Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), one of the nation’s largest fraternities, announced it will end its pledging process for new members as the organization seeks to address concerns over hazing.
SAE, with 226 chapters and 14,000 undergraduate members, made the announcement last week in conjunction with its 158th anniversary. The fraternity's revised new-member process is called the True Gentleman Experience, which emphasizes education and equality among brothers, new and old.
The announcement comes on the heels of a Bloomberg report on fraternity hazing that labeled SAE the “deadliest frat” in the nation. Bloomberg reported 60 fraternity-related deaths nationally since 2005. Nine of those deaths are due to SAE-related events involving hazing, alcohol or both.
In the report, a Salisbury University student who pledged for SAE in 2012 detailed his experience. It’s a brutal account of the illegal hazing process that is said to prove a new member’s worth across college campuses.
The student reported that he and other pledges were forced to drink alcohol until one vomited blood. They stood in trash cans of ice for hours. On one night, pledges were locked in a basement together. No food, water or bathroom breaks were permitted—just hours of verbal and physical assault from older members.
In a statement , SAE says that the recent hazing incidents are “challenging” and “regretful” press, but the True Gentleman Experience is a return to principles developed by SAE’s founding fathers.
“There’s not one incident or event that spurred us to enact this change. The Supreme Council had been looking at a number of ways to improve the undergraduate experience over the past summer at our convention. This past weekend we turned 158 years old. We’re turning back to our values,” said Brandon Weghorst, associate executive director of communication for SAE.
SAE provides an overview about the program and its goals online. When new members receive a bid to join the fraternity, they have eight days to accept and be initiated.
The equal treatment of new and current members is one of the main goals of the True Gentleman Experience. The program mandates member education of all brothers, regardless of their academic year or time spent in the fraternity.
New members will no longer be classified as “pledges,” a title that dismissed founding values and rituals. Hazing by older fraternity members tries to assert dominance over new members.
“The new member’s desire to belong [was] 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,” according to SAE.
Salisbury’s SAE chapter is suspended through spring 2014 and faces a probation period afterward through spring 2015 for hazing, according to SAE’s list of health-and-safety incidents . Ten SAE chapters across the U.S. are currently either suspended, on probation or have lost university recognition due to hazing-related university violations.
Towson University’s SAE chapter is currently on probation through the spring 2014 semester. The chapter was not penalized for a hazing incident, according to Towson’s Interfraternity Council President Nicholas Lawler. Towson's chapter declined to comment.
Weghorst says the True Gentleman Experience is a way for chapters facing health-and-safety incident penalties to move forward and stand out among other fraternities on campus.
The idea of a 60-year membership process changing may be daunting to some chapters. Logan Connor, president of University of Maryland’s SAE chapter, says the changes make recruitment both harder and productive.
“It’ll make us think, ‘We’ll have a new brother in 96 hours. Who do we pick?’ We’ll be more selective. We don’t have big flashy events or a big house. We have to go out and find those guys. It’ll keep us on our toes,” Connor said.
Both Weghorst and Connor agree that the hazing-related incidents of some chapters don’t reflect the fraternity as a whole. The incidents and deaths have projected a negative image of the fraternity, but Weghorst and Connor are confident that the True Gentleman Experience will inspire other fraternities to create similar principles.
“We’re not the first fraternity to introduce something like this. I do believe others are watching to see how this will impact a fraternity of this size, and I believe they’ll have conversations about a model like this. It gives what a fraternity should provide,” Weghorst said.