Penn State president Rodney Erickson admonished students who wore costumes and held offensive signs in photographs circulated on the Internet, but said in a campus-wide letter Thursday that the school won't pursue disciplinary action.
The letter didn't specifically reference the photos or name the Chi Omega sorority, which has apologized. But Erickson said it became clear in recent days that some students “celebrated Halloween in costumes that offended others” and acted contrary to university values.
One sign in the photo of sorority sisters says “will mow lawn for weed + beer.” Two women holding signs are wearing fake mustaches. Others in the photo wore sombreros.
Erickson said the “disturbing behaviors” were protected by free speech rights. He said he was disappointed and dismayed, but hoped that lessons would be learned from the case.
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.
Erickson says that individuals can change and that change can help the world as a whole.
“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,'' he added.
Also Thursday, a posting on the Chi Omega national chapter's website said the Penn State sorority has been placed on probation. The posting cited members “portraying inappropriate and untrue ethnic stereotypes at a social function.”
Chi Omega's Memphis-based national office said it was working closely with Penn State and the school's Panhellenic Council to “implement corrective educational directives for the chapter.”
“I am disappointed in the choices made by our Nu Gamma Chapter members and we regret any pain caused,” Chi Omega national president Letitia Fulkerson said in the statement. “Chi Omega does not condone behavior that violates our organization's policy on human dignity.”