Questionable photo leads to Penn State sorority’s probation

mdawson@centredaily.comDecember 6, 2012 

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    To the Penn State Community:

    In recent weeks and particularly in the past few days, it has become clear that some Penn State students celebrated Halloween in costumes and in a manner that offended others and was contrary to many of the most important values our (u)niversity seeks to advance among its constituents and in the world. These disturbing behaviors involved expressive rights protected under various federal and state laws — rights which we strongly support, and which we honor by not vainly pursuing unlawful disciplinary action against the students involved. But we also cannot refrain from expressing our own feelings of deep disappointment and dismay.

    How any constituent groups or individuals in the (u)niversity could behave with such insensitivity or unawareness is a question we must both ask and answer. Our (u)niversity is a place of learning and discovery, and there certainly are lessons to be relearned, or even discovered for the first time, from these incidents.

    The simplest of those lessons is that costumes that include blackface, or that parody or imitate a person or groups of people, are always offensive to someone. They convey either a lack of awareness about the human condition and human sensitivities or, worse yet, disdain for the thoughts, feelings, histories and experiences of others. They suggest a failure to empathize or even a failure to think. They make all of us small.

    Equally concerning is the psychological injury this does to individuals and damage such acts do to our sense of community. By emphasizing the superficial or stereotyped differences among us, these actions tend to stifle the sharing, collaboration, and common aspirations we require. Neither a university, nor a nation, nor civilization itself may long succeed if individuals or groups are encouraged to believe that they are neither welcomed nor appreciated.

    We believe deeply in the power of reflection and learning. We believe that individuals can change by learning, and that a university community, such as ours, exists to change and improve both individuals and the world. It is that belief that calls upon all Penn Staters, wherever they may be, to reflect for a moment on the value of diversity in the University and the broader communities we inhabit. We must both celebrate our differences and embrace our common humanity. If we can do so, on our campuses and beyond, we will be better, our university will be better, and the world will be better.

    How could we not?

    Rodney A. Erickson, President

    Paula R. Ammerman, Director, Office of the Board of Trustees; Susan M. Basso, Associate Vice President for Human Resources; Blannie E. Bowen, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs; Michael J. DiRaimo, Special Assistant to the President for Governmental Affairs; Henry C. Foley, Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School; Yvonne M. Gaudelius, Assistant Vice President and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education; David J. Gray, Senior Vice President for Finance and Business/Treasurer; Cynthia B. Hall, Acting Chief Marketing and Communications Officer; Associate Vice President for University Relations; Madlyn L. Hanes, Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses; W. Terrell Jones, Vice President for Educational Equity; David M. Joyner, Acting Director of Intercollegiate Athletics; Rodney P. Kirsch, Senior Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations; Robert N. Pangborn, Interim Executive Vice President and Provost; Harold L. Paz, Chief Executive Officer, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center; Senior Vice President for Health Affairs, Penn State University; and Dean, Penn State College of Medicine; Thomas G. Poole, Vice President for Administration; Damon Sims, Vice President for Student Affairs; Craig D. Weidemann, Vice President for Outreach

— The Penn State sorority whose members posed in a photo that surfaced this week mocking ethnic stereotypes has been put on probation by its parent organization.

Chi Omega leveled the sanctions against its Nu Gamma chapter at Penn State on Thursday and made the punishment effective Monday, when the photo showed up on a student blog.

“I am disappointed in the choices made by our Nu Gamma Chapter members, and we regret any pain caused,” said Chi Omega’s National President Letitia Fulkerson in a statement. “We are taking this situation very seriously. Chi Omega does not condone behavior that violates the organization’s policy on human dignity.”

The photo, taken at a Mexican-themed party around Halloween, shows more than 20 of the women posing for the picture, but two of them, with fake mustaches, are holding up the signs that have been widely criticized.

One sign says “will mow lawn for weed + beer” and the other says “I don’t cut grass I smoke it.”

It is not immediately clear what the provisions of the probation mean for the Penn State chapter of Chi Omega.

On Tuesday, the chapter’s president, Jessica Riccardi, apologized for the photo.

A Penn State spokeswoman said university officials were appalled at the behavior and intended to use it as a “teachable moment” to make them aware of diversity issues.

Fullerton said Chi Omega’s national staff would work closely with Penn State and its Greek student council to implement corrective measures.

On Thursday, university administrators including President Rodney Erickson, acting Athletic Director David Joyner, and the Vice President for Educational Equity Terrell Jones co-authored an open letter that was emailed to the university’s community and posted online. They urged the community to use the incident to reflect on diversity at the university.

“We must both celebrate our differences and embrace our common humanity. If we can do so, on our campuses and beyond, we will be better, our university will be better, and the world will be better,” the letter said.

The administrators said the incident caused them “feelings of deep disappointment and dismay,” but the students involved will not be punished because their behavior is protected by free speech.

“How any constituent groups or individuals in the (u)niversity could behave with such insensitivity or unawareness is a question we must both ask and answer,” the letter reads. “Our (u)niversity is a place of learning and discovery, and there certainly are lessons to be relearned, or even discovered for the first time, from these incidents.”

Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT.

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