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University president: SAE members learned racist chant four years ago

A racist chant that has embroiled a fraternity in scandal all began on a boat cruise four years ago, according to the University of Oklahoma president.

A racist chant that has embroiled a university and fraternity in scandal all began on a boat cruise four years ago, according to University of Oklahoma President David Boren.

He added during a press conference on Friday that chapter members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) learned the offensive song during a trip sponsored by the national SAE organization and, over time, taught it to other students as part of the informal and formal fraternity pledging processes. 

Boren read the results of an investigation that was launched after a video showed members of the local SAE chapter chanting a racist slogan. He said his address marked the end of the university's response and the beginning of a rebuilding phase.

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The national fraternity on Friday confirmed the University of Oklahoma's account of where and how the members likely learned the racist chant. "Our current findings at the University of Oklahoma are similar to those announced on Friday by University of Oklahoma President David Boren. But our investigation to date shows no evidence the song was widely shared across the broader organization," said SAE Executive Director Blaine Ayers in a statement.

He continued: “We remain committed to identifying and rooting out racist behavior from SAE, and we are actively investigating all of our local organizations to determine whether there are issues in any other location."

On March 7, members of the chapter filmed each other singing, “There will never be a n***** in SAE.” They were on a bus ride to a founders' event in Oklahoma City. Boren said "a significant number" of chapter members consumed alcohol before leaving the fraternity house that night. High school students invited as part of the chapter's recruitment process were also present on the bus.

National SAE officers told NBC News earlier in the month that they were looking into allegations that other SAE chapters had participated in similar chants, and that the organization is working on expanding education and training programs. 

“We realize and own up to the fact that SAE has had a number of incidents, and things continue to surface,” SAE spokesman Brandon Weghorst told NBC News. He added, “We know SAE can do a better job.”

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About 25 students at the University of Oklahoma are facing disciplinary action — ranging from permanent withdrawals and community service, to mandated-cultural sensitivity training — after a video surfaced earlier this month showing a busload of fraternity members chanting a racist remark, Boren added on Friday. Two of the 25 students were expelled.

The university's Office of Student Affairs immediately launched an investigation. University officials conducted more than 160 interviews to determine the origins of the chant and how it was passed between members. The fraternity’s house closed on March 8, and members were forced to vacate the building by midnight two days later.

Earlier on Friday, officers of the chapter met face-to-face with student groups affected by the behavior. They offered personal apologies, and the leaders of the organizations accepted those words, Boren said. One of the former university fraternity brothers captured on the video apologized this week to those he had hurt, and said he would pledge his life to fighting racism. 

“The song is horrific and does not at all reflect our values as an organization,” said Ayers in Friday's statement. “If we find any other examples of this kind of behavior currently occurring, we will hold our members accountable, just as we’ve done in Oklahoma.”

Boren said he couldn't determine whether the national chapter of SAE is racist or not. Instead, he wrote a letter to the executive director at the national organization's headquarters in Illinois, asking about its own investigation into the chant, and the extent to which it is taught to chapters at other universities.

Starting in the fall, every incoming and existing student at the university must undergo diversity-sensitivity training "because we have to better understand each other and each other's needs," Boren said Friday.

He also noted that next week he will disclose his appointment of a new vice president for the university community.

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Boren said federal law and university policy prevent him from disclosing each individual's name and disciplinary action.

Boren first spoke out about the video in a statement he posted to his Twitter account. He later said the university doesn't have room for "racists and bigots."

The incident presented the opportunity not only to make the sense of community and family stronger on campus, but also to reach out to the entire country to make a difference, Boren said.

"This is not just a problem here at this campus," he said at the press conference. "This is a problem in America. We've had an epidemic of racism all across our country. Ferguson, Missouri, might be the best known case. But it's all across our country. Every day, every week there seems to be another one."