UW-Madison suspends frat for alleged toleration of racial slurs

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has suspended its Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity for allegedly responding inadequately to complaints about a “discriminatory environment” at the chapter.

UW issued a press release Tuesday announcing the suspension, saying SAE would be reinstated on November 1, provided that each of its members completes training in diversity, inclusion, and mental health. In the meantime, the chapter will not be able to participate in Greek life activities, conduct recruiting activities, or enjoy any of the other rights or privileges accorded to registered student organizations (RSO’s).

The punishment was handed down by the Committee on Student Organizations (CSO), a board made up of students, faculty, and staff that oversees the RSO disciplinary process, which concluded that SAE had violated the Student Organization Code of Conduct because the actions it took in response to a certain member’s complaints about discriminatory incidents were insufficient to prevent the member from filing subsequent complaints.

“I have read the complaint that serves as the basis for this action and 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,” UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote Tuesday in a letter to Blaine Ayers, Executive Director of the national SAE organization.

“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,” she continued, referring to an infamous video showing members of that chapter chanting racial slurs. “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.”

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Blank then mentions the diversity and inclusion training SAE members will be required to take, saying she expects the national fraternity to undertake parallel efforts to reeducate the members of its Wisconsin chapter, as well.

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While the sanctions on SAE are severe, The Capital Times reports that they pale in comparison to the terms of its previous suspension in 2006, when UW withheld recognition of the chapter for five semesters in response to a complaint about a Halloween party that resulted in 266 citations and $94,000 in fines.

No details regarding the complaint or suspension were ever released, but according to a timeline of events on UW’s website, the circumstances leading to SAE’s current suspension also began with a Halloween party.

At that party, which took place in 2014, a member of the fraternity alleges that another member “addressed him with a racial slur and choked him for about five seconds until other members intervened.” Leaders of the chapter maintain that they were not informed of any racial component to the fight at the time, but did impose sanctions on the aggressor.

According to The Badger Herald, the CSO report concluded that SAE had acted to its “fullest capability” based on the information available to them, but despite largely exonerating the fraternity on that count, the Committee expressed dissatisfaction with its handling of the overall environment in light of subsequent reports of intolerant behavior.

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The next incident on the timeline took place in March of 2015, when an SAE member “ran down State Street yelling a racial slur.” The university acknowledges that the fraternity expelled that member and suspended another who was “involved” in the incident, but notes that the expelled member “continued to be present at times at the chapter house.”

Three additional complaints were filed at irregular intervals over the course of this school year, all by the same student who claims to have been victimized at the 2014 Halloween party.

Sometime in fall 2015, the complainant asserts that he raised objections about “racial, anti-gay, and anti-Semitic slurs” he had overheard at the house, but was rebuffed by fellow members. Then, on December 22, he claims to have “heard another member yelling a racial slur outside the house,” though the fraternity says it was unable to identify the member in question.

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A few months later, on February 26, the student filed another complaint, saying “he heard another member repeatedly singing a lyric containing a racial slur.” The other member denied the accusation, and no disciplinary action was taken.

The following week, the complainant brought his charges to the university, prompting the Division of Student Life to launch a one-month investigation that served as the basis for the CSO’s eventual determination against SAE.

“[The CSO] is interested in changing behavior and making sure organizations come out of an incident stronger so problems are less likely to occur in the future,” UW spokesperson Meredith McGlone told The Badger Herald. “Behaviors that are unwelcoming, that are discriminatory, that’s what creates a bad campus atmosphere … [and] people pretending like it’s not happening is not going to help fix it.”

Brandon Weghorst, Associate Executive Director of Communications for SAE, told Campus Reform that the fraternity conducted its own investigation and determined that "several members" of the UW chapter engaged in unacceptable behavior, but disputed the university's assertion that SAE's failed to handle the situation effectively.

"When we find that the behavior of any member is inconsistent with our expectations, we work to eradicate that behavior," he said, adding that the national office also takes proactive steps, such as sending its field staff to campuses across the country to provide training on topics such as diversity & inclusion, sexual misconduct, and bystander intervention.

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

Moreover, he added, SAE "launched a four-pronged initiative to address diversity and inclusion, as well as cultural awareness," earlier this year, one component of which is a requirement that all current and future members complete a diversity-and-inclusion training program.

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