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One Year Later: A Look Back At The University Of Oklahoma SAE Incident

Mar 7, 2016

It has been once year since the Sigma Alpha Epsilon incident on the University of Oklahoma campus. In March of 2015, members of OU’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were captured in a cell phone video singing a racist chant while on a bus to a fraternity event.

That nine second video went viral on social media, and sparked a fire storm on campus. Students of color at OU had already expressed concerns about race relations on campus, and the video brought those issues into stark relief.

OU president David Boren quickly shut down SAE’s chapter and expelled two students. In the days following the video’s release, a previously scheduled student forum on race took on new significance. During the forum, students shared their thoughts and feelings about the incident, racial identity and conditions on campus.

One year later, many people who attended the forum are still concerned about race relations on campus and improving conditions for students of color including dean of the Price College of Business Daniel Pullin, and Ashley McCray, a doctoral student working to Indigenize OU.

As a co-director of OU Unheard, the group that published the video on social media, Chelsea Davis still has concerns but is happy to see the new required diversity training for all incoming freshman and transfer students. After the SAE video, Kathy Wong became the faculty member in charge of that new diversity training.

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On OU As An Example Of Response To Racism

“One of the things I recall saying there that I actually believe it more fully even now a year later, is that a bright light was really shown on the University of Oklahoma as a result of the video and it was up to us at that moment to determine are we just going to let that be a line of interrogation? Or are we going to turn that into a beacon of light and really represent how a strong community like the one here at the University of Oklahoma responds, and sets the pathway for others to follow as they are led by that light?” – Daniel Pullin

On Improving Apathy Through Education

“I think that there has been a lot of apathy regarding the video for people who weren't actually directly affected, and I, of course, I think I'm talking about people who don't identify as people of color who aren't affected by racial violences at least not in this way. I definitely think that we could be working a lot harder to institute those changes in our own department level, in our curriculum, the way we teach our classes, the people that we hire, the students that we bring in and the topics that we address. I mean we are all a part of this system.” – Ashley McCray

On What Can Still Be Accomplished

“We need genuine shots to be made. I think university administration is lacking in the genuineness of trying to create that space. A lot of things that they have been addressing are simple things that they can change overnight, surface changes. We have seven grievances and I can count on my hand how many of them have not been addressed. So, we have got to get back to what we initially put out before SAE, because that's what it comes down to. This is what needs to change. So the university administration needs to look back on our letter, and we need to have those conversations about wat hasn't been done and what hasn't been addressed.” – Chelsea Davis

On Cognitive Empathy As A Skill

“Research shows that cognitive empathy is one of the fastest routes to cognitive complexity, increase in organizational identity, motivation to succeed, willingness to correct behavior and work more collaboratively with other people rather than protecting your identity and not showing that you have made some errors for example… So, it's really about the various skills that we need in terms of innovation and intellectual diversity. So there's tons of robust research on innovation: What makes an innovative team? Cognitive empathy is like one of the number one skills that's needed in the group in terms of being intellectually diverse and coming up with innovative ideas.” – Kathy Wong

FULL TRANSCRIPT

MERLEYN BELL, HOST: Daniel Pullin is the dean of the Price College of Business. He helped organize the town hall forum with OU Unheard, a student group dedicated to promoting change and addressing grievances among Black students at OU.

BELL: How many people showed up to the town hall meeting that day?

DANIEL PULLIN: Well, we don't have an exact count, but it was somewhere around 400 was the estimate. Every chair was filled, and I know you had the chance to be there as well, you know people were… Unfortunately, we just ran out of chairs. So people were standing on the back walls and spilling into the corridors and again, you know, but for the video as horrible and deplorable as it was, would we have that magnitude of a conversation on a topic that deserves it? I don't know. And so, one of the things I recall saying there that I actually believe it more fully even now a year later, is that a bright light was really shown on the University of Oklahoma as a result of the video and it was up to us at that moment, at that moment, to determine are we just going to let that be a line of interrogation or are we going to turn that into a beacon of light and really represent how a strong community like the one here at the University of Oklahoma responds, and sets the pathway for others to follow as they are led by that light. You know, a year later I'm excited to believe and really know that we are setting that example

BELL: You know, we've had a year to sort of reflect on what's happened on our campus and make changes. You can't change everything in a year, obviously. But do you feel a year on that experience for students at the university, especially students of color, is better?

