Hold the university responsible

Hold the University of Chicago and Phi Delta Theta Fraternity Responsible for Racist, Homophobic “Prank”
Graduate Students United (GSU)

On May 31st 2013, U.S. Postal carrier Iran Becton delivered the last of 79 packages to the University of Chicago’s Phi Delta Theta fraternity. After he had hauled the final boxes to the house, a fraternity member informed him that the packages were a practical joke: the name on the order, read backward, was a racist and homophobic slur.

The response of the University of Chicago administration to this incident has been dangerously irresponsible. Although the university’s official response places great emphasis on campus dialogue in lieu of disciplinary action, students and employees at this university were not even made aware of the incident, much less engaged in a dialogue about it, until the story was reported a full two weeks later by the Chicago Sun-Times. We are deeply concerned both by the university administration’s attempt to conceal the incident, and by their explicit stated refusal to hold either the institution or the fraternity in question responsible.

The undersigned members and allies of Graduate Students United, in the hopes of making the University of Chicago a safer and more humane institution, are asking the university administration to take the following concrete actions in the wake of this horrifying incident:

1) Hold the Phi Delta Theta fraternity accountable for their actions: apologize to Mr. Becton

While we do not presume to know the intentions of individual fraternity members, we are concerned about the very real effects of their actions. Although those members receiving the boxes recognized the prank long before the last box was delivered, Mr. Becton was made to deliver all 79 boxes before being told it was a prank. Mr. Becton himself describes the manner in which he was told as “humiliating.” So disrespectful were the actions of fraternity members that following the incident, mail service to the fraternity was put on hold until the fraternity provides a written apology to Mr. Becton. Although both Phi Delta Theta and The University of Chicago have issued formal statements denying culpability, neither has seen fit to comply with this simple request.

While the members of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity may not be responsible for sending these packages, both their immediate response and their actions in the days that followed reveal a troubling and violent complicity. The University of Chicago is an educational institution, and as educators it is our responsibility to teach our students how to ethically engage with the world. It is both fair and right that we hold the members of Phi Delta Theta responsible for their cruel and thoughtless response to the incident. We ask that as a first step the university put pressure on Phi Delta Theta to issue a formal written apology to Mr. Becton, and to the campus community at large, in which they reflect upon the role their own actions played in this incident and acknowledge their complicity in what was for Mr. Becton a violent and humiliating experience.

2) Issue an official apology on behalf of the university

The letter to the editor of the Sun-Times, written by Eleanor Daugherty, Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Associate Dean of the College, is a disgrace and the University should be ashamed. Ms. Daugherty asks us to believe that full responsibility for this incident lies with the person or persons who sent the packages to Phi Delta Theta, and that we should therefore expect no response either from the fraternity or the university. We ask of the university that Ms Daugherty publicly revise her statement to reflect the truth: while this prank may have originated outside of the University of Chicago, both the members of Phi Delta Theta fraternity and the University of Chicago administration responded to the incident in an unethical and irresponsible manner, and should be held accountable for their actions.

We are particularly troubled by the university’s failure to alert the campus community to this incident, and by the belated and lackluster response that denies any responsibility on the part of the university. For Mr. Becton, as for the countless other people of color employed in and around the University of Chicago campus, this incident and the tenor of the University’s response contribute to a sense of the campus as a hostile environment in which we must nonetheless work every day. Regardless of the origin of the packages themselves and regardless of the intentions of those involved, we ask that the university formally acknowledge both its responsibility to respond forcefully to incidents of this nature and its role in fostering the kind of hateful environment in which such incidents find their home.

3) Make clear the university’s disciplinary structure for “Greek life,” and work with members of the campus community to make that structure more transparent and effective

The university’s lack of response to this incident relies on an unclarity of policy regarding the university’s relationship to fraternities and sororities. While this most recent prank is horrifying, it is sadly not very surprising. At this time last year, passersby observed pledges at the Alpha Delta Phi house mowing the lawn wearing sombreros and playing Latin music. Down the block at the Delta Upsilon fraternity, a “Conquistadors and Aztec Hoes” theme party asked attendees to “bring an unlimited need to conquer, spread disease, and enslave natives.” Given the failure of the university to respond either to those incidents or to this most recent one, we are concerned about what might happen this time next year. We ask that rather than erase the long history of such incidents on this campus, the administration engage with that history to come up with solutions.

