Racist chant taught on fraternity leadership cruise, University of Oklahoma says

A University of Oklahoma investigation has found that a racist SAE chant was taught during a leadership cruise

An investigation by the University of Oklahoma has found that the racist chant by Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members was learned during a leadership cruise sponsored by the group’s national headquarters four years ago and later taught to chapter pledges.

University President David Boren released the school’s findings Friday and asked the national fraternity whether it had investigated the source of the chant. The national SAE said the chant came from a “social gathering” at a leadership event, adding that “there is no current evidence that the chant is widespread across its 237 groups.”

“We remain committed to identifying and rooting out racist behavior from SAE, and we are actively investigating all of our local organizations to determine whether there are issues in any other location,” Executive Director Blaine Ayers said in a statement.

“We intend to conduct a thorough and complete investigation, and this will take time. However, we will share the results of our investigation when it is complete,” he said, adding that the fraternity’s current findings were similar to those announced by Boren. “But our investigation to date shows no evidence the song was widely shared across the broader organization.”

Ayers said he contacted Boren on Friday to acknowledge the university’s investigation and to assure Boren that Sigma Alpha Epsilon was continuing its own inquiry.

On March 7, members of the SAE chapter were heading to a fraternity Founder’s Day event by bus when some were caught on video singing a racist chant directed against blacks. The video went viral, and the school launched an investigation amid a national uproar.

“The chant was learned by local chapter members while attending a national leadership cruise sponsored by the national SAE organizations four years ago,” Boren wrote in a letter to the fraternity’s national leadership, released along with the report.

In the four years since that cruise, the racist chant was formalized at the local chapter and taught to pledges, the university report stated. School investigators also found that alcohol was readily available to fraternity members before the bus trip.

The university expelled two students over the incident, though a lawyer for the fraternity has said they withdrew before being expelled. The university and the national fraternity leadership have disbanded the chapter.

Participants have apologized for the chant. Levi Pettit, one of the expelled students, publicly apologized for his role in the chant at a televised news conference Wednesday while flanked by black community leaders. At the time Pettit did not discuss the origins of the song.

The university’s findings that the chant originated at a national level moves the case to another stage.

“While there is no indication that the chant was part of the formal teaching of the national organization, it does appear that the chant was widely known and informally shared amongst members on the leadership cruise,” Boren wrote.

In his letter, Boren asked the fraternity’s national leaders to disclose whether they had looked into how widely the chant was used in chapters across the country and what steps SAE had taken “to remedy the situation.”

According to the fraternity’s statement, SAE invites hundreds of leaders annually to a six-day leadership retreat, where participants attend seminars and other educational functions and may have opportunity to gather socially. Ayers said it was likely during one of these social gatherings that some members shared the racist song.

“The song is horrific and does not at all reflect our values as an organization,” Ayers said. “If we find any other examples of this kind of behavior currently occurring, we will hold our members accountable, just as we’ve done in Oklahoma.”

The national Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity had previously announced that it was taking steps to become more inclusive, including requiring all of its members to go through diversity training.


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4:23 p.m.: This report has been revised throughout. 

The original version posted at 1:03 p.m.