PULLIN: Well I hope so. You know, I think it's a very personal question and so I would be reasonably reluctant to speak on behalf of any individual students or all of our students collectively, because you know… There's my perception and then there's certainly the reality that each of our students face. I know that we haven't just turned on a dime and every issue or every unknown that's been lurking is now known and addressed. I wouldn't think that's the case. But what I do believe is that there is an enhanced comfort level with the topic that more students, more faculty, more staff, more alumni and stakeholders and corporate sponsors, and those individuals feel comfortable talking about the importance of diversity and inclusion, the importance it plays in creating the type of community that not only this university demands but is needed in our broader society. And so, even if not more the fact that more members of our community feel increasing comfort in having the type of candid discussion just like the one we're having today and beyond, I think that's a really important evolution, if not a complete arrival at a destination. It really has been progress.

BELL: Is there a lesson that you've learned in the past year since the video was released, since speaking with groups like Unheard and focusing on the issue of race on college campuses that you can share with us? Sort of a lasting lesson?

PULLIN: Yes, and it's something that I'm keen to address, and I hope I'm right. I think maybe for too long we felt like opening the doors to a university or a college and inviting students from all um sorts of backgrounds in was enough. And just hoping that people would come to us, as magnificent as we have, and as beautiful a place it is to learn. But my thinking is evolving to the point to where I think we have to be more action-oriented. I think we actually have to go into the communities, into the schools, into the churches and other institutions that really have created the types of environments where diversity flourishes and thrives.

MERLEYN BELL, HOST: That was Daniel Pullin. He’s the dean of the Price College of Business. We now hear from Ashley McCray, a doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma. She is studying the History of Science, Technology and Medicine with an emphasis on the Native American experience. She is one of the founders of Indigenize OU, and helped to create Indigenous People’s Day at OU.

BELL: Dean Pullin opened the night at that town hall by saying that in light of the SAE incident that we now have this grand opportunity… He said quote, “A grand opportunity and important obligation to address issues related to race.” I wonder if you feel like we as a community meaning people here on OU campus have made the most of the grand opportunity that Dean Pullin talked about?

ASHLEY  MCCRAY: There are the same people the core group of people who have been pushing really hard to effect change on campus and who have been fighting against racial violences and racial intolerance who have definitely been kind of elevated to a platform where they we don't necessarily feel safe speaking out about these issues but we definitely feel like we are being more heard and our issues are more relevant now in this space. But at the same time I think that there has been a lot of apathy regarding the video for people who weren't actually directly affected, and I, of course, I think I'm talking about people who don't identify as people of color who aren't affected by racial violences at least not in this way. I definitely think that we could be working a lot harder to institute those changes in our own department level, in our curriculum, the way we teach our classes, the people that we hire, the students that we bring in and the topics that we address. I mean we are all a part of this system. I know that faculty may feel like they are apathetic or complacent in their positions, but they do also play a role in this system by the way they teach their course, the texts that they assign, the topics that they highlight and the way that they interact with their classroom. It all goes back to race, and the system that race plays into. So, I think that there is a lot more that can be done, and I think that everybody is responsible for being an agent of change, and I haven't seen that take place so I am still dissatisfied.

BELL: So, OU itself is a system right? And has a community and a culture unto itself but it is also a part of a national system of colleges and universities across the country. In retrospect, I wonder if you can reflect on whether or not the SAE incident reflects just on OU or if it might say something else about the Greek system and the system of colleges and universities nationwide?

MCCRAY: Oh, yeah, I think it does all of the above. I think it reflects Norman and the University of Oklahoma. I think it also reflects the Greek system and also the larger national university system. As a native person I kind of understand the system of education in a different light. So, I see it as a tool of colonization, and I see this place as a site of colonial violence and historically it has been. It has been used as a way to enact the cultural genocide of native people. So, I think that kind of looking at our history and not removing ourselves or distancing ourselves from the history of universities will give us a better insight into the system that has been perpetuated throughout the nation. But also on a more local level, and that is where we can be change makers is on a local levels and that is where we can affect change, we do have to consider the role our town's history plays into this larger system. The city of Norman is historically a sundown town. This was originally Indian Territory and my tribe, the Absentee-Shawnee tribe, was actually displaced from this location not just in the wake of the founding of Norman, but also with the construction of Lake Thunderbird whenever the state of Oklahoma came in and condemned that land and declared imminent domain. There is definitely a lot of racial tensions that are hidden beneath the surface of our history that we kind of ignore. We think that Norman is such a bastion of inclusivity and justice but it really isn’t.