These incidents occur within a university culture that encourages them. In addition to these more egregious examples, GSU has received regular complaints over the course of the school year from members who have been the victims of sexual harassment and homophobic slurs as they walk past the fraternity houses on University Ave. In the absence of clear policies governing “Greek life” on campus, the university is nurturing an atmosphere of impunity in which incidents such as these are allowed to occur on a daily basis. The University of Chicago has a responsibility to protect its students and employees from hateful speech and actions. We ask that the university make clear and public the current university policies regarding the disciplining of fraternities and sororities, and engage the campus in a dialogue about improving and implementing those policies.

4) Invest in real structural change, not the dangerous rhetoric of “diversity awareness”

This is the most recent in a string of such incidents on campus, and we are beyond concerned. In response to the bout of hate speech spurred by the “Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions” facebook page of earlier this quarter, the university launched a new “diversity awareness” campaign called “RISE – Reflect. Intervene. Speak. Engage.” This program was invoked again as a suitable response to the “prank” in question. It is not. To pose “diversity awareness” as a response to acts of violence is a dangerous road to travel down, and we demand that the University of Chicago do better. The RISE campaign is both insulting and injurious. It aspires to put the prejudices and violence of the university’s most privileged members in dialogue with the embodied experiences of the least privileged, and gives no thought to the damage that project might do. It promotes awareness in lieu of action or structural change, and it values free expression over responsibility and respect for human dignity. We do not accept this as a sufficient response to the University’s current environment of intolerance and hate. If the University of Chicago is serious about diversity, we ask that it invest in the kinds of changes to hiring, admissions, and financial support that will bring about real diversity. Incidents such as this one, however, are not matters of diversity or diversity awareness; they are acts of racial and gendered violence and should be treated as such.

As the events of this past year have made clear, there is a lot of work to be done to make the University of Chicago a safer place for minority students, faculty, and staff. There is even more work to be done to create a positive relationship between the university and the surrounding community. These tasks may feel daunting at times, but we respectfully ask that the university get to work. It is long past time.

Signed,

Kaya Williams (Anthropology)
Jay Sosa (Anthropology)
Francey Russell (Philosophy)
Tamara Kamatovic (German)
Duff Morton (Anthropology)
Molly Cunningham (Anthropology)
Ishan Chakrabarti (South Asian Languages and Civilizations)
Hannah Chazin (Anthropology)
Ray Noll (Political Science/Anthropology)
Madeleine Elfenbein (Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations)

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Kevin Cunningham (Law)
[Come on, what year is this? Seriously, where is the adult supervision.]

Rebecca Graff (Faculty, Social Sciences Collegiate Division)

Erin Moore (doctoral student, Comparative Human Development)

Anna Weichselbraun (doctoral student, Anthropology)

Agnes Malinowska (doctoral student, Committee on Social Thought)

Julie Knausenberger (alumni, SSA)

Manan Ahmed (alumni, SALC)

Dawn Herrera Helphand (doctoral student, Social Thought)
[thank you]

Sam Hunt (alumni)

Elayne Oliphant (other, Anthropology)

Andrew Yale (doctoral student, English)

Joey Cross (doctoral student, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations)

John Person (alumni, EALC)

Anna Ziff (college student, public policy and statistics)

Michael Billeaux ( PhD student, UW-Madison Department of Sociology, Co-president, Teaching Assistants’ Association AFT-3220)

Alexander Wikstrom (college student, Geographical Studies)

Laura Fugikawa (faculty, Asian American Studies)

Rebecca Liu (college student, History)
[Though a lot of discussion surrounding the incident centers around Phi Delt as culprit/perpetrator, this ‘witch-hunt’ narrative is both extremely offensive to Mr. Becton’s dignity – the underlying implication being that the legitimacy of his feelings is somehow contingent on the ‘whodunnit’. The blaming/victimization of Phi Delt further obscures the general history of the administration in dealing effectively with such matters. At this point, I’m not concerned with it who did it – it doesn’t matter whether the perpetrators were even affiliated with the university. What matters is our collective failure to respond to the incident in any meaningful way beyond figure-pointing and denial, thereby precluding any possibility of thoughtful discourse in the values of civic engagement and tolerance that the university ostensibly propounds.]

Ann Heffernan (doctoral student, Political Science)

Alyson Hrynyk (doctoral student, Cinema and Media Studies)

John Tucker (community)

Sana Baig (other)

L. Karim (community)

Austin Gross (alumni, Philosophy)

Thomas Ryan (Philosophy, Monash University)
[As an international centre of scholarship, UC has a responsibility to foster a high standard of behaviour not only in academic pursuits, but in its broader community.]

