Five years after SAE: OU community discusses university’s efforts to address diversity, acknowledges more work needs to be done

Paxson Haws • @PaxsonHaws


round 9 p.m. on March 8, 2015, Isaiah Flowers’ power went out in Couch Center.

Moments later, he received a group message that brought even more darkness. Flowers opened the message and watched as a group of OU students from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity sang a racist song with racial slurs and references to lynching.

“There will never be a n—– in SAE! There will never be a n—– in SAE! You can hang ’em from a tree, but they’ll never sign with me. There will never be a n—– in SAE!”

The video had gone viral. 

Flowers didn’t sleep that night. Instead, he prepared and waited for the march he would attend at 6 a.m. He showed up on the North Oval dressed in all black. He wrote “UNHEARD” on a piece of tape, placed it over his mouth and marched across campus with hundreds of others.

OU student Isaiah Flowers walks in a protest on March 10, 2015 following the SAE incident. OU Daily File Photo.

“My life when I first got here, it was great,” Flowers said. “I was having the time of my life. But then when that event happened, it was just like a dark time.”

The weeks following the video consisted of marches, conversations and consequences. OU’s chapter of SAE was quickly disbanded by its national organization, and members were forced out of the fraternity house. Two students identified in the video withdrew under threat of expulsion, a new vice president role was created to focus on improving the university’s diversity and inclusion efforts, and more diversity training was promised. 

Now, five years after the university cut all ties with SAE, OU’s administration continues to look for ways to get diversity right on a campus that still feels the effects of that video over 1,800 days later.

Despite the changes made in the years since, racist incidents have continued to occur on OU’s campus. In February 2020, an OU Gaylord College professor used a racial slur during a class discussion sparking conversation and the call for changes. In 2019, rallies and marches were held after two instances of blackface. The Black Emergency Response Team formed to hold the administration accountable about making OU a more inclusive environment. OU Unheard had been created in January 2015 with similar goals.

With a new, renovated space for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, along with a new vice president in Belinda Higgs Hyppolite, the university may appear to be headed in the right direction. However, with racist incidents occurring as recently as February 2020, some students and faculty feel there hasn’t been enough change and accountability across campus.

“What’s changed?” said sophomore Jamelia Reed, an officer for BERT. “People have changed, but we’re in the same rotation … Unheard, they started almost (five) years ago, and we barely see a difference in what happened with them and then what it is now.

““What are you actually doing (OU)?”

‘You are disgraceful.’


ess than 12 hours after the racist video had been released online, it gained national attention.

“It was blowing up on social media,” said Lauren Whiteman, former OU assistant director of African American Student Life. “I mean blowing up, and we had never seen something we had shared get shared like that. We had gotten shares before, but that was wild. And then ‘Good Morning America’ called … and said, ‘Hey, call us. We’d like to interview you.’ And CNN did the same thing.

“All of a sudden, all of these requests kept coming in because it was making the news.”

By midnight on March 9, 2015, SAE’s national headquarters had closed its Oklahoma Kappa chapter, and the fraternity house had been vandalized with the words “Tear It D” spray-painted on an exterior wall. Today, OU’s Accessibility and Disability Resource Center is located inside the former fraternity house.

The morning after the video, on a dark and drizzling day, hundreds of students dressed in all black, with tape covering their mouths, gathered on campus and prepared to march from the president‘s office, through the Oklahoma Memorial Union and back to Evans Hall.

Former OU student Dalania Blocker at the protest following the SAE incident on March 10, 2015. OU Daily File Photo.
A participant in the Unheard listens to speakers on March 10, 2015. OU Daily File Photo.
A participant in the Unheard protest looks into the crowd with red tape over her mouth March 10, 2015. OU Daily File Photo.
Crowd of people at the Unheard protest March 10, 2015. OU Daily File Photo.
Crowd of people at the Unheard protest March 10, 2015. OU Daily File Photo.

“We expected … the usual people that come, maybe show up at a town hall — a couple hundred, two, three, maybe four,” Whiteman said. “I still don’t know how many people were out there, but I know it was a sea of people.”

Shortly before the demonstration started, former President David Boren addressed the video’s participants before the crowd and the media.

“You are disgraceful,” Boren said of the individuals in the racist video. “You have violated every principal that this university stands for.”

The following day, Boren issued an intent to expel the two men singing in the video, Parker Rice and Levi Pettit, and they both withdrew before their expulsion took effect. Rice apologized for his actions that evening.

“I am deeply sorry for what I did Saturday night,” Rice said in a written statement. “It was wrong and reckless. I made a horrible mistake by joining into the singing and encouraging others to do the same.”

Pettit apologized for the video on March 25 at Fairview Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, surrounded by black community leaders. Pettit voiced his appreciation of these leaders for taking him in and helping him understand the effects the video had on the African American community.

Two days after Pettit’s apology, Boren announced the findings of the investigation, stating SAE members had learned the song at a national chapter event and 25 former SAE members would be disciplined. These members apologized to black student leaders at OU and accepted their discipline, which included community service and sensitivity training.

