Party brings debate to campus, leaves greeks on edge

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Graphic by Carly Rickards

In a Mustang News survey, 91 people anonymously answered, “In one sentence, describe how you feel about Cal Poly investigating a fraternity party deemed ‘offensive’ to Native Americans and women.” The above quotes are a selection of those responses.

Sean McMinn
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A Thanksgiving-party-gone-wrong left some fraternities and sororities under investigation this week and opened a discussion at Cal Poly about the university’s role in regulating off-campus behavior.

The Office of the Cal Poly Dean of Students began investigating at least three greek organizations for a colonial and Native American-themed party held near campus this past weekend, opening the door for charges of harassment and intimidation, Vice President for Student Affairs Keith Humphrey said. More organizations are expected to be added to the list of those under investigation, he said.

The university is not releasing the names of the groups under investigation until they face disciplinary action, per a decision between Humphrey and Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong made Tuesday.

But an email sent from the Cal Poly Diversity Coalition on Wednesday identified the host and theme of the party, though the university denied its sender — political science department chair and Diversity Coalition Steering Committee member Jean Williams — based the email on official knowledge of the investigation.

“We’ve been receiving many questions about the incident,” Williams wrote in an email to the coalition obtained by Mustang News. “As we understand it, last weekend the fraternity Phi Sigma Kappa hosted a party that they called ‘Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos.’”

Phi Sigma Kappa President and civil engineering senior Andrew Gulbronson declined to comment on his fraternity’s alleged involvement with the party Wednesday, but said he was, “made aware of the investigation and am working with the university on that.”

When contacted by Mustang News, Williams declined to comment on how the Cal Poly Diversity Coalition learned of the information contained in her email, which included six co-signors.

Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier said the email was sent without the approval of Dean of Students Jean DeCosta or Humphrey. After learning of the email, DeCosta contacted Williams to tell her the information it contained remained unconfirmed by the university, Lazier said.

“It sounds to me like the diversity folks maybe got a little bit ahead of themselves,” he said. “The investigation through the dean of students’ office is still going on. Right now, they are not 100 percent certain who was behind the event, so we are not sure who was responsible.”

Based on initial reports from neighbors near the party — which Humphrey said was in the area behind the Cal Poly Health Center — approximately 75 to 100 students wore “offensive” costumes. Those neighbors complained to the Cal Poly Dean of Students, telling Cal Poly officials the men were dressed in colonial attire and women came as “sexually explicit” Native Americans.

A group of Native American faculty also came to student affairs officials Monday and complained about the party, Humphrey said.

Themes like these are not unique to greek life at Cal Poly. Some “offensive” party themes at other schools were deemed so controversial, national media outlets reported on the stories.

Duke University’s Pi Kappa Phi hosted a “Pilgrims and Indians” party during the holiday season of 2011. A guest column in The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, brought national attention to the incident.

But the party that received the most attention on Duke’s campus was Kappa Sigma’s “Asia Prime” theme, which was renamed as “International Relations.” Despite the name change, the basic idea of the theme remained the same, and students came in stereotypical Asian attire.

“I’ve been at Duke for 20 years, and I’ve seen this happen every few years,” Orin Starn, chair of the cultural anthropology department, said in a different article in The Chronicle.

Pi Kappa Phi changed their policy of choosing party themes and now collaborates with other members and sororities they mix with — as opposed to a single individual — to be more appropriate in their theme choice.

Another event that grabbed national headlines was Penn State’s Mexican-themed sorority party by Chi Omega. A picture of a group of girls went viral online, showing them with signs saying, “I don’t cut grass, I smoke it,” and “Will mow lawn for weed + beer.”

Chi Omega’s national president apologized for the chapter’s behavior.

At Cal Poly, some disagreed with administrators’ handling of this past weekend’s party when they learned of the Dean of Students’ investigation.

In online comments on MustangNews.net, some in the Cal Poly community debated the university’s response and its implications for free speech.

“Would it still be completely offensive and absolutely unacceptable at our institution if it was just a “Thanksgiving Party” yet everyone dressed in the same scant Native American costumes?” one commenter asked.

“This event falls under Free Speech and Free Expression. Free Speech and Free Expression do not go out the window when someone is ‘offended,’” wrote another.

In an email to campus Monday, Humphrey and Armstrong decried the party, saying there is no place for events like it in the Cal Poly community.

“It’s very serious,” Humphrey said in an interview after sending the campuswide email. “I think its effects on our community are things we can’t even fully put our arms around, and that’s what makes it very disturbing. And we don’t know who something like this will offend, and they’ll choose to never come to Cal Poly, choose to not send their children to Cal Poly.”

Fraternities and sororities will be required to register all parties with the university beginning next quarter as part of an agreement earlier this year to loosen recruitment restrictions in exchange for tighter oversight of greek functions.

Humphrey said there is no pressure to speed up that process after this past weekend’s incident, but added that a party registration system could have prevented it from happening.

Cal Poly will hold a forum Friday to discuss racism and sexism. Lazier, Cal Poly’s spokesperson, said it will address the party under investigation, as well as broader cultural issues on campus.

Sara Natividad contributed to this story.

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