Cassandra Troyan (alumni, Department of Visual Arts)

Hannah Frank (doctoral student, Cinema and Media Studies)

Katherine Stewart (college student, Anthropology)

Angeline Gragasin (alumni, Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities)

Susan Hohl (doctoral student, Comparative Literature)

Margaret Fink (doctoral student, English)

Dhananjay Jagannathan (doctoral student, Philosophy)

Emily Boyd (alumni, Theatre and Performance Studies)

Kristen Simmons (doctoral student, Anthropology)

Sayantan Saha Roy (doctoral student, Anthropology)

James Grove (college student, Linguistics)
[There is an obvious theme here.]

Aisha Chaudhri (alumni, MAPH)

Natnael Doilicho (college student)

Emma Hite (doctoral student, Anthropology)

Jessica Robinson (doctoral student, Anthropology)

Ceda Xiong (alumni, Biological Sciences)
[Completely disgusting. There’s no reason for Greek life to continue on campus if this is the precedent being set.]

Johanna Pacyga (doctoral student, Anthropology)

Joe Grim Feinberg (doctoral student, Anthropology)

Dustin Brown (doctoral student, English)

Jason Schumer (doctoral student, Neurobiology)

Tiffany Wang (college student)

Alyssa Hirsh

Trevor Pokrentowski (college student, English)

Octavia Shaw (college student, Computer Science)

Ella Butler (doctoral student, Anthropology)

Sophie Fajardo (doctoral student, Sociology)

Aaron Wagner (ma student, MAPSS)

Michaela Cross (college student)

Elizabeth Brummel (doctoral student, Anthropology)

Ali Feser (doctoral student, Anthropology)

Patrick Dexter (college student, Geography)

Brian A. Horne (doctoral student, Anthropology)

Neena Mahadev (alumni, MAPSS)

Samuel Hodgkin (doctoral student, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations)

Katherine Alexander (doctoral student, EALC)

Jonah Augustine (doctoral student, Anthropology)

Clarisa Mondejar (alumni)

P Moran (college student, Economics)

Royal Ghazal (doctoral student, Anthropology)

Averill Leslie (doctoral student, Anthropology)

Maria Gutierrez Bascon (doctoral student, Romance Languages and Literatures)

Trish Kahle (doctoral student, History)

Carole Ramsden (community)

Jean Rockford (doctoral student)

Cayce Burch (college student, Community Justice)

Hector Agredano (doctoral student, Environmental Sciences)

Ayesha Mulla (doctoral student, Anthropology)

Oya Topcuoglu (doctoral student, NELC)

Jack Mullee (doctoral student, Anthropology)

Talia Weiner (doctoral student, Comparative Human Development)

Sullivan (alumni, Anthropology)

Pamela J. Francis (other)
[As a neighbor of a fraternity and a former faculty member at a university in a Southern city, I have witnessed acts of racism and find it appalling that the community AND the University seem to think this is a case of “boys will be boys”–I thought it was just a “Southern” thing, but the acts described above are completely out of line and U of C should have never allowed this to happen in the first place, much less continue year after year. I hope the University will own up to their responsibility and take action against the perpetrators of these actions.]

Armaan Siddiqi (ma student, Center for Middle Eastern Studies)

Rebecca Ackerman (alumni, college)
[I was so ashamed to see students at my alma mater be so callous, racist, and homophobic – and have the University take no real action.]

Alice Mark (alumni, Mathematics)

Dakota Derryberry (alumni)

Margaret Mass (doctoral student, Comparative Human Development)

Nebula Li (alumni, Law)

Jamie McCormick (doctoral student, Germanic Studies & Social Thought)

Yiding Hao (college student, Linguistics and Mathematics)
[Growing up as an immigrant, I, like Mr. Becton, have been repeatedly subject to such disrespectful jokes. Whenever I made it known that these jokes are offensive, I was accused of overreacting or lacking a sense of humor. Comical nature or intent became an umbrella justification for any sort of statement or action, and the victims were somehow wrong to be offended and told that in reacting this way we chose to be victimized. It should be noted, on behalf of Mr. Becton and of all members of our community, that such actions—regardless of how we react to them, and regardless of the intent of the agent performing said actions—have the potential to be hurtful, offensive, humiliating, and dehumanizing. To deny this potential demonstrates a lack of respect for the various ways of life that exist and the diverse backgrounds from which we hail. To apologize for one’s own actions is not self-deprecating; rather, it is an assumption of responsibility for one’s actions. For a leader to apologize on behalf of his/her organization is not a shameful admission of guilt; rather, it is an indication of understanding and respect toward its community. Failure to address neglect for respect, on the other hand, is harmful to the image of the University and reflects poorly upon the administration.]

Jeremy Siegman (doctoral student, Political Science/Anthropology)

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