As students of The University of Alabama, we were both saddened and embarrassed last week when President Witt defended segregation in the greek community.
“It is appropriate that all our sororities and fraternities – traditionally African-American, traditionally white and multicultural – determine their membership,” Witt said. Effectively, he said that it is acceptable for organizations who build houses on University land, in some cases with University bonds, to continue to disqualify certain students from membership because of their race.
Obviously, that is not appropriate.
Segregation in the greek system isn’t limited to “traditionally white” or “traditionally black” organizations. Since President Witt arrived on campus, two new all white sororities have been established. They had no “traditional” race affiliation, yet neither have any black members.
Witt’s statement was only a partial response to five questions submitted to him by The Crimson White. If he had answered them in full, we may have been able to offer more insight into his thinking on this subject.
Unfortunately, when it comes to equality in the greek system, like other challenges on campus, the administration seems to prefer ignoring the issue to having a full and constructive conversation about it.
The Crimson White last asked Witt about diversity in the greek community in February, after a racial epithet was shouted at a black UA student from a fraternity house. When asked whether the segregated nature of the greek system contributed to that incident, he simply replied, “No.”
When asked to elaborate, he said, “I’m strongly tempted to say what part of ‘no’ is unclear, but I don’t think there was any relationship between the incident and our greek system.”
Witt classifies fraternities and sororities as “independent social organizations.” But when greek organizations want to throw parties, they are required to register them with the University. If they violate rules pertaining to alcohol or hazing, they can be put on social probation or kicked off campus. Only when they repeatedly discriminate against potential new members because of race does the University classify them as independent groups that govern themselves autonomously.
President Witt came to our campus with a great vision, and he has had phenomenal success in recruiting more, smarter students who have boosted our rankings and won prestigious awards. We are a better university as a result.
But when it comes to the cultural and leadership issues that define the character of our campus, President Witt has no vision. He just passes the buck.
It is one thing to lead a University through a period of outstanding numerical growth; it is entirely different to challenge a University’s students, faculty, and alumni to abandon the cruel and tired traditions that have divided this campus for far too long.
Our president is so averse to addressing these issues that he doesn’t even pay lip service to progress. He could have made a statement highlighting the excellent work leaders in our greek community are doing, through groups like Greeks T.I.D.E. and other forums, to promote diversity and equality. Instead, he chose to disregard those student-driven initiatives and defend the indefensible status quo.
Perhaps most troubling, though, is that President Witt’s recent comments on racial divisions in the greek community were much more defensive than his earlier comments. In 2003, he said he was optimistic a multicultural student would be accepted into a white sorority that year. Eventually, Carla Ferguson became a member of Gamma Phi Beta, realizing Witt’s vision.
But no black girl going through rush this year was successful. Why does the administration care less now than it did then? Is our culture so engrained with prejudice that, after eight years on campus, President Witt has become less supportive of greek integration? Or has his willingness to lead just diminished?
Going forward, it is our sincere hope that President Witt and the UA administration will at the very least speak candidly about the racial issues that seem to produce national headlines for our campus every few years. Students, staff and alumni should demand real answers from the leaders of this University.
Our View represents the consensus of The Crimson White editorial board.
Questions submitted to President Witt:
1. Dr. Witt said in 2003 that he thought the small pool of black women, coupled with media pressure on them, was impeding the integration of sororities. Those comments were made almost 10 years ago–the university has grown to 31,000+ students since then, significantly increasing the pool of candidates. Media coverage on the issue, as well, has significantly dropped off since Melody Twilley was on campus in 2000-2001-2002. In Dr. Witt’s view, what is impeding the acceptance of minority students, specifically black students, into traditionally white sororities today?
2. Is it necessarily important for the image AND culture of the University for black students to be accepted into traditionally white sororities? Please address both separately (image: how prospective students and alumni–donors–view the University; culture: the different sentiments and opinions of students on campus as affected by the University’s history, which includes a legacy of segregation.)
3. Dr. Witt said in 2003 that he was confident “sororities would make a good-faith effort at diversity.” Does he feel they have done so?
4. Does Dr. Witt support active administrative involvement in the integration of sororities? Why or why not?
5. Does Dr. Witt agree or disagree with the sentiment, expressed in past faculty senate meetings, that segregated sororities should not be allowed to reside on campus? Why agree or why disagree?
The University offers a wide range of options for students to become involved on campus, including nearly 400 organizations that appeal to a wide range of students’ interests and needs. I encourage all students to take advantage of the many academic, social and volunteer opportunities available at the University during their time on campus.
Approximately 25 percent of our student body participates in the Greek system at UA, which includes traditionally African American, traditionally white and multicultural sororities and fraternities. The organizations that make up our Greek system regularly participate together in campuswide programs and co-sponsor events and initiatives. As independent social organizations, it is appropriate that all our sororities and fraternities – traditionally African American, traditionally white and multicultural – determine their membership.