By Manny Fernandez and Richard Perez-Pena at The New York Times
NORMAN, Okla. — As the University of Oklahoma expelled two students Tuesday for leading a racist song that sparked outrage across the country, the fraternity involved said it would investigate incidents at other campuses as it faced questions over the chant’s use by members at other universities.
Former members of the fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, claimed on social media that the same chant was used at colleges in other states, and University of Oklahoma officials investigating the episode said they did not believe the song had originated on their campus.
“I’m not sure that it’s strictly local,” said the university’s president, David L. Boren, a former Oklahoma governor and United States senator. Mr. Boren expelled the two students Tuesday but did not identify them, saying they had played a leading a role in the singing of the chant and “created a hostile learning environment for others.”
The fraternity’s national headquarters said the song was not a part of the “Sigma Alpha Epsilon tradition.”
“The chant is in no way endorsed by the organization nor part of any education whatsoever,” the national fraternity said in a statement.
The campus here has been reeling since members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon were shown in two videos chanting a song whose lyrics included racial slurs boasting that there would never be an African-American member. The song also referred to lynching, with the words “You can hang ’em from a tree.” The videos were recorded on Saturday night as fraternity members and their dates rode a bus to a formal event celebrating the national organization’s Founders Day.
The fraternity — started in 1856 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., before the Civil War — celebrates its Southern heritage. Its online magazine, The Record, described an initiative “to bring Sigma Alpha Epsilon closer to its antebellum roots, closer to the original experience and goals shared by the founding fathers.”
Mr. Boren, as well as the fraternity’s national headquarters in Illinois, shut down the Oklahoma chapter after the first video appeared on Sunday, and university officials severed all ties to it on Monday. Dozens of black and white students marched to the fraternity’s house Tuesday evening, hours before the midnight closure of the house.
“This is reflective of a larger issue,” said Marquis Ard, 23, an African-American senior who is a member of the black fraternity Alpha Phi Alphaand captain of the university’s debate team. “If they’re doing that on a charter bus, what are they doing in the library, at football games?”
As about 70 fraternity members moved their belongings out of the house, university officials worked to identify all of the students involved in the chant, who Mr. Boren said would be “subject to appropriate disciplinary action.” The expulsion letter to the two students states that the action takes effect immediately and that they can contact the university’s Equal Opportunity Officer to contest the decision.
One of the students, identified by The Associated Press as Parker Rice, 19, of Dallas, apologized in a statement to the news service emailed by his father. Mr. Rice said in the statement that the chanting had most likely been fueled by alcohol and that “the song was taught to us,” though he did not say by whom.
“For me, this is a devastating lesson, and I am seeking guidance on how I can learn from this and make sure it never happens again,” he said.
The parents of another student in the video, Levi Pettit, released an apology on a website. “He made a horrible mistake, and will live with the consequences forever,” it read.
A libertarian group, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said Tuesday that it was unconstitutional for the university to expel fraternity members for their speech, no matter how hateful.
A new video spread on social media on Tuesday showing the white woman who was the fraternity’s live-in “house mother,” Beauton Gilbow, 79, laughing as she repeatedly says a racial slur while singing along to a rap song in the background. The footage was posted in 2013 to the video sharing service Vine.
Ms. Gilbow, who acknowledged in a statement to a local television station that she was the person in the video, said she was “heartbroken by the portrayal that I am in some way racist.” She said that she had been singing along to the song, but that she completely understood “how the video must appear in the context of the events that occurred this week.”
he fallout reverberated Tuesday far from the campus. One of the nation’s most sought-after high school football players, Jean Delance of Mesquite, Tex., who is black, withdrew his commitment to play for Oklahoma, citing the videos.
In Stillwater, the Oklahoma State University student newspaper published pictures of a Confederate flag visible in the room of a Sigma Alpha Epsilon member at the fraternity house over the weekend. The chapter’s president told the newspaper, The O’Colly, that the Confederate flag had never been a symbol of the fraternity and that he and other chapter leaders had asked the student to remove the flag.
Beyond the appearance of the flag, the chant was not the first time a Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter had been involved in a racially charged episode. Chapters across the country have faced sanctions or have been forced to participate in cultural awareness programs over their members’ use of racial slurs and roles in theatrics deemed offensive to African-Americans. Since the 1980s, there have been at least 10 such episodes.
Chapters have gotten into trouble for racially themed parties, most recently at Clemson University. The chapter was suspended in December for holding a “Cripmas” party. A similar party stirred anger at Baylor University in 2006. Several chapters annually hold “jungle parties,” which often go without controversy, but the one at Texas A & M in 1992 sparked an uproar after some white students went in blackface while others, dressed like hunters, chased them.
In 1982, the University of Cincinnati suspended its Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter for two years after it held a “trash party” on the eve of the holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and passed out fliers encouraging revelers to bring canceled welfare checks and “a radio bigger than your head.” The editor of the college newspaper said the flier also listed a Ku Klux Klan hood and a portrait of James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Dr. King.
In 2006, the University of Memphis called for a temporary suspension of its chapter after members made derogatory remarks about the black girlfriend of a white fraternity member. The national fraternity suspended two members for making comments that “were inappropriate and unbecoming,” a spokesman said.
The fraternity’s national headquarters said it was investigating incidents involving other chapters, but did not elaborate.
The national fraternity denied that it was in any way a racist organization. “This type of racist behavior will not be tolerated and is not consistent with the values and morals of our fraternity,” the statement read, referring to the Oklahoma chant.
The Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter in Norman has had black members, but very few, and none recently, according to alumni. William Blake James II wrote on his blog that when he joined in 2001, he was only the second black member, “and there still hasn’t been a third black man,” an account supported by some of his former fraternity brothers, writing on Facebook.
Schools: University of Oklahoma