Last week, three students at the University of Mississippi and members of the fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon placed a noose around the neck of a statue honoring the first black student of Ole Miss. Sigma Phi Epsilon quickly announced that the three members have been expelled from the fraternity, and the university itself signaled the possibility of criminal charges. These events mark an important step forward in the growing inclination for universities to regulate and govern the behavior of students in meaningful ways. A private and internal university judicial system is not apt for persons deserving of a criminal prosecution before a public court. Anything less than a criminal procedure would fail to deter prospective criminals.
An investigation examining the three perpetrators is underway. While the students will be charged in the university’s judicial system, the prospect of outside prosecution is still unknown. Regardless of the legal decisions reached, the overt racism marks an unfortunate step backward for a university that has exerted much effort to distance itself from its segregated past. This action hurts Sigma Phi Epsilon as much as it does Ole Miss — weakening the already unsteady foundation upon which the public image of America’s fraternities rest. The expulsion of the three members from the fraternity is a good first step.
Greek life in America, notoriously unresponsive to bad press and consistent reports of injuries and deaths as a result of hazing, is now coming under greater scrutiny. Universities are not able to tackle fraternity culture at its source — it is a problem deeply rooted in racism, misogyny and classism. Nevertheless, fraternity members should be subject to strict regulations and disciplinary action that extend beyond the purview of the university’s campus police. The fact that these members have been expelled from their fraternity is commendable, yet we should turn a critical eye toward the environment that fostered their behavior.
In an age when fraternities have become synonymous with excessive drinking, sexual assault and dangerous hazing practices, it is refreshing that Sigma Phi Epsilon took appropriate action in disciplining its fringe members. Fraternities across the nation should mimic the procedures that the University of Mississippi chapter followed. Though the foolish actions of three students are not indicative of the character of the entire university, the news surrounding the incident does damage its image. A strong and public legal process will bolster their intolerance for senseless behavior.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 24 print version. Email the WSN Editorial Board at firstname.lastname@example.org.