By Ian Lovett
TEMPE, Ariz. — After a string of injuries and deaths at its fraternity houses, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the largest fraternities in the country, said it would no longer permit “pledging” as part of its initiation process for undergraduates seeking to join the organization, and would instead offer new brothers full membership within days of inviting them to join.
The change, which comes at a time when fraternities are facing scrutiny and lawsuits over their rituals, ends at Sigma Alpha Epsilon the long-standing tradition of forcing aspiring members to endure onerous, weekslong tasks of the type that have defined fraternity initiations for more than half a century. While pledging is not meant to be synonymous with hazing, which is illegal, in practice one often leads to the other.
“As an organization, we have been plagued with too much bad behavior, which has resulted in loss of lives, negative press and lawsuits,” Bradley Cohen, the president of Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s national organization, said in a YouTube video announcing the change in policy on Sunday. “In order to survive, we must change.”
In an interview Monday, Cohen said he had discussed the future of pledging with officials from other fraternities, adding that he hoped many of them would soon join Sigma Alpha Epsilon in abandoning the practice.
“I think a revolution is building regarding Greek organizations with hazing,” Cohen said in an interview Monday. “Without these changes, I think these organizations might not exist in the future.”
But on campus at several universities Monday, members of fraternities described pledging as essential to building meaningful bonds within the group.
“I truly believe the commitment you develop as a pledge — that’s where the roots are planted,” said Josh Hartley, a junior at the University of Southern California, where he pledged Phi Gamma Delta. “The people who are most committed as pledges turn out to be the most committed as brothers. Without that commitment, it turns into a drinking club.”
Given that Sigma Alpha Epsilon has chapters on more than 200 college campuses across the country, some students wondered if it would be possible to eliminate pledging, a tradition cherished by many alumni as well as students. “There might be a difference between eliminating nationally and eliminating pledging locally,” Hartley, 20, said.
Members of other fraternities said that while SAE needed to make a significant change, their organizations did not.
Certainly, Sigma Alpha Epsilon has been at the center of many of the problems that colleges around the country are dealing with, like binge drinking, fraternity hazing and sexual violence. Since 2006, nine people have died in events connected to Sigma Alpha Epsilon, according to an investigation by Bloomberg News.
Here in Tempe, in 2012, a freshman at Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s Arizona State University chapter disappeared after a night of drinking with his friends. His body was found in a lake, and the school later suspended the fraternity from campus. Last year, at the University of Idaho, a freshman was found dead under a bridge after a party at SAE.
The national organization tried to ban alcohol at Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity houses in 2011, but the university chapters voted down that change.
That same year, UC Davis revoked the status of its 50-member chapter for five years, following a pair of incidents in which alcohol had been distributed to minors during fraternity functions. UCD placed the fraternity on “conditional registration” status after the incident in 2009. The second violation prompted the university to close the California Kappa chapter of one of the largest national fraternities in the country.
Cohen said he was optimistic that the chapters would support an end to pledging at the fraternity’s national conference next year. In the meantime, the new policy has already taken effect, he said, and chapters found to be engaging in pledging of any kind will be kicked out of the organization.
More than a quarter of SAE’s revenue is currently spent on insurance, and Cohen said if that figure continued to rise, it would soon price the fraternity out of the market.
Douglas Fierberg, a lawyer representing the family of George Desdunes — a Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledge at Cornell who died in 2011 after he was bound, blindfolded and forced to drink — said he supported the move away from fraternity pledging. But he said the bigger problem at fraternity houses was alcohol.
“This is a start that should be recognized,” he said. “It’s not the end, but it’s a move in the right direction.”
Several fraternities abandoned pledging decades ago and said most chapters adhered to the ban. Sigma Phi Epsilon, for example, outlawed pledging in 1991.
Brian Warren Jr., chief executive officer of Sigma Phi Epsilon’s national organization, said that 30 chapters had been ousted in the last 10 years, and that during that time, the fraternity’s grade point average had gone up while legal claims had decreased.
“The word ‘pledging’ is tainted,” Warren said. “I think it encourages behavior that has no place in our organization — and I hope in any organization, no place in higher education.”
— Enterprise staff writer Cory Golden contributed to this report.