Sigma Alpha Epsilon — dubbed “The Deadliest Fraternity” in America — banned new member pledging last week following the deaths of 10 fraternity members and pledges over the past decade.
While SAE is not the first national fraternity to move away from pledging, it is one of the largest and best-known. Another fraternity that has made this announcement — Sigma Phi Epsilon — offered its congratulations in a statement:
After learning that Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) would follow their lead by replacing pledging with single-tier membership and a better fraternity experience, leaders of Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity contacted their peers at SAE to offer congratulations and support on the historic news…
SigEp hopes that its two decades of experience challenging Greek stereotypes and operating a fraternity focused on the development and achievement of members without pledging will help SAE as they begin to make similar changes.
SigEp’s membership process has been lauded by anti-hazing activists. In a New York Times op-ed, Cornell University President David Skorton wrote that “acceptable alternatives to the pledge process must be completely free of personal degradation, disrespect or harassment in any form. One example is Sigma Phi Epsilon’s ‘Balanced Man Program,’ which replaces the traditional pledging period with a continuing emphasis on community service and personal development.”
However, SigEp’s experiences in Greek reform clearly show that banning pledging and reforming the new member process does not automatically lead to the end of hazing. In fact, SigEp has continued to battle hazing in its chapters since it launched the Balanced Man Program more than 20 years ago.
In a statement to Business Insider, SigEp national’s communication director Beaux Carriere condemned hazing and outlined the fraternity’s efforts to end it:
Hazing is a form of bullying, and any university’s student judicial records will show that bullying and its various forms are very much a problem among student populations.
SigEp teaches our new members early on about bullying, bystander behaviour and hazing prevention. Our members know that hazing is not a part of theSigEp experience, and they are willing to report it if they see it. We also work with parents and universities to make sure they understand our expectations for student safety and are willing to report behaviour that could lead to hazing. The moment a student is put in an uncomfortable situation by one of his peers, a line has been crossed. It doesn’t take a death or serious injury for us to take action. We have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to hazing, and we do everything in our power to ensure that it doesn’t happen.
It was our undergraduate members who realised that pledging was causing more harm than good, and our they asked for a reform to the pledging process in 1991. In 1992, we launched the Balanced Man Program, and its success has made it a demand-driven program since its inception….
It is important to note that The Balanced Man Program is more than the removal of pledging. Our members participate in programs and events that focus on academic achievement, healthy lifestyle choices, leadership development and preparing for a professional vocation.
The Balanced Man Program emphasises continuous education for fraternity members during every year of college, not just as “new members.” One part of the program that makes it so different than other Greek organisations, according to their website, is giving “a member full rights the day he joins, so he becomes a full contributor with equal responsibility.” More specifically, there is no pledging in the fraternity.
According to Carriere, 85% of SigEp chapters currently operate the reformed program, and the fraternity is “working hard to raise the funds necessary to support the Balanced Man Program at 100% of our chapters because we know it works.”
“We believe that telling a chapter they have to run the Balanced Man Program without giving them the staff support, volunteers and resources to implement the program would be like removing faculty from a college and instructing students to teach themselves<‘ Carriere said. “With the financial backing of our alumni, we are working to provide all SigEp chapters with the resources and support they need to implement the Balanced Man Program effectively.”
Though the Balanced Man Program began in the 1990s, hazing at SigEp chapters has not disappeared just because the national fraternity has banned pledging.
Carriere explained how the national fraternity typically handles chapters that have been found to haze new members:
Sometimes hazing happens when a member acts alone, your typical bully. But if bullying has been tolerated by a chapter at-large, we won’t risk the safety and wellbeing of our members. In partnership with our alumni and universities, we have closed chapters where this has been the case and have 30 fewer chapters today than we did 10 years ago. We typically return to a campus once the current membership graduates, and we’re able to recruit men who haven’t been a part of a culture that accepts bullying.
A quick search revealed a number of hazing abuses of new SigEp members over the past few years.
