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What if the Machine can’t learn?

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The past year has provided an extraordinary opportunity for The University of Alabama community to learn some valuable lessons – or so I thought.

It began with the school board elections. There, local voters saw students being driven to the polls in limousines to vote for candidates they knew little about, in a district in which many of them didn’t legally reside, accompanied by improper offers of inducements for their votes paid for with money funneled through a group of Machine reps. When the whole thing blew up, it seemed clear there was a lesson here: If you want to be a secret society, stay quiet, and stay on campus.

The mess continued into the fall, when some brave students spoke out against continuing racial segregation by sororities. The national press got involved. Students marched. And finally, some positive steps were taken. There were lessons here, too. One is that one of the biggest problems with our Greek system is not the students, but some adults who can’t seem to move on. Another is that the administration wants positive change but will only move decisively when forced to by negative publicity. Yet another lesson was that 50 years after George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, our university still struggles with some very basic issues.

If this was the basic lesson learned this year – that change is possible, but very difficult – I might feel optimistic about where our university is headed. Now I’m not so sure.

Consider events on campus in the last month. The SGA elections were nearly a clean sweep for Machine candidates and were riddled with the usual problems. The Faculty Senate’s task force investigating issues on campus has held two public meetings so far, but few students, and certainly no open representatives of the Machine, have bothered to attend them.

And then there was the recent SGA Senate meeting. A remarkable 27 student senators voted to kill a bill supporting the integration of the University’s Greek community. The usual excuses were heard: The bill was a surprise, it needed to be studied in committee, and so on. Nonsense. The resolution was proposed back in the fall and withdrawn under SGA pressure. The issue of integrating the University has been around for 50 years. And the bill was killed, decisively and ignominiously. This story went national, too. Again, the administration did not get out in front of the story.

There’s a discouraging lesson to be learned from recent events. No matter what embarrassing conduct comes to light, some people will never learn. Secrecy, delay and apathy are their friends. They count on things blowing over. And soon enough, they are back to the usual, terrible behavior.

I have often declared that there are many good students in the Greek system. We wouldn’t have had any change this year without the current or former sorority members who broke the segregation story and introduced the pro-integration SGA resolution. But that’s no longer good enough. The system itself is a problem, and everyone – including those student government representatives who depend on it to win office – knows it. And it’s not just about an impersonal “system.” The Machine is not a “system.” It’s a group of individuals. Its representatives may spend more time socializing than conspiring. But when they act, they always act badly.

Whether The University of Alabama will finally move from the 19th century to the present is still an open question. But we can start by not kidding ourselves about some things. For one thing, alumni, donors and parents of the Machine’s leadership should no longer insist that these are “good kids.” Good kids don’t segregate, cheat, operate in secrecy and then rely on someone else’s money to hire a lawyer to clean up their mess.

And there must be consequences. If the University will not provide them, someone else must. The names of Machine reps who appear to have been involved in attempting to buy votes last summer appear in court filings. Their conduct raises serious questions about their fitness as future professionals. These students should know that some of us may need to report that information to the bar or other licensing authorities. Students should also urge national Greek organizations to get involved. The state, which helps subsidize the Machine houses through the University, should act too.

There are lessons for the University community also. First and foremost, as long as there is a secret society on campus, there will be problems. The Machine is not all-powerful or all-important. But as long as it’s around, every other problem will be that much more intractable. It needs to become a public, accountable group. Or it must be killed, forcefully and publicly.

I emphasize the word “publicly.” Modern institutions learn and thrive because they are transparent. In Alabama, the usual way of addressing problems is to urge that they be dealt with in private. If that worked, we would not still be discussing campus segregation 50 years after George Wallace. Next year will mark 51 years since the University integrated – and we still do not know whether the Old Row fraternities will follow suit.

The stories that have appeared in the national press this year have embarrassed The University of Alabama, but we only have ourselves to blame. The University community ought to have learned by now that we will avoid bad publicity only when we stop doing things that deserve bad publicity – when we stop following and start leading. Students, and everyone else, should speak out. We should welcome, even encourage, bad publicity until we finally make the University what it should be. Only then will we have learned something worthwhile. But the past month suggests that we haven’t learned it yet.

Paul Horwitz is a professor in The University of Alabama Law School.

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What if the Machine can’t learn?