Was the University of Oklahoma President Too Quick to Condemn?

Tape with the word 'UNHEARD' covers the mouth of the sculpture 'The Sower' at the University of Oklahoma on March 11, 2015 in Norman, Oklahoma. Brett Deering/Getty

In the short time since several University of Oklahoma fraternity members were seen on a video singing a racist chant, President David L. Boren has acted quickly. Just hours after the video emerged, he called the students "disgraceful" and said he hoped they would leave Norman. And on Tuesday he expelled two who had led the chant.

In acting so decisively, Boren has departed from the measured, legalistic response that so often dominates crisis management in academe. And while his blunt rhetoric and swift discipline prompted cheers from many, it may have opened up the university to legal challenges on grounds that the students were denied due process or stripped of their First Amendment rights.

Boren, a former governor of Oklahoma and U.S. senator, seems ready for such a fight. In a letter to the students facing expulsion, the president cited "your leadership role in leading a racist and exclusionary chant which has created a hostile educational environment for others."

Gene Grabowski, a crisis-communications consultant, said the president's response is the sort that few in his position seem capable of mustering in the moment. It is common to hear college leaders talk about culture and diversity, but words like racist, employed by Boren, are particularly charged and less frequently uttered from university presidential podiums.

"He's definitely coloring outside the lines here," said Grabowski, a partner at kglobal, a communications firm in Washington, D.C. "He's gone well beyond the decorum one expects from presidents."

Boren, who is 73, may feel he has little to lose. He is unlikely to pursue a presidency elsewhere, Grabowski said, and any fallout from the last few days could be explained as an overly passionate response to what the president perceived as despicable behavior. (Boren declined an interview request for this article.)

"I do think you're going to see some repercussions based on action this swift," said Grabowski, who has offered his consulting services to Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the fraternity whose members are under fire. "But the court of public opinion certainly will be on Boren's side," he said. "And right now President Boren is more concerned with getting the tone right and taking the moral high ground than he is concerned about repercussions."

Legal Issues

The university's expulsion of two students on Tuesday has prompted public discussion about the very notion of disciplining students for racist comments or behavior. There is precedent for universities doing just that, and legal challenges have followed.

In 2001, Auburn University announced the indefinite suspension of 15 students who had worn Ku Klux Klan uniforms and blackface to fraternity Halloween parties. Like Boren, William F. Walker, the university's interim president at the time, did not mince words in the announcement. "The continued presence of these students in the university community poses an immediate threat to the well-being of the university and we're taking that action," Walker said.

Within weeks of the president's proclamation, however, an Alabama judge had ordered the university to reinstate most of the students, who were members of Beta Theta Pi. Even if the costumes were considered racist, a lawyer for the members argued, they were protected speech.

Romaine S. Scott, who represented the fraternity, said on Tuesday that the incident highlighted the problems of college presidents' succumbing to public pressure to act before gathering all the facts. Doing so risks further besmirching the reputations of individual students, who have not been given due process, he said.

"The president has got to realize that his is the voice of the institution, and I don't know that he has to show personal outrage," Scott said. "I think the institution can deal with it."

Within a year of the Auburn incident, after some legal wrangling, Beta Theta Pi and Delta Sigma Phi, the other fraternity involved, were both back on the campus. Scott said that the Beta Theta Pi members had had to undergo sensitivity training, but received no further discipline.

Damning Evidence

Boren's initial public statements were passed around on social media on Monday and Tuesday with a hefty dose of affirmation. HuffPost College summed up the popular reaction:

Take note, @President_Boren shows you how to respond to a frat racism controversy http://t.co/qwEag6fYiL

— HuffPost College (@HuffPostCollege) March 9, 2015

The intensity of Boren's response stems at least in part from the specific circumstances of this case—most prominently, the presence of seemingly indisputable video evidence. (Another video of the same incident surfaced on Monday.) More often, a president is stuck responding to an incident based on hearsay, media reports or photographs.

For example, Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, wrestled with imperfect evidence when Rolling Stone magazine published a now-infamous article about a brutal gang rape in a fraternity house on U.Va.'s campus. The day after the article was published, Sullivan issued a public statement that was panned by critics for its legalistic tone. She issued a sharper, more passionate statement two days later.

For all of the criticism Sullivan received early on, her initial caution may appear well advised in hindsight. The graphic incident depicted at the center of the magazine article quickly crumbled under news-media scrutiny, giving pause to those who had wanted the president to join the torch-and-pitchfork crowd.

But for the time being, Boren's hard-line rhetoric appears to be playing well, particularly in quarters where politics and education mix.

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards, for the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is where this article first appeared. Andy Thomason is a Chronicle of Higher Education web news writer.