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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

What Would the Greeks Say

Ann Skeet

By Ann Skeet, Director of Leadership Ethics

The events at the University of Oklahoma last week, where fraternity brothers chanted racist refrains on a bus full of young people in formal wear, have offered us a chance to examine both personal and institutional leadership roles.

My definition of personal leadership is each person’s ability to master him or herself, which is borrowed, of course, from the wisdom of Plato: “Someone who would rule the world must first rule himself.” Personal leadership is defined by our interactions with others and the personal choices we make. Institutional leadership roles take into consideration how we are influencing others to act and how leaders motivate others to achieve outcomes.

The digital world offers almost too many opportunities for each of us to decide how to present ourselves online. Sometimes the choice is conscious, like the writing of a blog such as this one. Often, especially for the young, who are still developing their judgment and the filters needed to exercise it, the choices are unconscious. Parker Rice, the young man first identified as one of the chanters on the now infamous bus ride to an SAE Founder’s Day event, might believe the video of him chanting racist thoughts was an unconscious moment captured accidentally. Only he really knows how well it reflects his true feelings, and only the adult role models in his life can know what kind of example they have provided.

Does Rice’s behavior mean that he should be consigned to the same fate as Joe Paterno or David Petraeus? As I grow older, I have come to believe that hell is a condition we can experience on this earth. Paterno went to hell and so now has Petraeus. At the nadir of their professional careers, these men violated the very ideals with which they were most identified, laying bare the realities of the leaders they chose to be in their own lives.

I suggest two perspectives to keep in mind regarding Parker Rice. First, he is not of the age or experience that Paterno or Petraeus was when each betrayed such poor personal leadership. Still, Rice is living the nightmare many parents fear for their children in this digital age of instant fame—mistakes are rarely private anymore. I do not say this to excuse the words he says and the point of view they represent. They are racist words. I simply do not know at his age and point in his personal development if this means he is a racist person.

I do know that more quickly than Paterno or Patraeus, Parker Rice has accepted responsibility for his actions and apologized. Of course, it could be convenient to apologize and hope the world forgets. But it might be a solid development that young people are learning earlier in life that they need to accept responsibility for their mistakes and experience remorse.

And what of the president of the University of Oklahoma, David Boren, the institutional leader in this tale? He too accepted his role quickly and took action. Perhaps in doing so, he was a role model for the younger Parker Rice. Some will say Boren went too far, and point out that free speech means people can say whatever they want. Just because something can be said, however, does not mean that it should. President Boren has seized a moment, perhaps long overdue. To upend established institutions, even when they fuel discriminatory behavior, is a tough thing to do. If it were easy, perhaps the association between Greek life, alcohol, and sexual violence on campuses would have been enough to shut down fraternities and sororities long ago. But they have continued to thrive. I wonder what the Greek philosophers would have to say about these clubs that we, in the modern day, know as Greek.

It has been refreshing for me to learn that my college sorority, Delta Delta Delta, actually has a higher calling than running around campus singing songs that deride members of other sororities (which is one thing we did in my day). Today it supports St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital as its national service. If it did so in the 80s when I was on a college campus from which Tri-Delt has long since been expelled, I did not know it at the time.

How hopeful it is to think that today’s young people might respond well to being connected to the children who are treated at St. Jude? To believe that through this kind of activity, students learn there is something more important than making fun of another group, be it a race of people or simply those who chose an allegiance other than their own?

Perhaps we are evolving. By apologizing, Parker Rice has made an important first step on the road to repairing the damage he has done. David Boren has also made an important first step in updating the learning environments we Americans claim to treasure—our jewel of a higher education system, which is supposed to encourage thinking.

Whatever approach you favor in determining what is ethical behavior—be it a utilitarian view seeking the most good or the least harm; a belief that protecting individual rights is paramount; the pursuit of justice; the desire to advance the common good; or to exemplify certain virtues—it is getting nearly impossible to make an ethical case for maintaining sororities and fraternities. In the aftermath of the horrible, wounding words he and others spewed on their party bus, perhaps Parker Rice will provide leadership in an unexpected way, dismantling an out-of-date, out-of-touch exclusive practice, ironically known today as Greek life, on college campuses.

Mar 19, 2015

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