Fraternity presidents at Ole Miss declared Thursday that they would not hesitate to expel a member if it turns out that one of their own had a role in placing a noose around the campus statue of an African American civil rights figure.
University of Mississippi police and the FBI are investigating Sunday morning's incident, and it's unclear if suspects have been identified. The FBI deferred comment Thursday to campus police, who could not be reached.
A witness saw two young men leaving the scene. A coiled rope had been slung around the neck of the life-size James Meredith statue. A former Georgia state flag with a Confederate battle emblem also sat on the statue's neck.
"We see this behavior as a disgusting representation of a racist few who have no place within our collective organizations, or on our campus," 15 fraternity presidents said in a letter dated Wednesday and released Thursday. "We are currently writing this without knowledge of any student involvement, but should we find that any of our members were involved our plan is to expel them from our organization immediately."
The Ole Miss Alumni Assn. is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. The FBI said a federal hate crime charge would be possible if the act was intended to threaten people at the university because of their race.
The fraternity presidents called the attack on the statue "insensitive," and wrote that "no student should ever fear for their safety."
They said they would seek input from alumni and the university about how their organizations might take immediate steps to become more inclusive.
"This event reveals how far our organizations have to go to actively promote inclusion of all persons regardless of culture, background, ethnicity or orientation," the presidents said.
About 31% of 1,600 male freshmen at Ole Miss joined fraternities in 2011, according to the latest survey online.
An Interfraternity Council representative did not respond to a request for comment about what prompted the letter.
Meredith, 80, told the Los Angeles Times this week from his Mississippi home that the incident shows children aren't being taught right from wrong. He said all the nation's ills would be cured if every child learned the golden rule, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer before reaching kindergarten.
In 1962, Meredith became the first black student at Ole Miss after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling cleared the way. Campus riots followed; two people were killed and dozens injured. Mississippi officials initially tried to keep Meredith from enrolling, but President Kennedy ordered hundreds of federal authorities to escort him onto campus.
As of November, Ole Miss' Oxford and regional campuses had about 19,000 students, 76% of them white and 16% black. Nationwide, the respective figures were 61% and 14% in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The first reported vandalism of Ole Miss' 7-year-old statue has raised questions about whether the incident might be protected as free speech if deemed to be no more than a vague threat. University Chancellor Dan Jones said the ideas expressed by the alleged vandals have no place at the university. But others have disagreed.
"Those who did this may, indeed, be despicable people, but it does not necessarily follow that the university should punish them for expressing their views, however hateful and offensive they might be," University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone wrote online. "The situation is not as simple as it might first appear."