It is times like this when I wonder if my theory that ethics evolves toward wisdom may be excessively optimistic.
In Norfolk, Virginia, Old Dominion University officials went bananas when a fraternity engaged in randy verbal hijinks of questionable taste at its off-campus home across the street from the institution. ( “Hijinks of questionable taste” is synonymous with “acted like a fraternity.”) Some frat boys hung painted bedsheets as banners to welcome incoming freshmen co-eds, thusly:
Well, THE HORROR!
ODU’s leadership responded to the tomfoolery by issuing the following statement:
“Messages like the ones displayed yesterday by a few students on the balcony of their private residence are not and will not [be] tolerated. The moment University staff became aware of these banners, they worked to have them removed. At ODU, we foster a community of respect and dignity, and these messages sickened us. They are not representative of our 3,000 faculty and staff, 25,000 students, and 130,000 alumni.
Ours is a community that works actively to promote bystander intervention and takes a stand denouncing violence against women. The ‘It’s on Us’ video is just one example of ODU students’ leadership on this topic. In addition, the University ensures all students receive education on the prevention of sexual harassment and relationship violence.”
Old Dominion’s Student Government Association also issued their own verbal condemnation of the incident. They filmed a video directly addressing the banners and stated:
“An incident occurred this weekend that does not reflect the University’s commitment to the prevention of Sexual Assault and Dating Violence. Not only do these actions taken by a few individuals undermine the countless efforts at Old Dominion University to prevent sexual assault, they are also unwelcoming, offensive, and unacceptable. Over the past year, our community, partners, faculty/staff, and student leaders have stood side-by-side to inform and educate our campus on Sexual Assault prevention. This issue is not new, rather, it is one that continues to be prevalent around the world. It is very important for all of us to take action and be part of the solution! These actions do not reflect the students’ views at Old Dominion University. We encourage YOU to continue to raise awareness, hold each other accountable, take care of one another, and be responsible citizens of the Monarch Community.”
But this wasn’t nearly enough to make it clear to all that a major transgression had occurred. University president John Broderick sent a message to the university community, also posted to ODU’s Facebook page, expressing his quivering rage over the banners, replete with a dark hint of coming retribution:
“I said at my State of the University address that there is zero tolerance on this campus for sexual assault and sexual harassment. This incident will be reviewed by those on campus empowered to do so. Any student found to have violated the code of conduct will be subject to disciplinary action.”
But wait, there’s more! The Sigma Nu Fraternity national organization has suspended the Eta Chi Chapter at ODU pending an investigation, and released its own solemn statement, condemning the “derogatory and demeaning language used on the banners,” and pointing out that..
“…Such language has no place in our Fraternity or within any caring community, such as that of ODU. Any Fraternity member found to be responsible for this reprehensible display will be held accountable by the Fraternity.”
Funny, the language on the signs appears to be English. Are Greek organizations actually supposed to speak Greek? If so, why wasn’t the official rebuke in Greek?
WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?
Some ethics observations:
- What appears to be going on is knee-jerk terror of militant feminist criticism and media attack. University officials ought to have more perspective, objectivity, sense of proportion and basic comprehension of who attends their school—you know: kids. They should also be more interested in supporting what is under attack by the recent assault by campus censors and sex police—individual liberty—than avoiding flame wars on social media. They should be, but we know that odds are approximately 1000 to 1 against any such administrator showing more principle and backbone than a typical flatworm.
- What should have occurred, in a rational educational institution, would be a short, calm meeting with the fraternity leaders and a discussion about how not to represent the institution. This could include a warning, preferably informal and not public, followed by a brief message to the campus that the issue had been addressed without all the grandstanding and pearl-clutching (I’m not a fan of this cliché, but when a school’s leaders announce that three silly banners expressing nothing but sophomoric bravado “sickened” them, there is no more appropriate term), and even an acknowledgment that, while over the line, the stunt was kind of funny. The ethical values displayed would then consist of fairness, proportion, and responsibility.
