Nation’s Second Largest, And Deadliest, Fraternity Ends Pledging

CREDIT: Creative Commons
CREDIT: Creative Commons

The second largest national fraternity in the United States, Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), made the decision on Friday to end the process of pledging — effective immediately, for all chapters, on all college campuses across the United States. SAE has over 240 chapters across the country and currently has 14,000 active student members and 190,000 living alumni.

The announcement came via video statement from Bradley Cohen, The National President of SAE. In the video, Cohen was critical of the pledge process, saying it effectively reduced pledges to “second-class citizens.” The pledge process will be replaced by a new-member educational process called the “True Gentleman Experience” in which new members will learn the history, traditions, and significance of the fraternity.

SAE is the fifth member of the North-American Interfraternity Conference to end the pledge process on a national scale, and major players in Greek life believe that the growing trend toward this decision will be “a game changer” in the future of Greek-letter organizations across the country.

The hope is that ending pledging will lead to an end in the hazing practices that all too often occur during this time period. The pledging process is meant to be a multi-week educational process in which new members, “pledges,” learn about the history and tradition of the fraternity while strengthening their bonds and friendship with their fellow pledges and future “Brothers.” But it’s during this time that hazing occurs — the process of inducting members by making them complete a range of tasks can emotionally harm pledges or, in some cases, cause bodily harm or death.

In December of 2013, Bloomberg labeled SAE the nation’s “deadliest fraternity”, after it found that a 9 pledges had died during the pledging process since 2005. It is perhaps this label that sparked SAE’s decision to end pledging altogether.

But SAE’s decision can be more than a simple move to cover themselves from bad labels and lawsuits. It’s also going to give them to chance to the head off the discussion on the progressive changes fraternities can and are willing to make to ensure the safety of its members and hopefully allow Greek-letter organizations to shed their awful labels and stigmas.

SAE is a particularly good candidate for this. Its own founding documents, its manual The Phoenix, give a compelling case against the old pledging process. It describes the motive of the fraternity: “to perpetuate through the organization the warm friendships he and his friends had already formed on the campus of the fraternity”. This motive continued and only when members were convinced that a potential new member was trustworthy and reflected the values of SAE would he receive a bid. In a sense, this meant that a brother did not go through the traditional structure of a pledge process in order to become a member of SAE, but rather it was done prior to receiving a bid. Last Friday’s announcement marks a return to this style of recruiting new members.

The key question now is, how does this translate to practical modes of recruitment on college campuses and how it will affect the recruitment of the other organizations that have banned pledging? For SAE, it will mean starting the recruitment process before the traditional Greek “Rush/Recruitment Week” begins during the school year. At many large schools, freshmen are allowed to rush and join an organization in the fall of their first semesters on campus, but SAE may not be able to accommodate this structure, since a few weeks is not enough time to meet and assess the quality of as many potential new members as possible.

So, this could result in the various Campus Inter-greek organizations to change the structure of the recruitment process. But what does that look like? One example is what smaller schools and liberal arts colleges are already doing.

During my own experiences at Occidental College as a Brother of the California Epsilon chapter of SAE, I have found our Greek-letter community functions differently from other schools. My chapter of SAE began a new instruction process at the beginning of the 2013–2014 academic year after evaluating how our process compared to the problems that have been exposed. We changed to a pledging process focused solely on education, it essentially became an additional class for our new members during the semester and eliminate any potential opportunities for hazing or for anyone outside of our chapter to interpret our actions as hazing. In my chapter, we are fortunate to be at a liberal arts college that embraces growth and progress, has encouraged us to find new ways to be a part of the campus, and supports the recent decision from our National Office.

The recruitment process at Occidental College does not permit first-year students to join Greek-letter organizations in their first semester. We instead opt for an “informal recruitment” process for non-first-years in the fall semester and a “formal recruitment” process in the spring semester, where all students are allowed to participate. The two different recruitment processes have allowed the Greek-letter organizations at Occidental College to recruit smarter and guarantee that the organizations know the person receiving the bid, before the bid is even extended — consistent with the philosophy of the Phoenix founding document for SAE.

The end of the pledge process marks a pivotal time for Greek-letter organizations; Mark Koepsell, executive director and chief executive officer of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors has said “if this works well there could be pressure to ask other groups to do the same.” SAE’s decision may end up serving as the catalyst for widespread reform, and an end to the hazing that’s formed a negative stigma around the entirety of Greek life. Should this measure drastically reduce the quantity of hazing incidents, it would be cause for other organizations to evaluate their pledging processes as Koepsell predicts. If SAE can change, then so can all Greeks.