UF president condemns ATO for racial, sexual taunts
Published: Monday, October 28, 2013 at 6:04 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 28, 2013 at 6:04 p.m.
University of Florida President Bernie Machen sent a letter Monday to the members of Alpha Tau Omega, reprimanding them for what he called a “hateful incident” involving a fraternity member yelling racial slurs and sexual comments at a black female student.
“We have worked extremely hard to build an inclusive and welcoming environment at the University of Florida, where we value individuals of all colors, ethnicities and backgrounds,” Machen wrote.
He said the actions undermined the values of the university and the high standards of the fraternity they pledged to uphold.
Alpha Tau Omega is one of the oldest Southern fraternities in the U.S., founded at Virginia Military Institute in 1865. It touts itself as “America's Leadership Development Fraternity.” The UF Chapter was founded in 1884 and claims 150 active brothers.
“I am disappointed and ashamed that members of an organization aimed at creating the leaders of tomorrow exhibited this kind of ignorance, hateful behavior and complacency,” Machen said.
The fraternity sent out a letter of apology for the incident and said it had suspended the privileges of the member who made the racial and sexual comments and is reviewing his membership status. He has apologized to the student “he treated so offensively,” the letter said.
The fraternity's members met with university officials and cooperated with the investigation, and it has begun a multicultural and diversity workshop for its members.
“There is no excuse or explanation for the behavior, and it does not reflect the ideals or principles of our brotherhood,” the fraternity's letter said.
Machen acknowledged that the organization and several students had apologized to the student who was insulted but said “it will take hard work and positive action to live up to the values” of UF and to Alpha Tau Omega policies.
The incident took place around 1:30 a.m. Sept. 26, when a frat member sitting on the front porch of the faternity's house jeered at the young woman as she walked by on the opposite side of the street, said Jen Day Shaw, dean of students at UF. There were several witnesses, but only one frat member told the offending brother to stop acting that way, she said.
The young woman came across the street and told the offender that his behavior was inappropriate, Shaw said.
“She came back across the street and told the guys, 'You're being ridiculous and this isn't the way we act here,' ” Shaw said.
The student, a senior who is very involved on campus, reported the incident the next day, placing blame only on the student and not the fraternity.
As reprehensible as his behavior was, it is protected by the First Amendment as free speech, Shaw said, so it would be illegal to sanction or punish him.
“So we combat that with intervention at the house, with the staff from multicultural and diversity affairs,” she said.
“The good thing about this is they took responsibility for disciplining him and in coming up with how we make this a better place.”
Alpha Tau Omega is not the first fraternity at UF to draw negative attention in recent years.
The UF Chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon was shut down in January for “numerous” unspecified conduct violations, and two other fraternities were suspended for three years each following misdemeanor charges in separate hazing incidents involving paddles or striking pledges.
Those incidents were punishable because they were physical violations of the law, Shaw said.
Bias incidents are tougher to deal with and require UF to step up its education of students “not to make stupid choices like that, and to appreciate each other and differences and keeping with our values,” Shaw said.
An incident last fall involving two members of the Beta Theta Pi wearing blackface and pimp outfits to a “rock stars and rappers” party drew national media attention. A photo widely circulated on social media drew criticism from other students and apologies from the university administration.
At a town hall meeting attended by 450 students, speakers said there were bigger problems at UF and called for more than apologies from the administration. Machen pledged to make changes such as creating diversity training programs for students and creating an African-American Studies major.
Combating bias has become a huge goal for Machen and the university, Shaw said. The administration has assembled a bias incident response team to deal with future incidents involving racial and sexual slurs, she said.
“Tolerance and acceptance of differences are fundamental to an institution of higher learning, and as we become more diverse we must redouble our efforts to understand each other,” Machen said at the time.