“I got a chance to interact with those students, and I’m glad that I did,” said Professor Emeritus George Henderson, who has been a part of OU’s faculty since 1967 and was the first African American, along with his wife, to live in Norman. “They were demonized by who knows how many people on this campus, and they didn’t know them. The flashback for me — that could have been my uncle, that could have been my cousin hanging on a tree or kicked out of (their) community, and nobody really knew them.”

‘Hatred is systemic.’


hree days after the video, Boren announced the creation of a new role, vice president of 
university community, to handle OU’s diversity positions. Boren also said new diversity and sensitivity training would be implemented.

Today, the university community office has been renamed the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. A new vice president, Higgs Hyppolite, has taken over the department, and a new space has been renovated in Copeland Hall to serve as a central hub for diversity.

Jabar Shumate

Vice President of Diversity 2015-2018

Jane Irungu

Interim Vice President of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion  2018-20

Belinda Higgs Hyppolite

Current Vice President of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion

Jabar Shumate

Vice President of Diversity 2015-2018

The current associate interim Vice President for University Community, Jane Irungu, talks about her passion for helping under-represented students in an interview Aug. 29.

Jane Irungu

Interim Vice President of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion  2018-20

Belinda Higgs Hyppolite

Current Vice President of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion

First-year students at OU are now required to take part in the Freshman Diversity Experience. Students can complete this requirement through a three-part program at Camp Crimson or by taking stand-alone training during the academic year.

Boren’s quick response to SAE inspired Karlos Hill, now department chair for the Clara Luper Department of African and African American Studies, to seek a job at OU.

“I was just blown away by how decisive President Boren seemed,” said Hill, who came to OU in August 2016, just five months after SAE. “In terms of just saying, ‘This is not tolerated at OU. This is not who we are.’”

Despite the outrage and demonstrations, those directly affected by the video were not surprised by the racist act. Racism on campus had been a topic of discussion among black students for years, but they struggled to get the university to focus on it.

“None of us were surprised about SAE happening,” Whiteman said, who now works as a communications specialist. “We were surprised that the video actually leaked because these things happen all the time.”

David Surratt, who was hired as the university’s new dean of students and vice president for student affairs in January 2019, remembers one distinct moment of racism that he faced while a student and residential assistant at OU during the early 2000s.

Surratt came across two students in the dorms and reminded them about quiet hours and having visitors after a certain time.

“As I walked out off the floor and the door started to close, I heard one of the guys say, ‘That N-word can’t tell me what to do,’” said Surratt, who graduated from OU with his master’s in 2004. “And I immediately just, kind of just got enraged in that moment.”

He said he remembers going back into the room, getting in this student’s face and yelling loud enough that other students stepped out of their rooms to see what was going on. This occurred during a time when Surratt didn’t have anyone to talk to and was unaware of reporting opportunities.

Comparing his experiences with today’s students, Surratt said students now have more opportunities to process similar instances, resources to talk to and people to report to when racist incidents occur.

 “It’s not perfect,” Surratt said, “but we’re moving in the right direction.”

Similar to Surratt, Chelsea Davis, a co-founder of OU Unheard, said there was more support for black and brown students after SAE. Funding for events, speakers at conferences and scholarships increased. But while support was up soon after the incident, Davis said systemic changes weren’t happening, such as hiring changes and more support in human resources and in housing and food.

Even five years later, students say the university hasn’t improved much in those areas. Reed said she worries about OU’s amount of administrative turnover in the past year, failure to ask students for their opinions and lack of involvement from faculty and staff.

Faculty like Hill agree more needs to be done.

“As a faculty member, I can say that change and progress has felt really slow,” Hill said. “But there has been progress.”

Reed said there has been a lot of turnover in the Division of Student Affairs and in the Department of African and African American Studies. In the past year, OU has hired a new dean of students and a new vice president for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, has transitioned through two presidents and currently has Joseph Harroz as interim president, the third president in as many years.

With that much turnover in such a short time, it’s often hard to create true, meaningful change.

 “Hatred is systemic,” Henderson said. “I have yet to see systemic changes in this university.”

‘Where are you at the table?’


n Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, it happened again.

A video surfaced of an OU student, Olivia Urban, covering her face with black paint and saying “I am a n—–,” while her friend, Francie Ford, laughed and posted it to Snapchat. By Monday, the two students had withdrawn from OU, and then-President James Gallogly met with student leaders to hear their thoughts.

“Their theme to me was clear: OU must work toward cultural change at every level,” Gallogly said in a press conference on Jan. 21. “No one should have to worry about being mistreated and offended while pursuing their degrees or working at our university.”

This incident prompted Gallogly to initiate a multiphase diversity plan. According to OU’s website, the first phase included steps such as hiring a chief diversity officer and offering additional diversity training for students. The second phase includes building space for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and raising diversity and inclusion as a high priority. Changes to scholarships occurred, and a committee was set up to review the Student Code of Conduct.

Surratt, who was hired 11 days before the 2019 incident, said this committee was created to meet the request of activists and allies to have a zero tolerance policy for bias and hate speech. He said it was an opportunity for healing and discussions, and the committee completed its work at the end of the summer.

