The members of George Mason University’s Sigma Chi fraternity had little reason to believe their annual “Dress a Sig” fundraising event was politically incorrect. To those present last April 4, the proceedings seemed innocuous if a bit raucous. Participating sororities paraded members of Sigma Chi in women’s clothing across a stage, eliciting hoots and applause from the boisterous crowd of Greeks. Among the contestants was a “Sig” whose corresponding sorority had dressed him in blackface and strapped a pillow to his backside. After the men strutted their stuff, the audience voted for the “ugliest girl” in the bunch. The event helped to raise over one thousand dollars for the Cleo Wallace Center, a home for abused children.
It is doubtful that Sigma Chi or the cooperating sororities had racist or sexist intentions. With its 25 percent minority membership, Sigma Chi is one of the most integrated fraternities on campus. One of its members, Archibald Kao, of Oriental descent, is serving as the president of George Mason’s student government. Gamma Phi Beta sorority, which dressed the fraternity member in blackface, has minority members in several leadership positions.
The Greeks could not have known they were inviting the wrath of George Mason University. The event had been approved by university officials, and the “Dress a Sig” contest of the previous year had been conducted on university grounds without controversy, as had a “lip-sync” contest in which white participants dressed in blackface. The participants in “Dress a Sig” were therefore surprised when, two weeks later, enraged letters written by various university officials and addressed “to the campus community” appeared in university buildings, denouncing the event as “hurtful,” “offensive,” and “insensitive.” One letter demanded that Sigma Chi respond by showing “a willingness of the membership to participate in programs involving intercultural and gender issues.” This was required, the letter threatened, “to substantiate their claim that Sigma Chi and the Greek system at GMU are important contributors to the positive development of campus life.” Dean of Student Services Kenneth Bumgarner informed the participants that the incident would be investigated by the university.
Meanwhile, leaders of various student groups that claimed offense at the event had organized a closed forum, moderated by administration officials, to discuss the issue. At the “suggestion” of Dean Bumgarner, Sigma Chi and Gamma Phi Beta agreed to participate and sent several representatives. The frightened Greeks, aware of the possibility of serious punishment, were not allowed to speak; they sat quietly while their fellow students excoriated them. The offended parties spoke interminably of their suffering and demanded reparations from the Greeks. The facts were discountenanced; only emotions were deemed legitimate topics of discussion. At one point, John Singsank, the president of Sigma Chi, was ordered to stand and face two minority members of his fraternity. “How do you think you’ve made them feel?” he was asked angrily.
By the end of the forum, the sorority representatives were in tears, confessing their guilt as they held hands for mutual support. One of the sisters, herself of Arab descent, babbled almost hysterically. “I’m so sorry,” she sobbed. “I’m so guilty!”
The Sigma Chi representatives, Archibald Kao among them, apologized repeatedly and profusely in a frenzy of self-deprecation, calling themselves “stupid” and “ignorant.” Russell Hopler, co-president of the Student Coalition Against Racism and one of the organizers of the forum, was so shocked by the way the Greeks were intimidated and humiliated that he recanted his involvement.
The written apologies of the offending groups, blown up and posted by the university for all to see, were equally submissive and apologetic. “There is no excuse for our insensitivity and lack of forethought. We will never be able to apologize enough for our behavior,” wrote the president of Gamma Phi Beta sorority. Sigma Chi strove to sound politically corrected. “We now see the insensitivity of our actions and have a new perspective on cultural issues,” wrote Singsank.
Two days later, Dean Bumgarner’s “extensive examination” culminated in a decision. No formal hearing had been conducted, and Bumgarner admitted to the Washington Post that no written rules had been violated. Nevertheless, he wrote in yet another posted letter, “steps must be taken to ensure that there is no repetition of this repugnant conduct.” Sigma Chi was placed on probation for two years, during which time they are forbidden to conduct any activities, on or off campus. The Gamma Phi Beta sorority was placed on probation for one year. “Our constitutional rights have been completely thrown out here,” said Singsank. “The university has taken away our freedom of speech and our right to due process. We were never charged with anything.”
Exceptions were made for the initiation of new members, and events “with an educational purpose directly related to gender discrimination and cultural diversity.” Sigma Chi and Gamma Phi Beta were ordered to “plan and implement an educational program addressing cultural differences, diversity, and the concerns of women.” In a surprisingly explicit phrase, Bumgarner revealed that “The exceptions to the ban on fraternity events reflect a premise that these events will create a desirable attitude among the participants and will, in effect, be building a future cadre of students to assist in promoting positive attitudes towards these issues.”