In one disturbing example, the Purdue University SigEp chapter was placed on probation for four years after a 2013 university investigation revealed significant new member hazing. As The Purdue Exponent reported:
New members were yelled at and required to do tasks, such as cleaning the chapter house daily and requiring them to be sober drivers, which the University characterised as demeaning and degrading.
New members were also given “puke buckets.” The buckets, normally used for decoration, can include messages that condone drinking and are given to new members by their “big brother,” an older member of a fraternity who serves as a mentor.
On Sept. 22, new members brought an inflated sex toy representing a naked female body to the France A. Córdova Recreational Sports Center to take photographs of the sex toy for laughs.
Purdue SigEp notes the chapter’s commitment to the Balanced Man Program on their website, writing, “Sigma Phi Epsilon is committed to developing its brothers throughout their careers at Purdue as GENTLEMEN, SCHOLARS, and ATHLETES. We are able to achieve this through the Balanced Man Program.”
The SigEp chapter at Stetson University also recieved sanctions for hazing allegations last year, as the university reportedly discovered that new members were locked in a room and “urinated in the water jugs because they may not have felt comfortable to leave and go to the bathroom,” according to The Stetson Reporter.
According to their website, Stetson SigEp “is not a pledging chapter. We have a Balanced Man ideal where we believe that, upon admittance, a new member has the same responsibility and impact upon the fraternity as a full brother.”
Hazing charges are nothing new to SigEp chapters, though. In 2008, the University of Arizona chapter was removed from campus for three years after several major hazing violations came to light — all while openly continuing to have pledges.
Carriere told BI about the University of Arizona chapter’s evolution:
After SigEp launched the Balanced Man Program the undergraduate leaders at the University of Arizona were unable to implement the Balanced Man Program. In 2007, SigEp closed the chapter because we could not provide a safe experience that supported the growth and development of Arizona students. When the chapter reopened in 2012, they began operating the Balanced Man Program…
The Arizona story is a great example of why it is so hard to make changes when students involved in a culture that accepts bullying are still on campus. To clarify the timeline, SigEp learned of allegations of hazing at the University of Arizona in 2007 and suspended all members and chapter operations. Arizona alumni worked with these students to understand and remove negative elements from the chapter so that operations could resume safely and free of hazing. Unfortunately, this attempt was undermined by former members of the chapter, and the house was shuttered in 2008. Today, these students have graduated and the young men on campus that have joined our new chapter are able to focus on the Balanced Man Program and all the advantages that come with it.
The Arizona Daily Star described the hazing that occurred in 2008 at the SigEp chapter’s “History Night:”
Divided into groups of 10, the pledges rotated through rooms of the house behind University Medical Center and were asked to squat with their backs pressed against the walls and learn about the goals of pledging.
The pledges were asked to memorize traditions and recall one another’s names while being yelled at and intimidated.
And when one pledge didn’t behave as he should — members thought he was disrespectful — a dozen pledges were lined up and slapped one by one.
When a pledge ducked to avoid a slap, he was hit a second time and then had his shirt ripped off.
Among other instances of hazing was a particularly nasty description of making new members learn a song:
The most serious violations revolved around daily song practice, during which pledges sang traditional fraternity songs while members listened.
The investigation details that members threw paper balls at pledges, shot spitballs at them and pushed them while they sang. Some members threw ice down the pledges’ shirts, the investigation said.
On Fridays, the underage pledges were forced to drink beer while they practiced the songs. The pledges were told to drink until they vomited, with garbage cans put out for them to use, the investigation details.
After they finished vomiting, the pledges would have to resume singing and drinking, according to the investigation.
While it is certainly laudable that SAE is working towards decreasing the danger that has become associated with many of its chapters, it may need to do more than just banning pledging. For many, hazing has become an integral part of the fraternity experience, and certain chapters may continue offensive and illegal traditions regardless of their national fraternity’s actions.
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