BELL: As more and more people become aware of all of these issues that you've started to sort of unpack for us today, what lessons do you think that we can share as a community that has gone through what we have gone through in the last year since this SAE video has been released that we can share with other college and university communities that they may benefit from?

MCCRAY: So, I guess kind of philosophically I think that the lessons that we can share is to recognize that every individual person has their own unique experience and that we shouldn't minimize or silence that experience and that they are all legitimate and valid. So, when a person of color is saying that they are having a very difficult time, and that they don't feel welcome, and they feel left out in a university setting, we should listen to them. Just because we don’t feel that way doesn’t mean that it's not true. But also I think that President Boren… although I want to make clear that I am extremely critical of president Boren but I am saying in this very instance he did the right thing by responding so rapidly and by showing that he will not tolerate that level of racial hatred and violence on campus. So, I think it’s really important to identify the fact that these sort of like the SAE video and incidents like that that these are actually violence that are being perpetuated against actual human beings. So whenever in the video they are talking about lynching black people that is a violence that is being enacted against the entire black community and it should be recognized as such. So I think that President Boren is a model for how to respond quickly and effectively. And I think that also bringing in the issue of consent with oppressed and marginalized communities is really important for me. So bringing in our voices and showing that oppressed and marginalized communities add value to the social fabric of the university is really important, and I think that the best he can I guess or to whatever extent President Boren and especially Jabar Shumate have done that, have reached out, have made the effort to build bridges with the different communities and making us realized that we do belong here and that this is our space. I think that those have been good things that have come out of it and that those are lessons we can share with other places too.

MERLEYN BELL, HOST: This is Race Matters. I’m Merleyn Bell. If you’re just joining us, today’s broadcast is a special edition of Race Matters. We’re exploring the year since the SAE incident at the University of Oklahoma. We’ve just heard from Ashley McCrae, one of the founders of the Indigenize OU movement. Joining me now is Chelsea Davis, a student and co-director of OU Unheard, the group who released the video on social media.

CHELSEA DAVIS: SAE was definitely a catalyst for our movement. We were moving before, making strides before, we had even met with President Boren before SAE had occurred, but once SAE did happen, it was kind of a catalyst. It kind of lit some fire under administration as far as enacting these changes. It was kind of an eye-opener for different students on campus. A lot of people didn't want to believe that these issues were happening. I think it kind of became even more real when it happened kind of at home. Again, going back to SAE, was really just, really a scandal. We received the video from an anonymous source, and once we confirmed that it was OU students, we released the video to social media outlets and all news outlets across the nation.

BELL: What was your own personal reaction when you first saw the video?

DAVIS: A lot of it was pretty much the same reaction. We weren't shocked at what was going on. Again, these are things that you kind of, in the back of your head, know that's happening. But to kind of see it vividly and hear it explicitly was something else. It made us angry, made me angry, it hurt, and it made me really not want to go to OU any more, really. We question the morals and the character of the students that OU accepts, but I knew that there was work to be done, and if I left, that work probably wouldn't get done.

BELL: How, if at all, did your day-to-day interactions with your fellow students and with your professors-with the administration change as a result of the video’s release?

DAVIS: It most definitely changed for us, because we were on the forefront of the movement, and of the video releasing. For me, and probably two other students-a part of the movement on our exec, we really got the… I guess the most, it really affected us the most, with us doing most of the interviews on TV. For our faces to be all over CNN and MSNBC, it was… everybody knew who we were, by name. So, most definitely those interactions and relationships that I had with other students, professors, and the administration changed, and that they knew who I was. Some students applauded us for what we were doing, and then on the same tone, some students shamed us.

