It was the best of times and it was the worst of times – well, not really. It actually was just the worst of times, or so it seems on many college campuses today.
This week, two scenes that fit this description, although they were separated by thousands of miles and represented different cultures, unfolded at two well-known schools. One school offered a clinic on how to respond to crises that any public relations team could use as a Tiffany standard for protocol. The other school should be ashamed of its silence and lack of response in the face of overt discrimination.
One of UCLA’s 45,000 students, a sophomore named Rachel Beyda, sought a position on the student judicial council. Her interview was recorded secretly, including the pre- and post-interview discussions that were thought to be in the strictest of confidence. During the deliberations pointed questions were raised about Rachel’s candidacy, because she is an active member of many Jewish organizations on campus, including Hillel and some pro-Israel activities too. Other students questioning her bona-fides were caught on tape. They believed that her involvement in Jewish and pro-Israel causes invalidated her bid to be an unbiased member of the judiciary council. The committee rejected Rachel.
Could you imagine if the tape had edited out the word “Jewish” and changed it to “black” or “Latino” or “gay”? Would anyone tolerate such discrimination? I hope not. Were that to happen, I would be first in line to call out the leadership of UCLA for bigotry, racism, and discrimination. But this anti-Jewish discrimination has yielded no action from the leadership of UCLA. The students on the council who discriminated against Rachel should be instantly removed from the council. Sadly, UCLA has said and done nothing. Some papers and pundits have pointed to UCLA for this incident but the administration of the school has been deafeningly silent.
What a shameful example UCLA is modeling. I know much of my college education happened outside the classroom. I am glad that I did not go to UCLA. That is not the sort of supplement to my lecture hall experience I would have sought out when I was in college – or that I would seek today.
Juxtapose that with a hateful incident that occurred on a bus with members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma. A sampling of fraternity members – all students at the Oklahoma school – gleefully chanted a hymn that called for the exclusion of blacks from their Greek society. (But instead of black, the derogatory ‘N’ word was used.) The song said that blacks should hang from a tree before they could join SAE fraternity.
Within minutes of this video leaking, the fraternity was put on suspension. Just two days later, SAE’s international president closed down the fraternity chapter on campus. He went on to say, “In addition, all of the members have been suspended (from the fraternity), and those members who are responsible for the incident may have their membership privileges revoked permanently.” The national office released a statement that said: “We apologize for the unacceptable and racist behavior of the individuals in the video, and we are disgusted that any member would act in such a way. Furthermore, we are embarrassed by this video and offer our empathy not only to anyone outside the organization who is offended but also to our brothers who come from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities.”
The university’s president, David Boren, called a rally and said, “To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you. You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves Sooners. Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect. Real Sooners love each other and take care of each other like family members.
“Effective immediately, all ties and affiliations between this University and the local SAE chapter are hereby severed. I direct that the house be closed and that members will remove their personal belongings from the house by midnight tomorrow. Those needing to make special arrangements for positions shall contact the Dean of Students.
“All of us will redouble our efforts to create the strongest sense of family and community. We vow that we will be an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue. There must be zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation.”
Boren did not undo the students’ free will and choices. He just made the consequences of those choices clear to them. Were he to have done nothing, his silence would have been understood as approval. I am glad he spoke up loudly, swiftly, and appropriately. After an investigation, Boren expelled two students for their role in the incident.
As long as there will be Jews and blacks, there will be discrimination. It is utopian to believe that bigotry and hatred will disappear. They will not. But they can dissipate. That happens through demonstrated response and reaction to exclusionary behavior.
Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, and 50 years after the march in Selma, we still struggle for proper recognition that all peoples must be seen as having been made in God’s image. It is an uphill march, yet we have come so far in such a short time. Let us not despair.
We must move forward. To do so, we learn from our universities both how to respond and how not to respond. We learn from our schools about repercussions and the power of inaction. In this tale of two schools, let us learn right and wrong and be wiser from the education we have been afforded by both.