- Back to “the language” and the conduct (hanging suggestive banners in jest: “sexual assault”…”sexual harassment”…”Dating Violence”….”actions taken by a few individuals [that] undermine the countless efforts at Old Dominion University to prevent sexual assault”…”violence against women”…”relationship violence”…”derogatory and demeaning language”…in what Orwellian reality does hanging banners including the words “rowdy and fun,” “hope,” “good time” and “drop off” constitute any of those things? They simply do not. The fevered descriptions of the language and conduct do not fairly or accurately describe what occurred, and apparently, nobody notices or cares.
- For the epitome of this, look no further than the headline on Jezebel’s story: “Frat Boys Designate House ‘Freshman Daughter Drop Off,’ Helpfully Offer to Fuck Moms, Too” Wait…how did I miss the word “fuck” on those banners? The story continues its theme: “Photos of the helpful offers to fornicate with women across multiple generations in the university community have since gone viral.” Unethical, incompetent, hysterical, biased, stupid journalism.
But then, that’s Jezebel.
- Raise your hand if you don’t think the fraternity is being punished for the carnage at the University of Virgina following the Rolling Stone story about a fraternity party rape that never occurred. See, those fake misandrous attacks on behalf of poor, helpless women who are just rape victims in waiting for the evil male miscreants they attend college with work, even when they are exposed. Good work, Rolling Stone! Success, “Jackie,” whoever you are! Mission accomplished, Sabrina Rubin Erdely!
- Can the students be punished under the ODU’s Code of Student Conduct? Sure they can, because the Code, like most such codes, is so vague and based on subjective definitions that it could be used to punish almost anything. Can they be fairly punished? That’s a better question, especially since I could make a strong argument that the University, in its handling of the matter so far, has breached its own Ethics Code. For example, I’m not sure mischaracterizing, in public, the banners as encouraging violence and sexual assault doesn’t violate the pledge to “adopt policies and programs supporting the rights and recognizing the needs of all citizens regardless of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation, genetic information, or political affiliation,” unless fraternities don’t qualify.
- Over at Popehat, one of Ken White’s stand-ins has registered a post on this issue that is either too brilliantly subtle, too deftly satirical or too incompetent for me to decipher. The headline sounds right, apparently employing Ken’s tongue-in-cheek scorn, but the rest of the post by Adam Steinbaugh is so arch as to be incoherent. In particular, he seems to agree that the banners radiated intentions so vile that they melted the eyes. He just doesn’t think…well you tell me what he does or doesn’t think. I have no patience for this kind of writing, frankly.
- At Instapundit, Glenn Reynolds, in contrast, is clear as Crater Lake:
“My advice to these fraternity guys: (1) Immediately complain to the Department of Education and the Department of Justice that you’re being targeted because of your race and sex, and denied your First Amendment rights. No, nothing will come of this, but that’s not the point. The process is the punishment. (2) Sue on the same grounds. (3) The real killer: Go to the Virginia Legislature and tell them they should cut Old Dominion’s budget. Come prepared with figures on the number of administrators on campus now, versus 10 and 20 years ago. File freedom of information requests and get the travel expense figures for the folks in the administration. Look over them for suspicious and large expenditures. (You’ll find them!) Make a big stink about those.
Administrative bloat leads to large numbers of “student life” educrats without enough to do, so they’ve created a quasi-police-state to fill the time. State legislators are looking for things to cut anyway, and higher ed doesn’t have the clout it used to have. This will hurt them more than anything else you can do.”
I’m with Glenn.
- I think fraternities and sororities (I didn’t bother to post about the earlier social media freakout over this ridiculous but harmless sorority promotional video) are Petri dishes for bad conduct, warped values, retarded maturity and juvenile attitudes, and I applaud Dartmouth’s recent decision to do away with them. If a university is going to have fraternities, however, it should be estopped from expressing excessive disgust and shock when they act like fraternities. Yup, it was a tasteless gag that showed poor judgment, and momentarily embarrassed the Old Dominion, but that is all it was. It presented a time to teach, since that is theoretically what these over-priced institutions exist to do. Instead, ODU chose to grandstand and compete in the Political Correctness Bowl.
UPDATE: I just read Reason’s take. (We agree.)