A man who is not a University of North Dakota student claims to have been taunted and assaulted because of his sexual orientation at the Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity near the UND campus. In response UND President Robert Kelley issued a campus wide email condemning the alleged incident, and treating it as though it were motivated by anti-gay sentiments, even as it remains under investigation.
That’s not sitting well with two student leaders.
“I’m disappointed by President Kelley’s rush to convict students in the court of public opinion without allowing due process to take its course,” former UND Student Body President Nick Creamer, who is in his last year at the school, told me in an interview yesterday evening. “At this point, local authorities have not issued any sort of statement granting credibility to the allegations that have been made.”
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]I’m disappointed by President Kelley’s rush to convict students in the court of public opinion without allowing due process to take its course,” former UND Student Body President Nick Creamer, who is in his last year at the school, told me in an interview yesterday evening.[/mks_pullquote]
Current President Matthew Kopp echoed those sentiments to me. “There is an active police investigation taking place as we speak and we need to wait until the full results of the investigation are available before any judgments can be appropriately made,” he said. “We live in a country where you are innocent until proven guilty, and that applies to the individuals involved in this matter as well.”
In a campus wide email sent just before 11:00am yesterday (see below), Kelley acknowledged that the incident is under investigation but didn’t shy away from characterizing it as something motivated by the alleged victim’s sexual orientation.
“This incident is even more disconcerting given that it followed the recent Grand Forks celebration of LGBT Pride,” Kelley said in the email. “As I stated at the culminating celebration of the Pride event, ALL are welcome at UND and are valued for the diversity of their background and experiences, culture and heritage, race, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, and other dimensions of personal identity.”
Echoing Kelley, a homosexual rights activist in Grand Forks who also ran for the legislature last cycle as a Democrat and is a former member of the UND student government, wasn’t afraid to conclude that the incident was motivated by animus against gays:
A Grand Forks Pride organizer Kyle Thorson had a different take, saying he was “sad to hear about any violence in our community.” The alleged assault occurred the same weekend as Grand Forks Pride.
“My hope is that our community steps up to provide support for this individual and others affected and that we continue to create a city where we do not tolerate violence toward any person based on their sexual orientation or any other immutable characteristics,” Thorson said.
UND spokesman Peter Johnson said he was “perplexed and disappointed” by the criticism. “There is not a ‘rush to convict’ in President Kelley’s message,” he told me in an email. “No one is found guilty. In fact, you’ll find ‘was reportedly’ (that is a factual statement; an assault was reported to law enforcement). The statement also says the incident is still under investigation. The statement is broader in scope than the incident. It doesn’t even specify which fraternity was reportedly involved.”
Yet Kelley’s reference to the occurrence of the event during the campus pride week event would seem to indicate that he feels that the sexual orientation of the alleged victim was an issue. Otherwise, why else mention it?
Creamer also pointed out that Kelley didn’t respond similarly to two recent incidents of alleged crimes involving UND employees.
Last month Robert William Beattie, who chairs the Family and Community Medicine Department at UND, was indicted on federal charges for allegedly possessing child pornography. On September 1 it was reported that Randall Scott Bohlman, the associate director of sustainability at UND, was arrested in a prostitution sting in Minnesota.
Neither incident warranted a campus-wide condemnation from Kelley, Creamer told me. UND spokesman Peter Johnson declined comment on both cases according to media reports.
“I can’t remember a time when UND has chosen to comment on an ongoing investigation related to an internal matter, but for some reason when students are involved those policies no longer apply,” he said. “Students deserve to be treated with more respect than President Kelley demonstrated yesterday.”
“No students, as far as we know, were involved in the other incidents that you mention,” Johnson said in response to Creamer’s comments. “Both of those situations are in the hands of the legal system.”
It’s worth remembering that UND has a not-so-great track record on this sort of thing. In 2010 the University of North Dakota suspended student Caleb Warner for three years after he was accused of sexual assault by a female student. But despite Warner’s accuser facing charges herself later that year for filing a false police report, the university refused to overturn the suspension until, succumbing to media and legal pressure, they relented in 2011.
The North Dakota University System also fought a bill in the 2015 legislative session which grants students access to legal counsel and other due process rights in campus proceedings against them. The bill, introduced by Grand Forks Republican lawmaker Ray Holmberg, passed despite the objections.
Meanwhile the adviser for Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity – an openly gay man who has been married to his partner for sixteen years – has told the Grand Forks Herald that he finds the idea of some of the fraternity brothers harboring anti-gay biases doubtful:
Randy Ritterman, an openly gay man and the UND fraternity chapter’s alumni advisor, expressed his doubts anyone in the fraternity was involved, saying Wednesday he was elected unanimously by the fraternity members as the chapter’s alumni advisor in early 2014.
“(My sexual orientation) was known quite well at the time. It has always been known,” he said, adding fraternity members often ask how his partner of 16 years is doing.
He did not know whether anyone else had been nominated for his position during those elections.
Ritterman said he has never heard of a person’s sexual orientation being an issue at the house and has never heard an anti-gay slur from any member.
When asked whether he believed it is possible there were one or two fraternity members of the roughly 45 whose biases he may not be aware of, he said, “I find that highly unlikely, given how active I have been in that organization,” pointing to his habit of Skyping in to weekly fraternity meetings and visiting the fraternity every month or every other month.
I spoke briefly with members of the Lambda Chi Alpha chapter, but they told me they have been advised not to speak about the matter which is currently under investigation.
It does seem, though, that the allegations against the fraternity are being given a different sort of treatment by the university – not to mention the media, frankly – because it fits a certain political narrative. It’s not clear yet what happened at the fraternity early Sunday morning, though the fraternity brothers have a solid character witness in Ritterman, and the fact that they were the ones who initially called the police that night helps too.
Hopefully a thorough investigation will reveal the facts, and maybe we can hold off on shoehorning this incident into some political narrative until the facts are established.