BELL: Knowing that you were about to release the video to a wider audience, as a group, that you had received from an anonymous source, did you have a conversation, as a group, about the experience that you might share, moving forward? I mean, your face… I remember the first time I saw your face was on CNN. So, I wonder if you thought about that ahead of time. What the implications for you, personally, would be, and the implications for the large university community would be?

DAVIS: We talked about that far before SAE. We first met in November. One of our main concerns was, what can happen to us? What can administration do to us for speaking out against these injustices? We'd get kicked out of school. Would they hold us from graduating? Things like that. So that was conversations that we had already had. When we received the video, it was more of, “Okay, we'll kind of backlash our way in and get." And I think we were more shocked that people were shaming us than anything. One, it was blatant, overt racism. It was right there, in your face, and for you to say that we were overreacting or it's our fault that now Greek Row is kind of stereotyped into this category. It wasn't, it was just shocking that that what the reaction were of some students, some faculty, people across the nation. That there was excuses as to why this behavior was okay or why we shouldn't have done what we did… I think the university is making strides to address the racial tension that's going on on this campus, however I don't agree with the fact that it took SAE to have these conversations or to have this dialogue, to have these different trainings in place. I felt like the university was very reactive to SAE as opposed to proactive. Like I said, these things are happening… the difference between probably then and now is it got caught. It was on camera. So, I agree with what Dean Pullin said. I think the university is making strides, but there's so much work to be done and we got to start looking at the bigger problems, which is the systemic racism.

BELL: Have you seen any changes to the Greek System within colleges and universities, and know that SAE National came out recently and said, "Not a big problem…" to paraphrase what they said. They released an official report, but said, you know, something sort of counter to what you said about it being a more isolated thing. And I wonder if you feel that it speaks to a larger problem within the Greek system as well.

DAVIS: When you have these organizations that were founded on racism and segregation, kind of, what do you expect to happen? I recently just became Greek myself, and looking from the inside now out, it's even more apparent these, especially like PAN and IFC, which are the predominantly white Greek letter organizations. They were founded on systemic racism. They were founded at a time where blacks weren’t allowed in these spaces, so the fact that they are okay with singing these racist chants and excluding blacks and, you know, taking our culture and making fun of it and mocking it… it's not a surprise. This what they were founded on, these are their principles, these are their morals, so it is a bigger issue than just these kids singing on a bus. It goes back to their founding fathers, if you will, and their founding principles and morals.

BELL: Do you think that students of color attending OU are better off now than they were a year ago?

DAVIS: I think, again, the university's making strides to kind of make the community better for minority students. I don't say that they're better off. For me, we're kind of seen with targets on our backs because of SAE. You know, we're the complainers. We always want more. We want this. We want that. So, I don’t think that anybody is better off right now. I think the university is trying to make it a better, more inclusive space, but right now there's very little… it's not any better than it was a year ago.

BELL: What do you think can still be done to improve that experience?

DAVIS: We need genuine shots to be made. I think university administration is lacking in the genuineness of trying to create that space. A lot of things that they have been addressing are simple things that they can change overnight, surface changes. We have seven grievances and I can count on my hand how many of them have not been addressed. So, we have got to get back to what we initially put out before SAE, because that's what it comes down to. This is what needs to change. So the university administration needs to look back on our letter, and we need to have those conversations about wat hasn't been done and what hasn't been addressed.

BELL: So it's been a year since the video was released, almost a year. What lessons do you believe we've learned as a result of this particular incident that other colleges and universities might also benefit from?

DAVIS: Well, for one, racism is alive. I mean, that's probably the biggest, I think, the biggest takeaway from SAE is we're not in this prosperous society that people like to believe that we're in. I think people think that racism is this myth that blacks make up in their heads to have an excuse as to why they can't do things and why they don't get things, but it's clear as day that students think that, you know, hanging people from trees and keeping them out of organizations is okay. So, I think that was the biggest takeaway from SAE. As far as here at home on this campus, I think our biggest takeaway is we have a lot of educating to do within our community. The diversity training that Dr. Wong is leading is phenomenal. I've had the honor of facilitating about four or five sessions, and what she's saying speaks volumes. I just hope that students are really taking the time to listen and to understand that there are so many different people out there that come from different backgrounds, have different colors of their skin, believe different things, and you are not any better than anybody just because you are in a certain class and or have a certain skin tone.

