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Sigma Phi Epsilon said Thursday it is leaving the North American Interfraternity Conference. Members of the University of Kentucky's Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house are shown in 2005.

Brian Tietz/Getty Images

Sigma Phi Epsilon is leaving the North American Interfraternity Conference and calling on the large fraternity trade association to do more to emphasize student safety, personal development and working with professionals on campus.

The fraternity's announcement on Thursday exposed simmering tensions between different fraternities and the NIC as hazing, drinking and sexual assault scandals continue to rock chapters across the country. It immediately set off a war of words.

SigEp said the NIC is no longer moving toward a set of 2015 reform goals established under a reorganization known as NIC 2.0. The fraternity’s leaders also touted moves it has made to remove pledging from its chapters and implement substance-free housing by next August. The NIC responded by rejecting SigEp’s departure methods and questioning the way it announced its decision publicly.

“The original vision of NIC 2.0 was one that could have been transformational for fraternity communities, but the Conference is no longer proceeding toward those goals,” Brian Warren, SigEp’s chief executive officer, said in the fraternity's announcement. “It’s clear that SigEp’s vision for how to enhance health and safety in the fraternity experience and partner with our host institutions has diverged from the NIC’s current approach.”

In response, the NIC posted its own statement saying it is disappointed SigEp is leaving and “offended in the manner” the fraternity communicated about its departure.

“NIC understands Sigma Phi Epsilon’s right to make decisions they feel are in [the] best interest of their members,” the association’s statement said. “However, we question their method of departing the NIC and reject their assertion that the NIC and its members are not aggressively promoting a positive and safe fraternity experience.”

In 2015, the following NIC 2.0 priorities were established:

  • Create an effective grassroots program for all Interfraternity Councils (IFC) and provide exceptional support for “Focus Campuses” in an effort to strengthen and build healthier fraternity communities.
  • Develop consistent educational programming for all IFC officers, staff and volunteers.
  • Create a database that allows members to make data-driven decisions, share best practices and streamline operations.
  • Lead a sophisticated public relations effort to advance the fraternity brand.
  • Produce effective advocacy programs that strengthen higher education partnerships and utilize governmental and legal affairs.

Then in 2018, the NIC passed a policy prohibiting drinks with alcohol content of more than 15 percent at fraternity chapters and events unless served by a licensed third-party vendor. The policy was to go into effect this September, although several short-term exceptions were built into the ban.

SigEp called the hard alcohol ban a “step in the right direction” that doesn’t go far enough to address underage drinking, substance abuse and their links to hazing and assault.

“We had hoped this collective of fraternities with a renewed sense of purpose would take the necessary steps to challenge archaic thinking and antiquated practices,” Ed Hammond, a retired university president who served as SigEp’s NIC governing council delegate and who was chair of the NIC’s Commission on Alcohol Abuse, said in the fraternity’s announcement.

SigEp has taken action against its own for alcohol violations recently. Last month, it revoked a West Virginia University chapter’s charter because of alcohol and risk-management policy violations.

By leaving the NIC, the fraternity is trying to make the most of its limited resources, Warren, the CEO, said in an interview. SigEp has had a seat on the NIC’s governing council for four years but found its delegate was having to voice concerns about positions that were being taken. He had to try to negotiate to make positions more palatable to those working for colleges and universities.

“There are a lot of people who have been asking for change, particularly our campus professionals,” Warren said. “We want to work with them to move faster, to think more creatively, to try new things, to move the needle.”

A sticking point between the fraternity and trade association was the NIC setting up what are known as independent interfraternity councils, which SigEp characterized as severing ties with host campuses. Warren said they operate outside of the reach of campus professionals. He called the approach antagonistic and not in the spirit of partnership with campuses.

Such arrangements have only been established at “approximately six campuses where there was a clear violation of students’ constitutional rights -- and only after other advocacy options were exhausted,” according to an email from an NIC spokesman. He did not name the instances but said they represent less than 1 percent of all campuses.

The NIC also pushed back on criticism of NIC decisions, saying SigEp “voted in all unanimously approved decisions” it is now criticizing, such as pursuing litigation to defend the fraternity experience at Harvard and Yale Universities, lobbying for the Collegiate Freedom of Association Act in Congress and developing protocols allowing for independent interfraternity councils to be created. NIC’s spokesman said the association has not reviewed all votes by SigEp’s representative, however.

Warren called the NIC’s hard alcohol ban a step in the right direction. But he called for more bold moves, noting that a large number of students living in fraternity houses aren’t of drinking age.

“We’re talking about hard alcohol,” Warren said. “We need to be talking about consumption in general and taking serious stands to provide a safer experience.”

All SigEp chapters are expected to operate without any pledging or reference to pledging, Warren said. Two years ago, the fraternity passed a substance-free facility policy scheduled to begin in August 2020. Currently, all common spaces at the fraternity’s houses are expected to be substance-free.

The fraternity wants to focus on new recruitment models and teaching young men skills such as sales, business development and communication, according to Warren.

In its public statement, the NIC pointed to efforts to implement industrywide health and safety guidelines, engage with student leaders and campus professionals, increase transparency, and eliminate hazing. It is also working to strengthen criminal hazing laws in Indiana, Tennessee, New Hampshire, Ohio and Colorado, its spokesman said.

“The issue of health and safety are not fraternity specific but critical issues being addressed across all campus communities,” the NIC’s statement said. All students, alumni and professionals have the NIC’s support in “advancing the fraternity experience” regardless of their membership in the organization, it said.

For his part, SigEp’s CEO is open to partnering with other fraternities.

“If there are like-minded fraternities that want to go down this path with us, we want to work with them,” Warren said. “And I know there are some out there that do.”

Fraternities have been under intense public and financial pressures for years as media scrutiny, legislation, lawsuits and campus suspensions mount in the wake of high-profile student deaths and sexual assault reports. Warren acknowledged financial pressures such as rising insurance costs but said SigEp’s decision was motivated by driving change.

“This is about making an impact,” he said. “It’s not about insurance. It’s about what we can do to advance student safety, student development and preparing young men for life after college.”

A lawyer who represents victims and survivors of school violence across the country called Thursday’s announcement a positive move.

“It’s a welcome sign that at least one fraternity is breaking from the pack to purportedly implement changes necessary to make its members and others safer,” the lawyer, Douglas E. Fierberg, said in an email. “Too bad the rest of the packs of brethren still embrace the status quo even though it has failed to prevent the unprecedented and documented numbers of injuries and deaths over the past several decades.”

From his perspective, Fierberg said the NIC’s main activities related to risk management are exchanging information and strategies for avoiding responsibility for tragedies.

“After every tragedy the public message coming out of the NIC and its membership is the same: We extend our sympathies, reiterate that we have a zero-tolerance policy for [fill in the blank], and promise to work with all stakeholders involved in the investigation,” he wrote.

This isn’t the first time a fraternity has broken ranks with the reorganized NIC for various reasons. Tau Kappa Epsilon resigned its membership in 2016, publicly stating that investing in the group “required sacrifices that would hinder vital services we are able to provide to our membership.” Lambda Chi Alpha resigned shortly before the NIC 2.0 changes were approved in 2015, saying the group’s new direction was counterproductive and didn’t support a co-curricular partnership with host institutions.

When the NIC passed its reforms in 2015, it reported a membership of 73 fraternities covering 375,000 undergraduates. Today, the group, which is based in Indianapolis, lists 66 fraternities with 380,000 undergraduates as members.

SigEp, headquartered in Richmond, Va., has over 13,000 undergraduate members at 210 campuses.

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