In a recent viral post on Facebook, Undergraduate Student Government President Rini Sampath recounted a story in which a man allegedly hurled racially charged insults and a drink cup at her as she walked past his fraternity house. Sampath’s popular post — which has garnered thousands of likes and hundreds of shares — implored USC students not only to think about discrimination but also to stand up for fellow Trojans.
Sampath is absolutely correct: Enough is enough. USC should be a safe and inclusive place for all people. It is unlikely that anyone on this campus disagrees with that sentiment.
Trojans know that inclusivity is a problem at USC. In Spring 2013, nearly 80 LAPD officers aggressively broke up a house party primarily attended by black students, arresting six students in the process. USC’s response was to hold a public forum, but little changed. Recently, the “I, Too, Am USC” Tumblr page began detailing harassment against “marginalized communities,” according to the page.
But these words, as well-liked and frequently shared as they are, can only go so far. The greek system is powerful, entrenched and set in its ways at USC. Fraternities and sororities spend more effort on parties, matching t-shirts and hair flips than they do on improving their relations with marginalized communities. Those actions tell the USC community where greek priorities lie.
That’s not to say that everyone involved with greek life on campus is discriminatory or a bad person. Rather, as an institution, the greek system allows a certain level of intolerance from individuals and does not do enough to combat that injustice.
Problematically, USC seems to be gearing up for more talks instead of pressing for action. Monday morning the Washington Post quoted USC Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni, who said that USC wants “to create a dialogue” about the incident. Soni further said that Sampath will be able to create a conversation on campus. USC has hosted conversations before, from presentations and forums from nearly every group on campus and the high-profile discussion mentioned above after the incident in 2013, to investigations in student publications about race, identity and inclusivity on campus. These are all powerful voices, but they have obviously not changed race relations enough on campus to prevent the alleged racial attack on Saturday night.
Instead of more talks or discussions, the University and Sampath need to act. There are three ways to change behavior: carrots, sticks and sermons. Sampath, USC’s public forums and others have delivered the sermons — now it is time to use carrots and sticks to encourage change. Carrots encourage socially beneficial behavior, such as completing diversity trainings or incorporating new minority members into the greek system, by handing out USC- or USG-backed benefits to compliant greek houses. Sticks discourage socially harmful behavior, like hurling epithets or drink cups at others, by sanctioning noncompliant organizations and revoking their privileges.
To begin, USC needs to investigate this incident and be prepared to punish the alleged perpetrator. Soni correctly encouraged Sampath report the incident to USC’s Bias Assessment Response & Support office, which handles discrimination. But regardless of whether Sampath reports the incident, USC should investigate, and, if the alleged perpetrator is found to be culpable under applicable USC standards, punish him accordingly. USC’s Title IX office is already empowered to investigate sexual misconduct without a victim’s report “where there is evidence that a respondent (whether an individual student or organization) may pose a substantial threat to the safety or well-being of one or more members of the university community,” and the Bias Assessment Response & Support office should be similarly empowered, if it is not already, and should investigate this incident, because this kind of discrimination poses a substantial threat to the university community.
This problem will take more than words because the issue is entrenched in large, slow-changing organizations. No sermon, however powerful, will change intolerant behavior overnight in an institution as big as USC greek life. Instead, USC and Sampath must reward institutional and individual compliance with SCampus anti-discrimination policies, and, more importantly, punish malfeasance. Taking away the parties, matching t-shirts and hair flips that the Row holds so dearly will lead to compliance. Compliance will become acceptance, acceptance will become the norm and eventually diversity and inclusion will be an institutional value in USC greek life.
The student body and the student press should watch and ensure that USC and Sampath follow through with their promises to fight discrimination at USC. The University has a long history of hosting talks, but problems persist. Sampath also has a record of making promises and not following through. In a retrospective on the Menard-Sampath administration published in February 2015, the Daily Trojan noted, “Some of the hoped-for changes have yet to be made, though progress has been ongoing.” While that standard may be satisfactory for the dozens of campaign pledges Sampath made while running twice for school-wide election, it is not acceptable for an issue this integral to the Trojan Family.
Sampath’s words are powerful. She and USC need to follow them up with even more powerful actions to create lasting changes. USC will be watching.