MERLEYN BELL, HOST: Chelsea Davis is the co-director of OU Unheard, and she just mentioned my next guest Kathy Wong. Dr. Wong is the director of Southwest Center for Human Relations Studies at OU and was chosen to lead the required diversity training for all incoming freshman and transfer students. President Boren made the training a requirement after the SAE incident.

BELL: So, it's one five hour session that students are required to attend. Can you walk us through what happens in those five hours?

KATHY WONG: Yeah, so the five hours consists of 3 major goals, and then I'll talk a little bit about the structure. So one is cognitive framing, so it's a research-based curriculum, right? So as cognitive framing on… why do we think the way we think? When we communicate with others how do we fall into sloppy categorical thinking for example, right? And so there's a lot of research on how we categorize people and how we make assumptions and attributions about characteristics in a very mindless way. There's a lot of research that we look at, things like love-prejudice, non-critical thinking for your own group, all kinds of things across all groups. And so it's based in social psychology, inner-cultural communication, inner-group communication… And then they get, they receive a chance to interact with each other to apply some of this. So there's a very pragmatic part where they're coached and they have an opportunity to talk. We process and then re-hit cognitive framing and some of the concepts that they learned about previously. And then they play some games that are designed not to simulate real incidents but to help them sort of cognitively figure out, “Why did I do what I did when I was in this dot exercise?” for example. Just sort of really process, so what were some of the concepts that we studied that elicited that sort of behavior, or would explain some of those behaviors. So we do that, and then at the last part they actually engage in perspective taking. So, research shows that cognitive empathy is one of the fastest routes to cognitive complexity, increase in organizational identity, motivation to succeed, willingness to correct behavior and work more collaboratively with other people rather than protecting your identity and not showing that you have made some errors for example… So, it's really about the various skills that we need in terms of innovation and intellectual diversity. So there's tons of robust research on innovation: What makes an innovative team? Cognitive empathy is like one of the number one skills that's needed in the group in terms of being intellectually diverse and coming up with innovative ideas. 

BELL: What kind of response have you received from the students that have taken part in the training?

WONG: I would say, you know, I mean…honestly, the trainings are after a long day sometimes, right? They're five hours. Students have been working part time jobs, going to class. And I would say the first like 20 minutes or so are pretty rough. Nobody wants to be there, you know, people are… I mean no one is horribly rude or anything, but you know there's some eye-rolling and people are really not happy to be there. But I think once they figure out that it's really skills-based, it's really about how to facilitate teamwork, how to work with people who are different, this is something, you know... like during the break and afterwards students will come up and say, "You know I was kind of rude at the beginning and I feel kind of bad, but you know I kind of thought, I don't know what I thought, I was thinking diversity training oh this is going to be so boring, and I'm going to be yelled at and feel guilty, and in fact I learned a lot, I learned a lot of skills you know, communication skills that I'm going to be able to use immediately. And I would not have encountered that and so now I'm excited, you know, to do this." And I get stopped in town by students who admit the same thing. You know, "You may not remember me, but I feel really bad cause I was just telling my friend that I felt so bad because I was kind of rude and you know, rolling my eyes and stuff and after a while I was like, oh my gosh this is actually really interesting I didn't know we did these things. Right? I recognize some of those behaviors that I do in groups, or at work, or in classes and so now I know why I do it and I'm really grateful, it explains a lot."

BELL: What do you think can still be done to improve the experience students both here at OU and nationwide, especially in retrospect having done all of the workshops with students?

WONG: I would say that it's really important for institutions to also look at faculty and staff and administrators as part of the climate of inclusion. It is not enough just to have students trained. So we've got, because there are generational differences, there are you know, research shows that millennials see diversity and intellectual diversity and inclusion skills as being portable skills they want these portable skills they can take everywhere, and anywhere, as well as equity skills. People who are older tend to think of them as equity and opportunity skills, so there's sort of a difference, right? So I make the opportunity for you, but I may not understand as someone who's not doing this kind of work, that the way I treat you and the way that I interact with you has an impact on your opportunity, because maybe I’m not as inclusive as I could be.

BELL: Dr. Wong, thank you for coming in today and sharing your insights with us.

WONG: Thank you very much, Merleyn. I really enjoyed this and appreciate the chance to reflect.