By Megan Grindstaff
Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s March 7 media statement called the decision to eliminate pledging from its fraternity experience “historic.”
And indeed, national reaction over the past month suggests the consequences of this decision reach outside the scope of the fraternity itself.
“I think it absolutely has the potential to be a game changer,” executive director and chief executive officer of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors Mark Koepsell said in an interview with Al Jazeera America.
“It will be interesting to see what the university response is,” Koepsell said. “If this works well, there could be pressure to ask other groups to do the same.”
Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s perceived influence in the national Greek scene comes from the organization’s size and long history.
According to its website, the fraternity has almost 250 chapters at various universities, housing 14,000 undergraduate members. In its 158 years of operation, Sigma Alpha Epsilon has initiated over 300,000 members into the brotherhood. The national website estimates 190,000 of those members are living, many of whom actively support the organization with participation in chapter life and monetary donations.
But as was the case when another national fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, abolished pledging in 1991, not every national fraternity is frothing at the bit to overhaul its pledging traditions and educational systems.
Kappa Sigma executive director Mitchell Wilson said his organization does not plan on making similar modifications to its 60-day pledge program. “We feel that our program is working just fine,” Wilson said.
Wilson also said he admires Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s proactive behavior in fighting hazing. “Any and all national fraternities who take action to eliminate hazing are to be applauded,” Wilson said.
In the early 1990s, Sigma Phi Epsilon removed pledging from its fraternity experience and implemented the Balanced Man Program, featuring a focus on equality of members and fraternity education throughout the college experience.
“Over the past two decades, SigEp has recruited more men than any other collegiate fraternity,” said Sigma Phi Epsilon on its website. Given the direct correlation in time, Sigma Phi Epsilon’s dominance in recruitment numbers could be a result of their pledge-free culture.
Franklin College professor Hank Nuwer said of Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s new education system, “What will happen without pledging is we won’t have the kind of semester-long hazing that has led to so many of the deaths.”
Sigma Phi Epsilon’s Program, however, did not succeed in eliminating hazing. According to Business Insider, Sigma Phi Epsilon nationals removed the University of Arizona chapter from campus for three years as a result of hazing violations and continuing to have “pledges” despite the fraternity’s ban on the practice.
In 2013, the chapter at Purdue University was placed on probation for new member hazing, among other issues. Also in the past year, a chapter at Stetson University issued sanctions to its Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter after reports of hazing that included locking new members in a room and forcing them to urinate in water jugs instead of leaving to use the restroom, according to the Stetson Reporter.
Nor did Sigma Phi Epsilon’s Balanced Man Program eradicate the dangerous fraternity culture of the 1970s and 1980s, seen in movies like “Animal House”. In 2011, nationals closed the chapter at the University of Vermont indefinitely after members participated in a survey about rape, with questions asking whom a member would rape if given the chance.
The Balanced Man and the True Gentleman programs also don’t address another source of collegiate and fraternity endangerment: alcohol abuse.
According to The Washington Post, “Collegiate binge drinking is not confined to the fraternity house, obviously, but the two entities have a synergistic effect on one another.”
Furthermore, according to The Atlantic, Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s 96 hour rule may actually serve to exacerbate the negative aspects of the pledging experience on a condensed scale.
Under the rule, new brothers must be initiated into full membership within four days of receiving a bid in order to avoid any temptation to haze.
Consequently, there seems to be a national viewpoint that Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s ban on pledging is an incomprehensive attack on the negative aspects of the fraternity experience.
“In actuality, SAE may have replaced a two or three month pledge period with an intense, compressed, four-day binge-drinking frenzy,” said The Atlantic. “So while the policy is a step in the right direction, and definitely good for PR, it does little to mitigate the health risks of fraternity culture.”