Sigma Alpha Epsilon Announces Anti-Discrimination Plan

Mar 18, 2015
Originally published on March 18, 2015 6:27 pm

Sigma Alpha Epsilon announced Wednesday a plan to eliminate instances of racial discrimination and insensitivity among its members nationwide. The fraternity's move follows the disbanding of its University of Oklahoma chapter for racially offensive actions.

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The college fraternity whose members were taped singing a racist chant says it will work to create a more open culture. Today, the national executive director of Sigma Alpha Epsilon called the behavior in the video, which surfaced more than a week ago, ugly and demoralizing. He says SAE is taking steps to address what he believes are isolated cases of racial discrimination and insensitivity. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Sigma Alpha Epsilon has already disbanded its chapter at the University of Oklahoma, the school where members of the fraternity were seen and heard using offensive language and chants about black people and vowing never to admit them to the fraternity. The university has also expelled two freshmen seen chanting on the video. They have since apologized. The school also banned the fraternity. Today, the fraternity's executive director, Blaine Ayers, says as disgusting as the video may be, it will allow SAE to have some important conversations about race. The fraternity plans to hire a director of diversity and will require all of its members to take diversity training.

BLAINE AYERS: What we saw in that video is never acceptable. And we need to be very clear about that to better educate our young men to understand what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, and most importantly, teach them the proper bystander behavior.

CORLEY: In addition to diversity training, Ayers says SAE has also set up a confidential hotline so members of the fraternity and anyone else can report any inappropriate, offensive or illegal behaviors.

AYERS: I can promise that just as we did with Oklahoma, if we learn of any discrimination or unacceptable behavior currently going on we will be swift in our response.

CORLEY: SAE just recently started keeping statistics about the race of its members and found that about 20 percent of the fraternity's undergraduates and alumni are people of color. A smaller number, 3 percent, are African-American. Ayers says it was important for the fraternity to apologize to them.

AYERS: We had an obligation to defend them as well.

CORLEY: The 163 members at the University of Oklahoma will go through a fraternity trial process. Depending on the outcome, some could receive penalties such as suspension or expulsion from the fraternity. Alumni of the chapter have hired an attorney and may file a civil lawsuit over the punishment the school meted out. Meantime, Ayers says he didn't know anything about the chant before the video surfaced, and it's not officially sanctioned by the fraternity.

AYERS: I am not aware of any song book. There's been no official publication from SAE that has ever produced this song. And, to that point, none of us had ever heard the song before.

CORLEY: And fraternity spokesman Brandon Weghorst says SAE is also investigating whether the chant is common in other chapters or if anyone in the local chapters as heard it before.

BRANDON WEGHORST: If it's somebody who says I heard this 10 years ago, you know, I've heard it just a few months ago - that's part of what we're looking at right now because until we have a total snapshot, you know, because of all these investigations in all of our chapters, it will be difficult to say beyond the shadow of a doubt that other people have heard this.

CORLEY: Weghorst says nothing indicates that anyone else knew about the song or participated in it outside of the University of Oklahoma. He says the video has damaged Sigma Alpha Epsilon's reputation, but he adds the moment it was released, it gave a boost to chapters who were already engaged in multiculturalism.

WEGHORST: But this has just given more incentive for them to say, yes, because that type of behavior is not what SAE stands for.

CORLEY: The fraternity's national leaders say the changes they've announced to increase diversity in the fraternity is not about repairing SAE's image, but about doing the right thing. Cheryl Corley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.