SAE scandal: Why can't schools better manage fraternities?

Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity
The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma sat empty on March 11, 2015 in Norman, Oklahoma.
Brett Deering | Getty Images

After the University of Oklahoma chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity was shut down by the national chapter for singing a racist chant, the organization's leaders unveiled a plan to fight discrimination.

National SAE leaders announced plans to "hire a national director of inclusion and put its 15,000 student members through diversity training," according to NBC News. They will also set up a hotline where fraternity members can report issues in their local chapters.

The Oklahoma controversy started when a video posted online showed the fraternity members repeatedly singing an epithet and vowing to never have a black SAE member.

OU President David Boren has said he wanted to expel or discipline the fraternity members. Eugene Volokh, First Amendment expert and UCLA law professor, told MPR News' Kerri Miller the Constitution is on the students' side.

"I don't think it's justified for him to expel students for what is after all the expression of their views," he said. "Hateful views and views that the rest of us rightly hate, but views that are protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects all viewpoints: It protects communist advocacy, it protects advocacy supporting Hamas or the Islamic State or al Qaeda."

The Supreme Court and lower courts have held that students at public universities have the same protections against punishment, arrests and lawsuits when it comes to free speech as they do off campus.

Nicholas Syrett, author of "The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities," also joined the discussion and said fraternities have a long history of exclusion based on race and religion.

"Fraternities by definition are exclusive organizations," he said. "They maintain the right to pick who they want to offer admissions to. That's built into the very fabric of what fraternities are."

Up until the 50s and 60s, many fraternities specifically excluded people of color, Jews and Catholics, Syrett said.

A caller from Minneapolis said fraternity oversight is traditionally up to local alumni and varies nationwide.

David Glovin, reporter for Bloomberg News, agreed and said the national organizations are well meaning, but keep their distance. Lawyers advise national chapters to treat local chapters as franchise businesses that are expected to follow national guidelines. If national is seen as running local chapters, they could be on the hook for instances where a person is hurt or dies at a fraternity.

What's the role of fraternities today?

A caller from Minneapolis said he was in a predominately-black fraternity 30 years ago and it helped him through school and his move to a new city:

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.