The Ivory Soapbox: Wash. U.’s witch hunt
By this point everyone who doesn’t live under a rock without any WUFI—which, admittedly, may be several people—has heard of the racial episode involving Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledges last Tuesday night that rapidly exploded into the biggest campus-wide controversy that I, as a senior, have ever seen. It outweighs outrage at attempts to bring Bristol Palin to Wash. U. to speak about teen pregnancy on college campuses (ha!) or several black students being evicted from a food establishment in Chicago due to their race. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this is the most controversial episode at Wash. U. in over a decade, exposing as it did racial tensions where many of us believed they did not exist.
Far from dealing with the incident in a careful, intelligent manner, however, the administration reacted in a reactionary, flailing way that is perhaps indicative of larger issues it has with fraternities. Instead of doing anything to calm tensions or use this episode to teach the unwitting about the harmful effects words can have in certain contexts, the administration has instead reacted in a shameful, inappropriate manner that wrongfully portrayed the events on Tuesday night and serves as a prime example for why it is necessary to think before acting.
The administration is guilty of two egregious wrongs. Wash. U., by acting in under 24 hours, refused to wait for all relevant information to be collected and thus adopted the attitude—perhaps because that is what it wanted to believe—that SAE was guilty of targeting black students with racist activities. As further information came to light not a day later, it appears that pledges, not “new members” of SAE as Vice Chancellor for Students Sharon Stahl’s email erroneously claimed, were responsible for, at worst, unknowingly offending several black students by repeating a rap song with racially-charged words in a setting in which the black students could hear. It is worth noting that the scavenger hunt sheet provided to Student Life and the University says nothing of where the recital needed to take place, so it is entirely possible that the brothers of SAE are not even responsible for the public setting. However, neither at the time of the University’s action in suspending SAE nor now does the administration acknowledge that there is absolutely no evidence—none, zero, null set—that anyone, pledge or brother, in SAE acted to offend, and the fraternity remains wrongfully suspended.
Even worse than unfairly targeting members of the Greek community, however, Wash. U. inflamed tensions even further at just the time when emotions needed to be calmed. When Stahl declared in her email that the University had received reports that “new members of… [SAE], engaged in racially offensive behavior directed toward a group of students of color” and that SAE had subsequently been suspended, the administration endorsed an unsubstantiated narrative that could only serve to upset students at a time when even this publication had retracted accusatory language. Thus, the University bears a large part of the responsibility for the misinformation that was spread and the angry, hurt reactions that followed. To date, it has not apologized for doing so.
As more time passes and evidence suggesting that SAE is a hotbed of racism fails to materialize, it becomes increasingly and embarrassingly obvious that the University behaved in an unprofessional, discriminatory fashion and was overly eager to believe the worst of its students and punish them accordingly. As a first step toward repairing its credibility, the University must lift its suspension of SAE immediately and send another mass email apologizing both for unfairly shutting down the third fraternity of the year and for the critical role it played in informing every single member of the student body that SAE was involved in racist activities. Then, the University should lead the process of healing not by doling out punishments as if they were Mardi Gras beads but by promoting a campus-wide discourse on the importance of racial sensibility.
In my 3 1/2 years at Wash. U., I have experienced a broad spectrum of emotions for my school, ranging from annoyance to delight to exasperation. Never before have I had cause to be ashamed.