Campus Culture Change: ‘Deadliest’ College Fraternity Nixes Pledging

By and John Hechinger | March 10, 2014

Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the largest U.S. fraternities and the deadliest, said it would ban pledging, citing the toll that hazing has taken on its recruits and its reputation.

SAE announced yesterday what it called a “historic decision” to eliminate pledging, typically a months-long induction period featuring secret rituals. During pledging, recruits have been subject to forced drinking, paddling and other abuse. At least 10 deaths since 2006 have been linked to hazing, alcohol or drugs at SAE events, more than at any other fraternity, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

SAE becomes one of only a handful of about 75 national fraternities — and perhaps the most prominent — to eliminate pledging. The ban, which takes effect tomorrow, may spur broader change among Greek organizations, fraternity and college officials said. There have been more than 60 fraternity-related deaths since 2005. Many victims were freshman pledges, considered the most vulnerable because many are away from home for the first time.

“This is a very big deal,” said Brian Madison Jr. president of SAE’s alumni association at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. “The fraternity set a line in the sand. The students will have to adapt and change.”

Alcohol Training

Under the new plan, SAE chapters will still recruit new members and extend them a “bid,” or invitation to join. Students accepting the bid will become full members almost immediately. All SAE members will be required to complete additional training, including alcohol education, during their college years.

In its statement, SAE lamented recent deaths and injuries and said the “bad publicity” it has recently received is “challenging and regretful.”

In December, Bloomberg News reported that SAE brothers at Salisbury University in Maryland forced pledges in 2012 to drink until they almost passed out, dressed them in women’s clothing and diapers and ordered them to stand in their underwear in trash cans filled waist-deep with ice. SAE members pay among the highest costs of any Greek organization for liability insurance and universities suspended or closed at least 15 chapters within the past three years.

In response, the head of the University of Maryland system and a state legislator called for tougher penalties for hazing.

Famous Alumni

SAE, based in Evanston, Illinois, has more than 240 chapters and 14,000 college members. Its alumni include Wall Street titans such as T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman-turned investor; and hedge fund managers David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital and Paul Tudor Jones of Tudor Investment Corp.

The organization has repeatedly said it has “zero tolerance” for hazing and noted yesterday that pledging was adopted only after World War II. SAE was founded in 1856 at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

In a statement to members, SAE’s national headquarters said college students will still be attracted to the fraternity once “we get rid of pledging.” Chapter leaders complained that damage to the fraternity’s “national reputation” has made it difficult to operate.

“We have experienced a number of incidents and deaths,” according to the statement, which SAE posted on its website. “We have endured a painful number of chapter closings as a result of hazing. Research shows that hazing, which hides in the dark, causes members to lie.”

Parent ‘Speechless’

Students who accept an offer to join will have 96 hours to complete a safety program named after Carson Starkey, a freshman who died of alcohol poisoning in 2008 during an SAE hazing at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Starkey’s parents said SAE’s move will save lives.

“We are almost speechless,” his mother, Julia, said in an interview. “It’s a much safer environment. The students won’t have to go through harmful traditions.”

Brad Snider, an SAE member at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, opposed the change even though he said it will make chapters safer. Without an 8-to-12 week pledge period, he and his fraternity brothers won’t have enough time to decide whether a recruit is “worthy” of being admitted, said.

“It only takes one member to bring down the entire organization,” said Snider, 20, a junior, who served as “pledge educator” and now teaches members SAE rituals. “For all we know, they may fail at their grades, and we hold grades to a very high standard. They may be socially awkward or extremely rude or disrespectful, and that will come back to us.

Culture Change

A few fraternities have already abolished pledging. Sigma Phi Epsilon did so in the 1990s as part of a broader change emphasizing member education and training. The move made chapters safer and boosted student grades, officials said.

“When you switch from the pledging model to this other concept, where everyone is equal, you are basically changing the culture,” Thomas Jelke, a member of its board of directors, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “You’re saying certain behavior is no longer acceptable.”

Richmond, Virginia-based Sigma Phi Epsilon, with 15,000 members, eliminated pledging partly because dangerous incidents were threatening the fraternity, Jelke said. The move by SAE may spur others to follow, he said.

“I believe it’s a game changer,” Jelke said.

Universities may now put pressure on other fraternities to stop pledging, said Mark Koepsell, executive director of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, a Fort Collins, Colorado, professional group representing administrators overseeing Greek Life. Fraternities will have to make sure that older students don’t haze new members, even without a pledge period, he said.

SAE “has recognized a large problem within their organization,” Koepsell said. “They have made a bold step.”

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