SPJ Louisiana addresses hazing violations in letter to administrators

Dr. Joseph C. Rallo
Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education
P.O. Box 3677
Baton Rouge, LA 70821-3677

Dr. F. King Alexander
Louisiana State University System President and Chancellor
3810 W. Lakeshore Drive
Baton Rouge, LA 70808

Dr. Jim Henderson
University of Louisiana System President
1201 N. Third Street, Suite 7-300
Baton Rouge, LA 70802

Dr. Ray Belton
Southern University System President
J.S. Clark Administration Building, 4th Floor
Baton Rouge, LA 70813

Dr. E. Joseph Savoie
University of Louisiana at Lafayette President
104 E. University Circle
Lafayette, LA 70504

​​​​​November 25, 2017

Gentlemen:

​The Louisiana Professional Chapter of Society of Professional Journalists wishes to express its profound concern regarding a lack of transparency and timely reporting regarding the incidents of fraternity hazing over the past several years at LSU and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Two deaths, one at LSU and one in Lafayette, have been linked directly or indirectly to hazing rituals. Fraternities at both schools have been investigated, expelled or suspended, but these actions were not made public for weeks, months or even years.

​After the tragic and senseless death of Maxwell Gruver from binge drinking as part of a Phi Delta Theta initiation ritual at LSU on Sept. 14, 2017, it wasn’t until a month later that The Advocate learned through a public records request that a concerned mother had complained to LSU more than a year earlier about such excessive drinking at Phi Delta Theta rituals. According to a story in The Advocate on Oct. 24, the fraternity received only a five-week interim suspension of activities in late 2016. Yet, that suspension went unreported to the media.

In Lafayette, an international student from Uzbekistan, Rustam Nizamutdinov, was struck and killed by a vehicle on Nov. 6, 2016, while walking along Johnston Street. Yet, it wasn’t until the following July that the local media became aware that the driver of the vehicle, Michael Gallagher Jr., was sleep- deprived as part of a Kappa Sigma initiation ritual and that the university had investigated the initiation practices and temporarily suspended the fraternity’s activities on Feb. 8. The university completed its investigation of Kappa Sigma in April, but it wasn’t known by the media until a whistleblower leaked that information in November. Why this secrecy?

In perhaps the most ludicrous comment in response to media requests for information, UL Lafayette declined further comment on the incident “out of respect for the judicial process and the multiple parties involved in this tragedy.” Respect for the judicial process? The judicial process in this country is open! The national headquarters of Kappa Sigma suspended the UL Lafayette chapter in July, but that wasn’t reported by the media until October. In November, Gallagher’s family sued Kappa Sigma and UL Lafayette.

​UL Lafayette expelled the Kappa Sigma chapter on July 14 and suspended four fraternities, Theta Xi, Kappa Alpha, Sigma Nu and Sigma Alpha Epsilon, after an investigation following Gruver’s death at LSU. These were certainly newsworthy developments, yet they weren’t reported until October because local media outlets had to pry the information loose with public records requests.

​The tragic deaths at Penn State, Florida State and Texas State show that this is a national phenomenon of public interest. It is the duty of professional journalists to inform the public of them. Yet, journalists in Baton Rouge and Lafayette have asserted that in seeking to report these stories, they have been met with stonewalling from university administrators. These cases might never have been brought to the public’s attention if it were not for public records requests and, in one instance, a whistleblower. Even then, school officials only grudgingly comply with the letter of the law in the public records requests, and there is no way of knowing if the information is complete.

The tactic of administrators has been to refuse comment or to refer journalists to the schools’ PR representatives, who then pass the buck to the national fraternity offices. A fraternity is not a tax-supported institution beholden to the public’s trust. If a university expels or suspends a fraternity chapter, that is an action that the university, not the fraternity, has an obligation to report to the public. Emails obtained by the Lafayette media through a public records request further revealed that UL Lafayette urged its Greek organizations not to talk directly with the media. The internal emails also discussed how to react if someone leaks information to the media. This suggests that stonewalling is a matter of institutional policy at UL Lafayette.

​According to one story in The Advocate, some unreported disciplinary actions against fraternities at LSU date back as long as five years! This suggests an institutionalized culture of secrecy.

​No organization likes negative publicity. But when universities sweep disciplinary actions against fraternities under the rug, when they throw up roadblocks to keep journalists from reporting them, they are sending a tacit message to those fraternities that they are willing to help shield them from public scrutiny and disgrace. The first loyalty of Louisiana universities and the systems that govern them should be to their students and their parents, and to the taxpayers, not to non-governmental, out-of-state fraternal organizations whose actions have been shown to be reprehensible and even deadly.

​UL Lafayette’s Mission, Values and Vision statement cites as one of its values:
“Transparency: practicing open communication and sharing information.”
​We therefore call upon UL Lafayette to live up to its own stated value. Unfortunately, LSU’s much shorter Vision and Mission statement makes no such commitment to transparency, but it should.
​This letter focuses on LSU and UL Lafayette—thus far. But are the hazing rituals at those two schools still being practiced at other schools in your systems? And if you determine that they are, will you be forthcoming and disclose such violations to the public?

Dr. Alexander and Dr. Savoie have dutifully taken action, if somewhat belatedly, against fraternity hazing and have pledged to root it out and to change the Greek culture. We commend them for that. But we also must insist that they, and other university administrators in the three systems, publicly disclose any future disciplinary actions against fraternities or fraternity members in a timely and transparent manner. We urge you to cooperate with the media, including student newspapers, instead of stonewalling them. Please remember this: In almost all cases involving organizational stonewalling or whitewashing, sooner or later someone who knows the truth will come forward and blow the whistle because it’s the right thing to do. Then those organizations find themselves with an even worse public relations nightmare, which they could have avoided by being open and transparent.

We hope you agree that the public has the right to information about fraternity hazing abuses. It shouldn’t take another tragic, senseless death, or another lawsuit, for that information to become public.

Sergy Odiduro
SPJ Pro Chapter President
​​​​​
Robert Buckman, Ph.D.
SPJ Pro Chapter Vice President

Cc: Gov. John Bel Edwards
P.O. Box 94004
Baton Rouge, LA 70804

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