about “the blatant racism that is perpetuated on this campus.”
In a video of Aslam’s remarks posted on Facebook, a woman in the audience can be heard interrupting the speech after about four minutes.
“We’re here to be welcomed,” the woman calls out, prompting applause. Aslam continues over the clapping, saying students of color who attend Cal Poly will learn firsthand about racism, “as you can see in this room.” This statement is met with loud booing.
Miguel Preciado, a junior majoring in agriculture business, said he could not imagine joining Lambda Chi Alpha, the fraternity linked to photos showing members flashing gang signs at a party.
“As a Mexican person, I completely would not feel comfortable at all trying to rush for the Lambdas or any fraternity that was ag-related because of how white it is,” he said.
Nikki Petkopoulos, a graduating senior who is Asian, said she has felt out of place at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Petkopoulos, who came from a predominantly Asian school in a San Francisco suburb, said she was taken aback by interactions with white students at the university.
Petkopoulos said she was assigned to live in the engineering dorm, even though she was a journalism major.
“Everybody was white, I was the only person who wasn’t,” she said. “And that’s fine.”
It became uncomfortable, she said, when she and other women would chat with men in the dorm, and the men would discuss women they find attractive.
“It started off kind of benign, like a little racist, but like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m only into blonde girls with blue eyes,’ ” she said. “But then they kind of have to take it a step further.”
One man made a habit of telling her he didn’t find Asian women attractive.
“Even a guy I dated would say some pretty racist stuff . . . like only Beyoncé could be an attractive black girl,” she said.
Petkopoulos said she believes the student wearing blackface should be expelled.
“There has been a new reckoning on campus,” she said. “And I think people making such a fuss in opposition to the movement are the type of people who don’t realize how much they think the world revolves around them.”