'This stops now': Cal Poly suspends frats and sororities after new racial incident

A photo shared on social media Tuesday, April 17, 2018, appears to show three Sigma Nu fraternity members dressed in bandanas, baggy pants, white ribbed tank tops, chains and a fake mustache.
A photo shared on social media Tuesday, April 17, 2018, appears to show three Sigma Nu fraternity members dressed in bandanas, baggy pants, white ribbed tank tops, chains and a fake mustache.

Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong has placed all Interfraternity Council fraternities and Panhellenic sororities on suspension, following outrage and protests last week over racist photos from a Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity party and new reports of other racially charged incidents at the university's Greek institutions.

The university learned Tuesday morning of another incident of racial and cultural appropriation at the Sigma Nu fraternity six weeks ago, according to a letter from Armstrong sent to campus.

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"I understand this impacts Greek Life organizations that have been operating responsibly and with integrity," Armstrong wrote. "However, Greek Life is a privilege at this university and until all fraternities and sororities are conducting themselves in a manner that is respectful of all students — as well as holding each other accountable — they will not have a place at Cal Poly."

The suspension does not apply to Cal Poly's cultural fraternities and sororities, which are governed separately by the United Sororities and Fraternities Council.

Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier said the university placed the organizations on interim suspension partly due to controversy over the Lambda Chi Alpha photos, which showed one member in blackface and others dressed up as gang members and throwing gang signs, but also because the school's Greek organizations have been the source of numerous problems over the past few years.

"These problems have included racially charged and insensitive events, sexual assaults, hazing and alcohol-related deaths and violations of the university’s code of conduct regarding hosting social events," Lazier said in an email to The Tribune. "Too often, the Greek organizations have allowed members to do wrong, and they have not intervened to prevent or correct obvious problems."

Lazier said he had no further details on the Sigma Nu incident that in part prompted Tuesday's suspension.

A photo shared on social media Tuesday, April 17, 2018, appears to show three Sigma Nu fraternity members dressed in bandanas, baggy pants, white ribbed tank tops, chains and a fake mustache.

In a photo shared to CP Community Open Discussion Group, a closed group started in the wake of the Lambda Chi incident, three men identified as Sigma Nu members are pictured wearing white ribbed tank tops, bandanas, sagged pants, chains, fake mustaches and carrying Coronas.

The caption on the picture is: "When you get he (sic) holmes to take a photo of la familia."

A letter from Sigma Nu president Seth Callen appearing to reference the photo was also shared in the group; it indicated the photo was taken at a non-affiliated Sigma Nu event March 3.

According to the letter, dated Monday, the students pictured were placed on indefinite suspension. The fraternity president also called for a presentation to be given to members on cultural misappropriation, a public apology to all communities affected by the behavior and any other sanctions decided upon by the risk reduction manager and the judicial board during a hearing later this week.

"As I've told our Sigma Nu members in the past, the decision we make reflect not only on ourselves but all members of Sigma Nu and the Greek community," read the letter. "As such we take full responsibility for the actions made by those three brothers."

A request for comment from Callen was not returned Tuesday night.

The university's Interfraternity Council (IFC), which governs all Greek fraternities, issued the following statement in response to Armstrong's decision:

"This conduct is disgusting and inexcusable, and it goes against what it means to be a fraternity man at Cal Poly. We strongly condemn this behavior, because racism and discrimination are anti-ethical to what the Interfraternity Council stands for. As we said last week — and it is all the more relevant today — we firmly commit to hold our community accountable to the values we strive to live by."

The IFC called for any chapter with members who participated in these activities to conduct an investigation and hearing to hold them accountable.

"Our campus should never be a place for hateful expression against any community, and we must work together to address the core problems that cause such conduct to arise," the IFC said.

Armstrong acknowledged that many individual members of Greek organizations have not personally broken any rules or displayed any hurtful or thoughtless behavior, and that those same organizations do significant philanthropy work, according to Lazier.

"This suspension is not intended to punish those individuals, or even any particular organizations, but rather to say: 'Greek culture as a whole is broken,'" Lazier said. "'Too many people have been hurt by the actions and by the failures to act of Greek organizations at Cal Poly. This stops now.'"

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Lazier said administration will release more details in the coming days about how the suspension will work and how the organizations will be able to return to active status.

"This is not an attempt to get rid of Greek life at Cal Poly," he said. "Rather, it is a pause and a reset. We will welcome Greek organizations back to active status when we are confident that they have a definite and achievable plan to hold themselves and each other accountable. Greek organizations have the potential to both demonstrate and cultivate model citizenship — we will hold them to achieving that potential."

The IFC had already instituted a voluntary probation for all of its participating organizations last week. That probation suspended some activities, while allowing for them to continue to host chapter meetings, recruitment events, signature philanthropies and events, community service and education programming.

Per the terms of its probation, the IFC also required members to attend any and all IFC and campus education programming at the discretion of the board.

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Editor's note: The headline for this story has been updated to clarify which organizations were suspended.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928; @kaytyleslie