The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity has a long and storied history of shitty antics at many of its chapters nationwide. This year, however, they've faced heightened scrutiny, which ultimately led to them being labeled the "deadliest" fraternity by Bloomberg News. The bad press apparently escalated so much that SAE decided to cut their pledge process all together, a decision they're calling "historic."
What is a fraternity without pledging? As Bloomberg points out, there are few other nationally recognized fraternities that have done this. Starting March 9 (the fraternity's Founders Day), SAE's Supreme Council says the fraternity will be implementing the new True Gentleman Experience. The True Gentleman Experience is not a special kind of male escort service. It is a way to join the frat without the many months of hazing that have ended up endangering pledges in the past. "Our Supreme Council decided to enact this change between conventions in order to protect Sigma Alpha Epsilon's future and to eliminate a class structure between our new members and our active members," SAE writes in their release. With the True Gentleman Experience, once a prospective SAE member is offered a bid to the fraternity that he accepts, he becomes a brother in a short 96 hours. There is no alcohol allowed at events during this period.
SAE appears to hope that the hazing process that typically fell under the umbrella of "pledge education" will be eliminated or lessened with this shift. In fact, pledge education has been cancelled entirely and will be now referred to as Member Education, a process that all members will undergo throughout their years in college and beyond. Year one is called The Loyalty Experience ("Not allowing yourself to be hazed," "Substance Abuse Education" and "How to Tie a Tie" are possible education programs), years two and three The Friendship Experience ("Sexual Health Safety from Campus Official") and year four The Honor Experience ("Email and Phone Etiquette").
In the True Gentleman Experience document, SAE subtly reflects on their history of violence, if not on racism and sexual assault issues:
Often, in a new member's desire to belong, other members forgot our Ritual and values and sought to use their power over others and rob them of their dignity as men. The new member's desire to belong were so strong, they accepted the behavior, and brothers believed that new members had to prove their worth. In reality, our worth should be proven by the chapter's initial membership offer.
In an extensive FAQs section for fraternity chapters on the SAE website, the fraternity denies that bad publicity was the whole reason they made to this drastic change. They also say they hope to "lead the way" for other fraternities to follow suit:
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. 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. At the recent Eminent Archon Institute, our chapter leaders voiced their chief complaint: damage to our national reputation is making it difficult for them to operate.
But 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. We are making this change because it's the right thing to do and because we firmly believe in returning to what our Founding Fathers envisioned.
The language in the the release is quite firm. "If we find that the chapter is treating its newest members as second-class citizens, the chapter will be closed," SAE Nationals writes. They caution local chapters not to worry about men who might not want to join SAE because the parties that go along with pledging are gone: "Experience also shows us that these particular members create the most risk for our organization." In an effort to convince members that the pledge process isn't an integral part of their legacy, SAE argues that the development of pledging didn't happen until long after the fraternity was founded at the University of Alabama in 1856.
They also acknowledge that big part of the shift away from pledging has to do with insurance costs that come up around hazing:
Health-and-safety fees are based on a variety of factors, but with a long-term reduction in incidents, eventually we should see a reduction in the rate. Just as in any other type of insurance, reducing risk and, more importantly, reducing actual incidents and resulting claims, help to secure a lower rate.
They've also delivered a blow to anyone who likes to argue that there are many, many fraternity chapters that don't have issues with hazing, racism or sexual assault, so why are all frats getting a bad reputation? [Emphasis ours]:
We acknowledge that many groups maintain a positive experience for their new members and that the experience may be beneficial to the development of members on some campuses. Unfortunately, the instances of programs that do not follow suit outweigh the ones that do.
SAE wants to keep their power as an old, powerful fraternity, a power that's been perhaps irreparably damaged by mass media becoming hip to the problems within their ranks, problems that many others have known about for a long time. They also want to keep their power in the business, finance and political realms, which is why they mention that the ultimate goal of the True Gentleman Experience "is to provide the skills necessary for our members to excel in the professional world once they graduate."
The changes at SAE will not be smooth. This is a decision that affects hundreds of students, plus alums, not a school-specific decision to mandate open bidding. Current SAE members, alums and other fraternity members have already expressed their skepticism about the changes and SAE's Facebook page is filling up with numerous complaints. "I payed you dues for how many years? YOU we [sic] supposed to fight for us and our way of life with that money.... not roll over," wrote one alum. Others think this won't do much to end hazing. SAE National President Brad Cohen has been defending the move on Twitter, arguing that despite protestations, Nationals very much has the right to make the change. University of North Alabama's chapter has tweeted their support of Cohen and Nationals.
Of course, there are those who see SAE's decision as part of a much, much larger problem. As one Delta Tau Delta fraternity member wrote on Twitter: "SAE banning pledging is the epitome of the pussification of America."
Image via Montana State University Library/Flickr