“I think that the important thing was the idea to navigate and understand ‘What does it mean to support constitutional rights?’” Surratt said. “Knowing that those same constitutional rights and those free speech rights are the same freedoms … that allow not only someone to say things that may be hurtful or harmful, but also allow us to eliminate those things.

“Speak out on it and challenge it in open dialogue.”

During the week of the blackface incidents, the “Rally to Stop Racism” was held to give students and faculty a chance to voice their opinions and frustrations. On Thursday, Jan. 24, hundreds gathered on the South Oval, linked arms, held signs and marched to the president’s office in Evans Hall. Leaders of the march intended to give a letter to Gallogly, but he was away from his office that day. The march ended outside the Union with speeches from the leaders.

Members of the OU community stand in front of Evans Hall as part of the Better Together March Jan. 24, 2019. Caitlyn Epes/The Daily
Members of the OU community hold signs at the Rally to Stop Racism Jan. 22, 2019. Caitlyn Epes/The Daily
Participants of the march lead everyone towards Evan Hall Jan. 24, 2019. Paxson Haws/The Daily.

“We needed to have a rally against racism because of what maybe students perceived as a lack of institutional response,” Hill said. “It’s okay to feel hopeless, given what you’ve experienced, and seemingly nothing to your eyes has changed, but I was just saying to them, you can’t stay hopeless, right? We need you, as a student, someone who attends this university, to be a part of the solution. We need your witness to help guide us to where we need to be as an institution.”

Amid all these events, students and faculty attempted, once again, to make change.

The Black Emergency Response Team was created by the Black Student Association to hear from the community, work with administrators and ensure “lasting change happens,” Reed said. Surratt said intercultural dialogue among different students, especially in greek leadership, has been highly encouraged since the video. And Hennessey Chism, former vice president of inclusivity for OU’s Panhellenic Executive Council, said her role was created in reaction to the racist video in January 2019. 

“This was totally reactionary,” Chism said. “They were actually planning on writing into the bylaws for 2020. But because of what happened in January 2019, they said, ‘No, we’re going to do it right now.”

Chism said, in her role, she required each chapter to write an Individual Chapter Diversity Plan with various points on how to increase diversity over the next year. Chism and her committee also wrote up Recruitment Best Practices, which included a list of do’s and don’ts for recruitment.

Greek life isn’t the only area of campus that has taken steps toward creating change at OU.

The Gender + Equality Center has received a new, expanded space for its office and more staff members, and OU is working to improve its counseling services. Since Surratt’s arrival, Student Legal Services became a full office under — and supported fully by — the Division of Student Affairs.

Hill, who was part of the search committee that hired Higgs Hyppolite, said he feels the university is on the cusp of some real change. He believes those feeling hopeless about diversity on campus can have hope in Higgs Hyppolite.

“We’re going to realize that we have one of the best, if not the best, VP for diversity in the country,” Hill said.

While Reed said she is thankful there are two people — Higgs Hyppolite and Surratt — sitting next to Harroz to have those conversations about diversity, it’s not people of color whose job is to teach others about diversity. She said getting out of one’s comfort zone and educating themselves is the way to change the culture.

On Feb. 11, Peter Gade, director of graduate studies and capstone professor in the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, used a racial slur during a class discussion. He called on a student who said journalists have to keep up with younger generations as they change. Gade said the student’s comment was equivalent to saying, “OK, Boomer.”

The class laughed lightly before Gade continued his comment.

“Calling someone a boomer is like calling someone a n—–,” Gade said.

The class immediately reacted, and one student informed him he couldn’t say that word. Gade quickly moved past his statement and continued lecturing. Some students walked out of class, and others left when class ended and Gade continued speaking over the scheduled class time.

“I’m not sure that (type of language) does (have a place in the classroom),” said Gaylord Dean Ed Kelley. “Perhaps it did once upon a time. Perhaps he was using it as an educational tool. We have no record at all of Dr. Gade, a distinguished professor who’s been on the faculty here for more than 20 years, of him ever using this term, much less any kind of other racially inflamed language.”

As of Feb. 14, Kelley said Gade would step down from teaching the class and would, along with other faculty in Gaylord, go through extensive diversity training.

Despite all of these changes, recent events still leave students wondering when change will come.

“Sometimes I’m very worried about the future,” Reed said. “You know, ‘student life, student affairs, diversity, inclusion, interim president.’ Oh, ‘diversity and inclusion.’ Where’s the provost? … You’re over admissions and recruitment. And when we’re talking about academics, you are the person. Yet I’ve yet to see you at any march and rally.”

Reed, along with many of her peers, wants to see and hear from the faculty and staff that don’t have to listen to and communicate with her regularly. She wants to see members of OU’s Board of Regents interact with students. She wants to see students speak up and use their voices.

And, most importantly, she wants to see real change.

“My question is, OK, we’re talking about diversity and inclusion on the forefront,” Reed said. “Where are you at the table?”


Editor’s note: It is OU Daily style to use “n—–” when directly quoting the racial slur it refers to.

Story by Paxson Haws

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