A University of Pennsylvania student was recently suspended from his fraternity for using racial and anti-gay slurs in a fraternity email listserv. The fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha, used a listserv for communications between current members and some alumni. Former fraternity member, Curtis Harris (not the student who was suspended), had become frustrated with members' use of racial slurs in listserv communications.
On April 21st, Curtis, a senior at the time at the University of Pennsylvania, sent a listserv email expressing his frustration: “To put it in perspective saying the n-word (the term that is used negatively towards the African ethnicity) or the f-word (the term that is used negatively towards the LGBT community) is just as bad as using a term that the Nazi's would have created for Jews...I hate to get that deep, but I'm f[***]ing sick of the bigotry.”
Some Pi Kappa Alpha listserv members responded in agreement, but other responded in what they considered to be a joking manner. One alumnus used the word “n*****f**gots,” which was a reference to a video posted in the listserv.. In response, another alumnus asked if someone “[could] use it in a sentence?" A freshman member responded by emailing, “Sweetgreen employs n*****f**gots — the gay, black guy that served me lunch."
Believing that his concerns were falling on deaf ears, Harris requested to resign from the fraternity on April 22nd. Although numerous members apologized for their behavior, Harris had made his decision - “I didn't really want to talk to them in person and get into any arguments — what happened, happened, and I just wanted to be done with it,” Harris said.
The freshman member, although he apologized directly to Harris and sent an apology email to the listserv on April 23rd, was later suspended by the fraternity. In response to the comments in the listserv, Pi Kappa Alpha President and then-Penn sophomore Max Wengyn contacted the University of Pennsylvania Judicial Board Chairman and then-Penn junior James Townsend. Wengyn's reason for doing so was to request an internal standards review of the incident and a recommendation of sanctions for the freshman member. Wengyn also contacted the University of Pennsylvania Associate Director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life Meghan Gaffney for sensitivity training.
Despite the fraternity's attempts to address the matter, which included the freshman's suspension, Harris believed it necessary to bring his concerns to a larger forum, and therefore contacted the University of Pennsylvania's student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. Harris reported that after Pi Kappa Alpha members learned he contacted the Daily Pennsylvanian regarding the incident, he was met with resistance. Harris stated that a couple of former Pi Kappa Alpha members (removed from the fraternity for a prior unrelated infraction) threatened to reveal information about him to his future employer. Harris stated that after he received these threats, he reconsidered following up further with the Daily Pennsylvanian regarding the email thread, as he was concerned that the threats could damage his future professional life.
After Harris spoke with other members of the fraternity, however, he determined it was necessary to make the issue public and raise more awareness about the use of offensive language on Penn's campus - Harris stated, “More people need to be aware that a situation like is happening right on campus — and I'm not even sure it's really just a Pike issue...It's 2016 and the fact that people are still using these racial slurs without thinking is kind of a scary thought.”
The Pi Kappa Alpha freshman who sent the offensive email stated that it was not representative of what he or the fraternity “believes on a daily basis.” The freshman added that the fraternity's diversity and welcoming environment initially motivated him to join, and that the offensive email was sent because he failed to understand the context of the listserv.
“Me, being brand-new to the listserv just responded to [the alumnus'] request about using the term in a sentence,” the freshman said in a with the Daily Pennsylvanian. “I was just like, ‘ok, is this how things are done?' I did not mean any [offense] at all to the African-American or the LGBT community and that was addressed in the apology email.”
Although the University of Pennsylvania itself has thus far not taken disciplinary action against the freshman, college and university students in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and nationwide, all too often find themselves charged with student code of conduct violations for sending offensive emails and text messages and posting offensive social media posts. The related issue is that offensive emails, text messages, and social media posts, because of their permanent nature (compared to an offensive verbal statement for example), can have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences; this not only has to be taken into consideration when responding to, and ultimately defending against disciplinary violations and/or Title IX sexual misconduct charges at the college or university itself, but the potential long-lasting and far-reaching consequences of offensive written communications has to be considered with future employers and/or graduate schools in mind.
This is not the first time that Greek life at the University of Pennsylvania has been criticized for racism. In 2014, a Phi Delta Theta fraternity "Christmas card" came to light, which featured a black blow-up sex doll and portraits of Confederate generals. Earlier in 2014, the Chi Omega sorority and Beta Theta Pi fraternity organized a "gansta"-themed mixer on campus, and were consequently denounced by Penn student groups and others for being racially insensitive.
The question that remains with respect to this most recent incident at the University of Pennsylvania is, why was the freshman member of Pi Kappa Alpha the only fraternity member who was disciplined for sending an offensive email? Penn alumni may not be able to be directly disciplined by the fraternity, but if the fraternity was trying to send a message that such behavior is not acceptable, there seemingly could have been a way to hold alumni accountable in some capacity for their role in the matter.