As part of their pledging process, students in Syracuse University’s (SU) Theta Tau fraternity staged a skit that mocked disabled people, simulated sexual assault, and used explicit racist and anti-Semitic slurs and stereotypes. SU banned the fraternity permanently, and suspended fifteen of its members from the university for up to two years. Adjunct instructor Stuart Card expressed concern over the affair in an email exchange, and the university representative with whom he was corresponding reportedly informed him he would not be rehired to teach at SU.
Fifteen members of the Theta Tau fraternity, some pledges and some initiated “brothers,” were suspended from the university for two years after videos of skits they had staged were sent to the school newspaper, The Daily Orange. Created as part of their pledging process, the skits featured vulgar, offensive, and racist scenes.
Stuart Card was an adjunct faculty member in the SU Engineering College before his alleged firing in April 2018. According to his LinkedIn profile, Card worked at SU intermittently between 2011 and 2018. He characterizes his work at the university thus: “I enjoyed and learned from teaching: both graduate level special topics electives in Computer Science, mostly for practitioners in local industry and a military laboratory; and service courses for non-CS [computer science] major undergraduates. I regret that in the current political climate, where free speech on campus is suppressed, I cannot continue.” He lists AZ Enterprise, where he is a principal engineer, as his primary place of employment.
On March 30, 2018, pledges to the Theta Tau fraternity staged skits allegedly caricaturing their fraternity brothers, using racist, anti-Semitic, and ableist jokes. One of the skits was based on a member becoming mentally disabled after being “whipped” by his girlfriend, and the other depicted a member pledging always to hate black, Latinx, and Jewish people. Both mimed non-consensual sexual acts.
Videos of these skits were posted to a private Facebook group for the fraternity. Soon after, an anonymous individual sent them to the Orange, which released the first video on Youtube on April 18, 2018. Kent Syverud, chancellor and president of SU, suspended the fraternity almost immediately. On April 21, the Orange released the second video, and in response the university announced its decision to expel its Theta Tau chapter permanently.
The students involved claimed these skits were primarily intended to make fun of an older fraternity member, who was politically conservative. In a lawsuit filed against SU after the videos were released, five of the members characterized the skits as a “Roast [which] is a time-honored Chapter tradition that builds unity by satirically and hyperbolically depicting brothers.”
A few days after SU’s decision to expel Theta Tau, Card responded to an email about the matter from the College of Engineering and Computer Science, expressing his view that the university’s efforts to shield students from offensive opinions did a “disservice” to them and to the academic profession at large. He said he had been toughened in his youth by emotional and physical bullying, and that “coddling promotes weakness.” Card closed his email by urging the administration to “put me on a ‘do not hire as an adjunct any more’ list if you consider my position so objectionable as to disqualify me from further service.”
According to an email from the College of Computer Science and Engineering that Card shared with Inside Higher Ed, the university administrator who sent the initial email responded to his objections by saying, “Yes, I do consider your position to disqualify you from further service teaching our students. Your views do not align with the values of the college,” and “Kindly stop referring to yourself as an adjunct associate professor.”
Card released a two-and-a-half-page statement on April 23, 2018, titled “Why I am no longer SU faculty,” in which he described his contact with the SU administration and expounded on the reasons for his so-called “little protest” against the “propaganda” and “confusion…with which we are surrounded.” The statement and Card’s argument garnered him national attention and an interview on Fox News.
Though numerous news outlets reported that Card was “fired” for his comments, an SU spokeswoman asserted that in fact he had not been employed by the university since 2015.
Theta Tau members given two-year suspension and other punishment
Eighteen members of the fraternity, including both pledges and initiated brothers, were investigated by SU’s student affairs office and the Department of Public Safety in relation to the skits obtained and released by the Orange. The university filed formal complaints against all 18 in April, three of whom immediately accepted unspecified punishment. The remaining 15 went through the university’s judicial process to determine their punishment, according to syracuse.com. In the meantime, SU decided to remove those students “from academic participation,” instead making “alternate class and study arrangements” for them during the judicial process, reported the Orange. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to Syverud in May 2018 to demand that the disciplinary actions against the fraternity members be revoked. According to FIRE, SU violated the First Amendment rights of the students involved. The university proceeded with the students’ punishments.
The SU administration handed down its official rulings for the 15 students on June 5, 2018, finding them guilty of violating the university’s code of conduct and suspending them each for up to two years. The students will be required to re-apply to the university if they want to resume their education there, and they will have to prove they have committed themselves to academic or professional work during their suspension, read three books related to inclusion and/or bystander intervention, and completed 160 hours of community service.
Nine suspended fraternity members file suit against SU
Five of the Theta Tau members disciplined by SU anonymously sued the university in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, also naming Syverud; Pamela Peter, assistant dean of student rights and affairs; Robert Hradsky, dean of students; and Teresa Abi-Nader Dahlberg, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, as individual defendants.
On July 10, 2018, four more fraternity members joined the lawsuit, bringing the number of plaintiffs to nine. They claim that SU ignored the satirical context of the skits and unjustly painted the fraternity members as sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic in order to protect the university’s reputation.
Prepared by Gustav Honl-Stuenkel ‘20
Uploaded August 20, 2018