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February 4, 2016

Liberty, Fraternity, Inequality

The University's attempt to distance itself from on-campus Greek life is thinly veiled cowardice

A Buzzfeed article revealing a number of racist emails from the campus fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) sent the UChicago community into a frenzy on Wednesday, February 3. These emails, which range in time from as far back as 2011 to as soon as the spring quarter of 2015, show AEPi brothers calling Muslim students on campus “terrorists,” parodying offensive black stereotypes, and seeing “nothing wrong with using [the N-word].”

Reactions on campus seemed unanimous: students were shocked and disgusted at this type of behavior, and understandably so. AEPi’s actions are revolting, racist, and intolerable. It’s not even worth the time delving into why this is abhorrent. It’s obvious from reading the emails.

But, what is worth talking about is what to do from here. Within the Buzzfeed article itself, Dean of Students Michelle Rasmussen is quoted saying, “The language used in these private emails is offensive, and it is not consistent with the University’s values or our strong commitment to ensuring that people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives can thrive on our campus.”

By alienating the fraternities from the University’s so-called “values,” Rasmussen is avoiding any responsibility for this event. She admits that AEPi’s actions are offensive, but claims they have nothing to do with the University itself or what it stands for. In fact, the very next sentence of the article cements the supposed separation of fraternity life from the administration: “Fraternities and sororities are not recognized student organizations at the University of Chicago.”

While this statement is true—frats aren’t considered part of the Registered Student Organizations (RSOs) of the University—that doesn’t mean they are completely independent from University control. Fraternities and sororities alike have Blueprint accounts, which are website platforms for, reportedly, RSOs only. This implies that they receive funding from Student Government to create and upkeep their account. Additionally, they can use university spaces for events and meetings. Clearly, fraternities aren’t as autonomous as the University would like us to believe. The administration does have some control over fraternities, yet is purposefully avoiding taking action, hiding behind the lie that Greek organizations are completely independent of this campus.

An additionally troubling aspect of Rasmussen’s statement is her usage of the word “offensive.” The word echoes the statement made in the University’s often praised “Statement of Freedom of Expression.” A number of media outlets have previously lauded the University for taking such a purportedly progressive stance on free speech and have encouraged other universities to adopt the same policy. The oft quoted passage seems especially eerie in light of recent events: “…it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

Is this what freedom of speech looks like? Being able to make unabashedly racist remarks with zero accountability? And because Rasmussen specifically delineated these emails as “offensive” speech and not hate speech, does this mean that no action will be taken by the University since—technically—AEPi is compliant with the University’s free speech policy?

The University simply cannot continue to avoid taking any action against fraternities. Distancing itself from Greek life is the wrong approach. Clearly, fraternities cannot handle any degree of autonomy, given what we’ve seen from AEPi and, last quarter, from Delta Upsilon (DU). Instead, the University needs to take complete responsibility. If it were to treat Greek life, like, say the housing system, and force each frat house to undergo additional education about cultural sensitivity and sexual assault, then maybe this type of behavior could be prevented. Until then, most fraternities on this campus will remain a toxic environment for everyone who is not what a fraternity brother is expected to be.

By creating a false “us-them” dichotomy between the administration and Greek life, the University is not ensuring that “people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives can thrive on our campus.” In fact, it’s doing the exact opposite.

Sarah Zimmerman is a third-year majoring in English. She is a Viewpoints Editor.

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