USC fraternity draws criticism for planning and publicizing a ‘war-themed’ party

The fraternity changed the theme on the day of the party but failed to delete advertisements until after the party had ended.

Tau Kappa Epsilon is a member of the Inter-fraternity Council at USC

USC fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) hosted a party on Feb. 25, which drew criticism from the USC community for “war-themed” depictions and advertisements. Most critics cited the insensitivity of such a theme during the invasion of Ukraine and a sensitive time in international politics.

The party, originally titled “TKE Tropik Thunder,” was advertised on the fraternity’s Instagram account with clips of soldiers with guns, grenades and explosions, in reference to the Vietnam War satire film, “Tropic Thunder.”

According to the TKE President, sophomore Luke Hopkins, the fraternity members decided to change the theme from “TKE Tropik Thunder” to “TKE Tropik Jungle” after the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Hopkins said the hope was to shift away from themes of war and weapons while still being able to use some of the decorations and costumes that had already been purchased.

However, this change was not communicated publicly on the fraternity’s social media like the previous theme had been.

When asked why the fraternity did not just cancel the party, Hopkins said it came down to a financial issue.

Fraternity parties, like this one, can cost anywhere between $35,000 and $40,000, according to Hopkins.

Hopkins said that the social chairmen of his fraternity, who had organized the party, warned him that canceling so late would be a financial deficit to the fraternity and organization as a whole.

While critics understand the financial hit the fraternity might have taken from canceling the party, they pointed out that decorations, alcohol and other elements could have been saved and used at a later date.

“An excuse [about money] from a rich USC fraternity that gets hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, saying that they didn’t want to lose it all. I don’t accept that excuse,” said Maksim Franko, a Ukrainian student and senior at USC. “They could have done many things to minimize the impact of canceling or postponing the party. I don’t think financial reasons justify what they did.”

Franko said he found out about the party while he was looking at President Carol Folt’s Instagram post in support of Ukraine. Another student, Sow Ging Chen, had commented on the post hoping to draw attention to the party theme.

“I came across [the advertisement] online and thought, ‘what the fuck,’” said Ging Chen, a sophomore studying film and TV production. “Of all things to do and themes to throw, why this?”

Some of these sentiments were shared with fraternity members, who internally raised concerns.

“I think it’s really crazy that we’re throwing a party where everyone is gonna be wearing military gear and there are soldier murals at our frat when there’s essentially a world war starting,” said in a message in a private TKE GroupMe provided to Annenberg Media by Hopkins. “I think it’s in our best interest to embrace the jungle theme as much as possible, maybe mix some animal costumes in and paint over all the violence.”

Many of the party’s attendees donned camouflage print, as can be seen in some social media posts, which was interpreted by some as military attire.

The fraternity began working with Emily Sandoval, associate vice Provost for student affairs, student engagement, to change the theme starting on Friday, the day of the party. According to Hopkins, the fraternity discussed changing the theme after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

“It truly was a situation of bad timing,” said Hopkins. “That’s why everything was so last minute, our theme change didn’t get approved until the day of the party.”

The process of planning the party began as early as October 2021, and Hopkins noted that all approvals from the university had already been granted, which included approval of the original theme.

Ging Chen mentioned that he was surprised that the university would have even approved the theme in the first place.

Hopkins said that the fraternity debated announcing an official theme change on their social media to avoid confusion, but decided that removing the banner posted outside the house would have a similar effect.

The fraternity also believed that reaching out to sororities that they had invited to the event would communicate a theme change effectively.

“We’ve had this theme as our register for the past couple of years but we wanted to recognize and acknowledge the recent invasion of Ukraine,” said a message to the sororities provided to Annenberg Media by Hopkins. “We are encouraging our guys to be thoughtful about what they wear tonight and make considerate decisions. This is supposed to be a fun event but we don’t want it to overshadow a very serious situation.”

While TKE took steps to inform those within the Greek life community, the theme change and attempt to avoid criticism fell short in reaching the whole USC community.

Neither Ging Chen nor Franko were aware that there was a theme change for the party and believed that the party was still “war-themed” because the “TKE Tropik Thunder” advertisement video was still uploaded on the fraternity’s Instagram page several hours into the start of the party on Feb 25.

Screenshot from Tau Kappa Epsilon war-themed party video

Annenberg Media obtained a recording of the advertisement at 11 p.m. on Feb. 25, prior to its removal.

Hopkins said that the removal of the video was intended to display that the fraternity was no longer using the previous war-related theme. However, critics believe the removal served the purpose of protecting the fraternity from scrutiny.

Ging Chen quoted a common Chinese phrase that roughly translates to “if you’re a thief or, if you do something bad, you know that you’re in the wrong.” He believes that this is why the fraternity removed the video without providing any explanation or accountability.

“They’re trying to cover up and it’s something that we see quite often, unfortunately, in the past year at USC with the frats,” said Ging Chen. “They just don’t want to own up to their mistake, and if you don’t own up [to your mistakes], whatever you’re doing afterward is superficial.”

The fraternity has not posted anything on their social media addressing the theme change or backlash from the USC community.

While TKE notably took steps to move away from a “war-themed” party, Hopkins and others recognize that the fraternity fell short in prioritizing communication with those outside the Greek life social circle.

“In general, frats have a bad reputation from the scandals of last semester, and I don’t think they’re even putting in the effort to rehabilitate themselves,” said Ging Chen about the lack of transparency and accountability. “This is why I support the abolition of Greek life.”

Franko, however, said he does not hold a grudge against the fraternity, but would rather like to see them be more mindful of their actions and how it affects those around them.

“I am not the kind of person that expects an apology,” said Franko. “I just want the people in TKE to think about and understand how serious the issue [of war] is. They could have used this event to raise money, to spread awareness. They can still do a fundraiser or philanthropy event that would support Ukraine. They can turn the situation around.”

Franko, a former member of Phi Sigma Kappa, said that nobody from TKE or the Interfraternity Council (IFC) reached out to him regarding his posts about the party on Instagram. Hopkins said he personally reached out to Franko later in the week.

This issue has brought to light the question: should war-themed events even be held by fraternities or other organizations.

Hopkins said that although the “TKE Tropik Thunder” theme has been used by the fraternity for years, it is “just a party.”

Going forward, Hopkins said he intends to address the topic with his fraternity brothers and has no plans for TKE to throw any war-themed events or parties in the future.

“I don’t think there’s a reason to celebrate war,” said Franko. “Maybe if you had asked me two weeks ago I would have said something different, but I do not think there is a reason to celebrate war now.”

Below are several official and secure funds that you can donate to in support of Ukraine:

CARE’s Ukraine Crisis Fund

Doctors Without Borders

International Committee of the Red Cross

The Kyiv Independent News Fund

Voices of Children

World Central Kitchen