A racist incident at nearby The George Washington University has spurred conversations on Georgetown University’s campus about how clubs should be accountable for their members’ behavior.
Unlike universities such as GWU, where organizations can face repercussions for the misconduct of individual members, Georgetown’s policies under the Student Activities Commission generally preclude sanctioning clubs based on actions of individual members.
The GWU Student Association senate voted unanimously on Monday to bar the university’s chapter of the Alpha Phi sorority from campus after a member disseminated a racist image on social media.
The photograph shared through social media platform Snapchat featured two white Alpha Phi sorority members holding a banana with the caption, “I’m 1/16 black.” Alpha Phi has suspended three members involved in the photograph.
This incident comes less than a year after a widely publicized racist episode at American University last May, when bananas hanging from nooses were found in three separate locations at the university’s Washington, D.C. campus.
The displays were inscribed with the words “AKA,” believed to be in reference to then-newly elected AU Student Government President Taylor Dumpson, the first black woman to hold the position and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a predominately black sorority. American University campus police investigated the incident as a hate crime, though no suspect was ever apprehended.
Georgetown has not been immune to racist incidents on campus either. Last September, four swastikas were painted in LXR Hall, the two most recent of which were found during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. During the 2016-17 academic year, students were informed of at least eight other bias-related incidents, including campus assaults on students wearing hijabs.
The leaders of Georgetown’s NAACP chapter expressed their solidarity with GWU students and recognized the prevalence of racial misconduct at schools in Washington, D.C.
“These occurrences at other universities so close to our own campus demonstrate that attending college even in our nation’s capital means nothing in regard to experiencing these reprehensible actions,” the group wrote in a statement to The Hoya. “When tackling racism both on our campus and in the public sphere, it is imperative to examine how white supremacy lurks in the spaces that we think are safe.”
Roopa Mulpuri (SFS ’18), president of Georgetown’s chapter of professional foreign service sorority Delta Phi Epsilon, said the culture of Greek life organizations is one in which racism persists.
“I think what some people might fail to realize is that the racial inequality and discrimination that exists in our country is more deeply entrenched in Greek life than might be obvious to outsiders who don’t participate in it and who don’t have any experience with it,” Mulpuri said. “As the president of a non-traditional sorority, I think I can more clearly see that.”
While Georgetown does not recognize fraternities or sororities as formal clubs eligible for benefits under the Center for Student Engagement, their presence still contributes to campus culture. About 10 percent of Georgetown students belong to a Greek organization on campus, according to the Georgetown University Student Association.
By comparison, roughly 26 percent of GWU undergraduate students are members of fraternities or sororities, which are formally recognized under the university’s Division of Student Affairs.
Before the Student Association senate voted to remove Alpha Phi’s chapter from GWU’s campus, the university’s NAACP chapter released a statement condemning the sorority’s acts and calling on administrators to hold the entire sorority chapter accountable.
“Due to the insensitivities shown by Alpha Phi, we demand the university immediately reprimand the sorority. This is not just a failure of policy by the sorority, but a perpetuation of a culture of hatred and endemic in the Panhellenic & Inter-Fraternal Greek communities,” read the statement.
The possible removal of the Alpha Phi chapter sharply contrasts with the existing policies at Georgetown, which do not hold clubs themselves accountable for the actions of their members, according to Student Activities Commission Chair Kylie Navarro (COL ’20).
“In the spirit of allowing our organizations to operate as autonomously as possible, SAC has no jurisdiction over the individual members of any organization,” Navarro wrote in an email to The Hoya. “As such, it would be extremely difficult for the actions of an individual to threaten their entire club’s standing with SAC, unless that individual was acting on behalf of the organization as a whole.”
Nevertheless, provisions dictated by the Center for Student Engagement exist to ensure clubs foster an atmosphere consistent with the university’s standards. New clubs seeking recognition and eligibility for university resources must go through New Club Development, a SAC-run process in which club leaders must submit a club constitution, complete training and comply with the “Student Organization Standards” posted on the Division of Student Affairs website.
“All of the organizations that SAC currently recognizes and funds have passed through our New Club Development (NCD) process, which means at one point the commission found them to be in compliance with our standards,” Navarro wrote.
These standards overseen by SAC include a section titled “Compliance with University Policy,” which states groups are ineligible for access to benefits if their purpose or activities, among other criteria, “foster hatred or intolerance of others because of their race, nationality, gender, religion or sexual preference, or are inconsistent with acceptable conduct at an American university committed to the Roman Catholic moral tradition.”
SAC can only intervene to remove a club’s recognition if its mission or actions as a whole fail to comply with this university policy. But resources are available to clubs to ensure they are staying on track and in compliance with university policy, according to Assistant Dean of Student Engagement Erika Cohen Derr.
Furthermore, two officers from each student organization are required to undergo Blueprint Training, which assesses how closely organizations are complying with the missions stated in their constitutions.
“At that meeting they’ll cover things like, ‘have you looked at your constitution lately? How are you doing? Are you adhering to it? Is there anything in there, do you need to update it or review it for any reason?’” Cohen Derr said.
In its statement, the Georgetown NAACP stressed that university administrators should take initiative in reprimanding students who are involved in racist acts.
“Universities need to devise more immediate and standardized recourse for such inexcusable actions in order to deter others from indulging in ignorance,” the statement reads. “There needs to be a greater push from administration to prove that there are indeed consequences for malicious acts of overt and covert anti-black racism,” they wrote.
Mulpuri explained the importance of internal club accountability and of maintaining diverse and inclusive communities within organizations. DPE has an internal committee that handles infractions of any kind and sanctions members who behave in an intentionally discriminatory manner.
“As a woman of color, I have been forced to grapple with how mainstream Greek life has played a role in perpetuating gendered and racialized power dynamics that continue to marginalize minorities,” Mulpuri said. “I think it is impossible to foster a community of respect and empowerment — which are the bedrock of DPE — with that kind of behavior and prejudice.”
Navarro strongly condemned the racist actions on GWU’s and AU’s campuses, but said ultimately, it is not within SAC’s role to punish clubs for the actions of individuals who do not represent the group as a whole.
“SAC cannot sanction individuals within an organization, nor should we sanction an entire organization based on the actions of an individual in general,” Navarro said. “It is our hope that the leadership boards within our organizations would take the appropriate steps to deal with the actions of individual members, should this problem ever come up.”
In reflecting on what she would hope the Georgetown administration would do in an incident similar to the one at GWU, Mulpuri grappled with how best to move forward.
“The harder question to ask is, is the best thing to remove them and jump to punitive action? Or should we look at these instances of racism as an opportunity to educate, to expose people to a new perspective and understand why this is happening?” Mulpuri said. “This is the larger question that we are facing as a society right now.”