A December investigation by Bloomberg found that there have been nine deaths at Sigma Alpha Epsilon events since 2006 -- more than the deaths associated with any other fraternity. Bloomberg dubbed SAE the "deadliest fraternity."
On Friday, SAE announced a dramatic effort to reform Greek life: The fraternity will completely eliminate pledging, so that people offered membership will become full members immediately upon accepting bids. Many fraternities -- and many colleges and universities -- have looked for ways to decouple pledging and hazing, but SAE is effectively giving up that effort. And some of its members are outraged, saying that the organization is devaluing fraternity membership by letting people join without going through the process they experienced.
The fraternity's national Supreme Council ordered its 226 chapters to start abiding by the new rules on Sunday. While education programs about the fraternity's values (called the True Gentleman Experience) will be permitted, that will be for all current members, who will have equal status. And educational development will take place over four years, not just when people join the fraternity. The fraternity said it will move to close chapters that don't comply.
Many SAE members attacked the Bloomberg story when it appeared a few months ago, but the national fraternity on Friday acknowledged that it had both an image problem and a substantive problem. "The bad publicity Sigma Alpha Epsilon has received is challenging and regretful because we know that some of our groups have great new-member (pledge) programs and do the right thing," said the announcement. "At the same time, we have experienced a number of incidents and deaths, events with consequences that have never been consistent with our membership experience. Furthermore, 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."
The statement added that "the attack on our image is not the sole motivating factor behind the changes. The Supreme Council believes the time is now to embrace change in the way our groups operate in order to ensure our future success. And now is the time to lead the way among Greek-letter organizations. As a result, we may very well turn bad publicity into a positive, proactive image."
Some fraternities in the past have eliminated pledging. Sigma Phi Epsilon did so in the 1990s, creating a "Balanced Man Program" designed to promote growth among members throughout their time in college.
Ron Binder, associate dean of students at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford and co-chair of the fraternity and sorority knowledge-sharing group of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said that the SAE announcement was "a big deal," and could have broad influence because of the fraternity's size and stature.
"I think the problem is that we have tried and tried and tried to reform pledging. We have spent countless time and money trying to reform pledging and we still run into problems. So at some point you have to say is this the problem," Binder said. A Sigma Phi Epsilon member and district governor, Binder said that one of the problems with pledging (aside from hazing) is that it assumes that the education period for a fraternity is "eight weeks and not four years." But thinking about how to promote leadership and other values over a longer time period, fraternities can do more good, he said.
Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, said the announcement reflects the tragedies of hazing on many campuses. "Whatever good can come out of the fraternity experience is overshadowed by these horrific incidents, year after year," he said.
Kruger said he had a "caution" about the news. "This is a cultural issue, and it's going to be difficult. The fraternity is going to get a lot of pushback and this is going to depend on local chapters." Kruger said one danger is that pledging (and related hazing) will continue but will "just go underground."
Evidence of that cultural battle can be found on the SAE Facebook page, where many members are outraged, and some are vowing to continue pledging one way or another.
One comment: "Something given does not hold the same value as something earned. This is yet another example of how society expects to be given everything without putting forth any of the required effort. My time as a pledge was fun and when it was over I had a sense of accomplishment and brotherhood that these boys now will never experience. This wasn't a 'tough' choice, it was a coward's retreat."
Another comment: "Life isn't always fair and level for everyone, so why should getting initiated into the best fraternity in the nation be easy? Doing away with the pledge program is like giving all the kids on a youth soccer team trophies at the end of the season for doing 'a good job,' instead of earning a 1st 2nd or 3rd place trophy. People need to face adversity in order feel accomplished. Your pledge class becomes your best group of friends and trusted companions during the pledge semester because its your group, and the mission is to get initiated together and face any challenges that may come up together. I truly believe doing away with 'pledging' will deteriorate the quality of men chosen for our great organization, and rob the future members of SAE with valuable lessons like I picked up while I was a pledge."