BIRMINGHAM Ala.—From the governor to a U.S. attorney, state and other leaders say they want to move past failed efforts and find a way to permanently end racial segregation in the University of Alabama’s Greek system. But for now they’re treading lightly in forcing change on sorority row.
Racial segregation in the system was thrust into the spotlight this month when the student newspaper quoted a member of an all-white sorority who said alumnae blocked undergraduates from accepting a qualified prospective member because she was black. A member of another all-white sorority said she moved out of her house after it failed to add a black woman as a member.
After days of controversy and a campus march, University President Judy Bonner on Friday said four blacks and two other minority students had accepted invitations to join some of the 18 white sororities at Alabama, and she expects the number to increase during the academic year. Gov. Robert Bentley called the news a “positive first step,” but it may be too early to tell whether changes will be lasting.
Because past efforts at integration failed to resolve the situation permanently, some alumni and faculty members have suggested that Greek organizations be ejected from their homes—many worth millions of dollars on the state-owned land at the university—to force compliance. Federal law prohibits discrimination in housing and education, and proponents of such a move say the mansions on Magnolia Drive, University Boulevard and other campus corridors are glorified student housing units with white columns and manicured landscaping.
“They could throw them right out,” said Kenneth Mullinax, an Alpha Tau Omega alumnus and part of a group of former campus leaders who funded a recent newspaper ad urging more campus diversity.
But the solution might not be that simple. John Myers, a Philadelphia attorney who represents colleges and universities, said ejection from the houses would only make Greek organizations even harder to oversee.
“The ability to effect change in those places would be much less if they were off campus,” said Myers, of the law firm of Montgomery, McCracken.
In a statement, university President Judy Bonner said “systemic and profound” change is needed and discrimination won’t be tolerated, but she also said the school would not force the organizations to accept certain people as members. She announced new recruitment rules aimed at increasing the chances for sorority diversity, but the changes stopped short of including an enforcement mechanism should groups fail to diversify for good.
U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance said her staff is looking at laws and has talked to “a lot of folks in Tuscaloosa” but hasn’t taken any formal action, such as filing a lawsuit.
“The best solution to a problem like this one is community-based, where people move forward because they are ready to move forward,” said Vance.
Myers said using existing laws or passing new ones to bring pressure on Greek groups to integrate racially may have unintended consequences for other groups, such as those based on religious belief or special interests.
Some critics seem rankled by what they see as leaders’ apparent hesitancy to confront the problem more directly.
Cleo Thomas Jr., an Anniston attorney who became the first black student government association president at Alabama in 1976 and later spent 19 years as a trustee, said administrators before Bonner have taken more direct actions to confront campus problems linked to fraternities and sororities.
In 1993, Thomas said, then-President Roger Sayers temporarily shut down the Greek-controlled Alabama SGA over allegations of wrongdoing in campus elections that included a cross-burning. And just last year at Alabama, Thomas said, administrators under then-President Guy Bailey suspended fraternity pledge periods amid allegations that new members were being hazed.
To some, the controversy at Alabama seems like a mystery.
Brandt Montgomery, a minister at an Episcopal church in Tuscaloosa, was among the hundreds of people who marched against segregation in Greek groups during a campus demonstration last week. Montgomery, who is black, was wearing a jersey with the Greek letters of a mostly white fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha.
Montgomery said he not only joined the group while attending the University of Montevallo, a small liberal arts school south of Birmingham, but was elected president by the majority-white chapter.
“It was just never a big deal in our chapter,” he said. “I don’t understand what is going on here.”
The Faculty Senate is set to meet Tuesday to address campus segregation at Alabama. Members last week said they wanted permanent change, not just temporary integration.