Finally, Bumgarner warned the punished Greeks not to defend themselves. “The membership is cautioned to avoid any response or action that could be viewed as antagonistic or detrimental to the offended parties,” he wrote.
University student organizations hastily issued a plethora of resolutions and statements in support of the administration. The Broadside, George Mason’s student newspaper, published an editorial praising Bumgarner’s decision as “carefully considered and reasonable.” The student government senate issued a statement condemning “all events and activities that intentionally or unintentionally offend or hurt any members of this university”—apparently unaware that they were denouncing all controversial speech. Even the Interfraternity Council, a body of fraternity representatives, denounced Sigma Chi’s actions and imposed its own, less draconian sanctions on the fraternity.
Although only one of the sororities was punished, all of the sorority members who had participated in the event were told that their actions were sexist—even if they were not aware of it. They were ordered by Bumgarner to develop programs to “address issues related to . . . gender discrimination and stereotyping.” The sorority women, wrote The Broadside, “have chosen to acquiesce in the tradition of sexism so ingrained in our society (including the Creek system).” Said the director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center, Karen Rosenblum: “The sororities, whether consciously or not, had recreated and participated in sexism.”
Sadly, a campus that had been relatively free of racial tension became a veritable tinderbox. “Before this incident I never judged a person by the color of his skin, but now it does go through my mind,” said one bitter sorority member, who added that many of her friends feel the same way. Instead of promoting harmony among Mason students, the politics of “multiculturalism” have created division and strife. Yet since the disciplining of Sigma Chi the administration has only gone further with its “multiculturalist” crackdown.
When students applied to perform an act in which they would imitate the black singer Aretha Franklin (without blackface) during a “lip-sync” contest at the university’s annual Mason Day celebration, they were denied permission by a university official. “He told me that the act would be considered racist and sexist because six white men were performing it,” said John Kirchhoffer, one of the applicants. Another group that applied simply to dress as women while dancing to the ZZ Top song “Legs” was forbidden to do so, and finally had to perform in towels. (Only a day after the canceled Mason Day events, the university’s celebrated Center for the Arts presented a ballet, “Trochadero de Monte Carlo,” in which men dressed as women and parodied ballet classics. The university charged up to twenty dollars per seat.)
Apparently the university police are now being used to apprehend thought-criminals. In its latest posted letter as of this writing (June), the university complained of “Racist, Homophobic, and Derogatory Flyers” posted in bathrooms, and requested that informers who “have any information about who may have distributed these flyers, please contact the nearest campus police officer.”
The rise of “multiculturalism” at George Mason University was a surprise to many who viewed the university as a safe haven for conservatives. A rapidly growing Virginia university located close to Washington, D.C., Mason has made a name for itself by attracting prominent conservative intellectuals to its faculty. Few outward signs of the coming changes preceded the administration’s new policy, though there were some: two years earlier, the university had established a formal “cultural diversity” program, which included sparsely attended seminars teaching, among other things, the evils of “abelism” (prejudice against the disabled) and “heterosexism.” The university’s guide for interviewing applicants for Residence Advisor positions has generated controversy in recent months with its “Tips on Interviewing Black Candidates.” In the realm of expression, however, the university had remained quiescent.
Many students cynically attributed the policy changes to the university’s desire to appease Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder, who has sought to reform the state campuses according to his own liberal formula. In the 1990- 92 budget, George Mason suffered significant losses. Classes had been canceled, tuition rates had increased, and even some parking lot lighting had been disconnected. One student senator who had voted to support the administration admitted to me that his motivation had been to attract more state funding to the university. He claimed other senators had voted for the same reason. Indeed, Wilder congratulated the university for its response to “Dress a Sig” during his commencement address to graduating Mason students. “Mockery, exclusion, or intimidation of any kind are antithetical to intellectual enlightenment,” he said.
George Mason University, however, has yet to hear the last of the “Dress a Sig” controversy. As I write, Sigma Chi is preparing to file a lawsuit against the university on First, Amendment grounds. In the end it may be George Mason himself, through the Bill of Rights he drafted over two hundred years ago, who protects the liberty of students from the university that bears his name. One may wonder if he would have found humor in this irony.