We want Syracuse to Recognize Us

April 24, 2018

Videos of Syracuse University's Theta Tau fraternity engaged in displays of racism and sexism are fueling wider outrage, write Maria Norris and Megan Ferreira.

STUDENT OUTRAGE and organizing pressured Syracuse University to permanently ban the engineering fraternity Theta Tau and suspend at least 18 of its members from academic participation after multiple videos were leaked that show frat members engaged in sickening displays of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and more.

Originally posted to a private Facebook group "Tau of Theta Tau," the initial video was leaked by The Daily Orange student newspaper on April 18. In the six-minutes of footage, members of the fraternity pledge: "I solemnly swear to always have hatred in my heart for ni***rs, sp**s and most importantly the fu***ng ki**s."

Students in the video go on to make more vicious statements about women, LGBT people and people with disabilities.

A second video released days later showed a mock sexual assault on a disabled person--leading university officials to remove 18 Theta Tau members from academic participation out of "an abundance of caution and ongoing concern for our campus community."

Students protest the bigoted Theta Tau fraternity at Syracuse University
Students protest the bigoted Theta Tau fraternity at Syracuse University (Josh Shub-Seltzer | The Daily Orange)

University officials announced they would be making "alternative class and study arrangements" for those students while disciplinary action is considered.

Since the first video became public, it sparked an amazing display of student power and solidarity at Syracuse University.

A nascent movement calling itself "Recognize Us" has launched hundreds of student activists into action. Students are demanding the permanent revocation of the Theta Tau chapter--which the university was forced to carry out--expulsion of the students involved, and a town hall meeting with administrators and members of the Board of Trustees.

THE INITIAL response by the Syracuse administration was lackluster, with officials releasing a statement via e-mail that used similar language to past incidents of this type.

The statement claimed that the university works to be "inclusive and diverse." But Chancellor and President Kent Syverud began his career by closing down the university's Advocacy Center, the only campus resource for sexual assault victims. This initiated a series of protests and sit-ins in which an administrative building was occupied for 18 days in 2014.

In the first e-mail regarding the Theta Tau video, Syverud announced the temporary suspension of the fraternity, but offered no other course of action. The students in the video weren't not suspended until April 22--they were still allowed to attend classes with fellow students during that time.

Syverud, whose annual salary is $648,000, dines with the fraternity biannually. Students believe Syverud is tone-deaf to the desires and needs of students, in particular those from marginalized and oppressed groups. A tuition increase of $10,000 a year was announced in February, putting the total cost of attendance at more than $70,000 a year.

When the video was released on April 18, students promptly called a protest over social media to be held later that day.

A large group of students gathered outside of Syverud's mansion, expressing their anger and voicing their discontent with the university's lack of action surrounding Theta Tau, as well as the larger systemic issues that this reflects within the university.

The crowd marched to campus, past the Theta Tau house and into Hendricks Chapel to participate in a student-run discussion. As students passed the Theta Tau house, where Department of Public Safety officers (DPS) stood guard, booming chants sounded out: "Who do you protect? Who do you serve?"

At the discussion, a comprehensive list of grievances was compiled from the more than 500 students who participated following the protest.

In the discussion, students of color recounted the multitude of times that they have experienced racism on campus, and many agreed that the videos were not an isolated incident, commenting on the lack of resources for them at the university, and the pattern of segregation in university housing and educational departments. Many mentioned the lack of counselors and professors of color, and the cuts to their scholarships.

Women who experienced sexual assault on campus--including at the hands of brothers of many fraternities, including Theta Tau--spoke to the lack of resources for women on campus. The lack of accessibility of the LGBT Resource Center, located a quarter-mile from campus, was another main concern.

One participant called for a student-only meeting to plan a protest democratically, and echoed calls to expand scholarships for working-class minority students; address the diversity gap and close the gender wage gap among university workers; reopen the Advocacy Center; and pick up the demands of THE General Body, a coalition of students, faculty and staff organizing around issues of discrimination on campus.

Student demands included mandatory diversity training and history classes for those involved in Greek life, as well as other actions that begin to challenge the racist and sexist culture that thrives on campus, in frat houses and in the broader Syracuse community.

TWO DAYS later, students held a three-hour sit-in in the Schine Student Center during "Accepted Students Day" to show new students and their parents that they should not "commit to SU before SU commits to you," as organizers put it.

During the sit-in, Syverud briefly spoke with the student activists, saying he couldn't promise actions just yet. The director of DPS also spoke to the crowd, and dodged questions such as "Do you understand that students of color are targeted unfairly by DPS?"

Protesters then moved across campus and continued their action until the student tours ended.

The next day, Syverud announced that the Theta Tau charter had been permanently revoked, an important victory. A town hall meeting has yet to be announced, but one is tentatively planned for April 25.

There has been plenty of lip service from Chancellor Syverud and other administrators, though the lack of initial action speaks louder than the administration's e-mails to students. Syracuse University profits off its students, pushing them into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. It sees its students not as individuals with inherent value, but as "customers."

It will be difficult to get the school to invest money in better protecting its marginalized students. Students will have to fight for their demands to be met, and not be deterred by officials' attempts to resist restructuring and make empty promises.

A town hall meeting won't lead to any real change unless it is backed up by a protest movement, since it will never be profitable for the university to cater to their most disadvantaged students.

Collective action to leverage student power by shutting down buildings and threatening profit is the only way to force the administration to act in our favor. As students struggle in the Recognize Us movement, the importance of organization, protest and the politics of solidarity will be critical.

Further Reading

From the archives