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Deadliest U.S. Fraternity Grapples With ‘Historic’ Pledging Ban

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter stands on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, Kansas. Photographer: David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/McClatchy-Tribune via Getty Images
The Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter stands on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, Kansas. Photographer: David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/McClatchy-Tribune via Getty Images

March 10 (Bloomberg) -- College leaders, fraternities and their critics called Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s ban on pledging a milestone in the history of efforts to end hazing, saying it could save lives and spur other Greek groups to follow suit.

Yet, across the country, SAE members and other fraternity brothers voiced reservations, saying the ban of pledge pins and other traditions could damage the close-knit brotherhoods. Others warned of pledging -- and dangerous hazing -- going underground.

On Friday, the national organization overseeing SAE, one of the largest U.S. fraternities, announced what it called a “historic decision” to ban pledging, the months-long induction period for new members. At least 10 deaths since 2006 have been linked to hazing, alcohol or drugs at SAE events, more than at any other fraternity, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“As an organization, we have been plagued with too much bad behavior, which has resulted in loss of lives, negative press and large lawsuits,” SAE’s top official, Bradley Cohen, said in a video message yesterday, the fraternity’s 158th anniversary and the day the pledging ban took effect. “We have taken our bloodline for the fraternity -- our new members -- and treated them as second-class citizens.”

Fraternity brothers at SAE chapters across the U.S. this weekend mourned the end of pledging.

‘Coolest Experience’

“It was one of the coolest two-month experiences of my entire life,” said Robert Scales, a 20-year-old Dartmouth College sophomore. He gathered with four other members at his oak-paneled chapter house, where volumes of SAE history lined bookshelves, not far from a decades-old Miller beer sign.

In December, Bloomberg News reported that SAE brothers at Salisbury University in Maryland forced pledges in 2012 to drink until they almost passed out, dressed them in women’s clothing and diapers and ordered them to stand in their underwear in trash cans filled waist-deep with ice. SAE members pay among the highest costs of any Greek organization for liability insurance, and universities have suspended or closed at least 15 chapters within the past three years.

In response to the article, the head of the University of Maryland system and a state legislator called for tougher penalties for hazing.

In his message yesterday, Cohen, the top SAE official, known as the Eminent Supreme Archon, said he grew up in South Africa and compared pledging to apartheid. He spoke as news clips calling SAE the “Deadliest Fraternity” -- a reference to the December Bloomberg article -- scrolled on the screen.

The Reality

“The reality is that most pledging processes create cliques and factions in chapters because pledges were trained to believe they were to act as one unit,” he said. “Society does not act in this way.”

Michael Bronski, a senior lecturer in women’s and gender studies at Dartmouth, said chapters may not comply, undercutting the attack on hazing.

“National fraternities make policy,” said Bronski, who signed a faculty letter calling for an end to hazing. “Local fraternities don’t necessarily follow it.”

There have been more than 60 fraternity-related deaths since 2005. Many victims were freshman pledges, considered the most vulnerable because many are away from home for the first time. In the 2011-2012 school year, 325,530 students belonged to the 75 fraternities that are part of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, a national trade group.

Famous Alumni

SAE, with more than 240 chapters, 14,000 college members and 190,000 living alumni, is one of only a handful of national fraternities to abolish pledging. Its alumni include Wall Street titans such as T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman-turned investor, and hedge fund managers David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital and Paul Tudor Jones of Tudor Investment Corp.

At Dartmouth, long the center of controversy about fraternity misbehavior, Andrew Lohse, a former SAE brother who publicly attacked hazing in 2012, called the national fraternity’s move a “substantive change” and a vindication of his views.

“SAE is finally acknowledging that they have a problem and the problem is part of their structure,” said Lohse, 24. “The problem is not from the outside, not a few bad apples.”

Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson said the school applauds SAE’s effort to “reduce high-risk” behavior.

Full Members

Under the new plan, SAE chapters will still recruit new members and extend them a “bid,” or invitation to join. Students accepting the bid will become full members almost immediately. All SAE members will be required to complete additional training, including alcohol education, during their college years.

Students who accept an offer to join will have 96 hours to complete a safety program named after Carson Starkey, a freshman who died of alcohol poisoning in 2008 during an SAE hazing at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

“It’s heartwarming that Carson’s story has led them to make this move,” his father, Scott Starkey, said of Evanston, Illinois-based SAE. “I certainly hope that with SAE being a leader in their peer group, that others will follow.”

Travis Apgar, an associate dean of students at Cornell University, where an SAE sophomore died in 2011 during a pledge ritual, said SAE’s move shows that fraternities can abolish traditions. After the student’s death, Cornell shuttered its SAE chapter and limited what it calls “new member orientation” to four weeks. Five other houses at the Ithaca, New York-based school have been cited for hazing since January 2013, he added.

Members’ Safety

“We commend SAE’s recognition of the need to make changes that respect their members’ safety,” William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system, said in a statement.

Pete Smithhisler, president of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, backed SAE’s “bold initiative to eliminate pledging.” SAE becomes the fifth member of the conference to abolish the practice, along with Alpha Gamma Rho, Zeta Beta Tau, Sigma Phi Epsilon and, in 1972, Lambda Chi Alpha, according to the organization.

“SAE doing it could make a big impact,” said Thomas Jelke, a member of the board of directors at Richmond, Virginia-based Sigma Phi Epsilon, with 15,000 members. “I believe it’s a game changer.”

Some SAE members aren’t pleased. At West Chester University in Pennsylvania, a public institution with almost 14,000 students, dismay over the move prompted two SAE members to call on their house to take pledging “underground,” said Eric Johnson, a senior marketing major from New Jersey.

Brotherhood Experience

Johnson and others quickly killed the idea, saying it would be disrespectful of the national organization. Still, future recruits may abandon SAE traditions and feel fewer ties to one another because they didn’t undergo the months-long initiation, he said.

“What’s lost? The brotherhood experience,” said Johnson, 21, standing on the porch of his chapter house. Inside stood three stone lions, an SAE symbol of strength and togetherness. “When you pledge with people, you get really close to them.”

Brad Snider, an SAE member at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, said fraternity alumni are supportive of the move while his brothers oppose it. The brothers fear they won’t have enough time to evaluate potential members in the one week that the school sets aside for recruitment.

“They’re telling us we have three days to decide whether a guy is worthy or not,” he said.

Preserving Traditions

In its statement to members, SAE anticipated some of the concern, saying brothers can preserve traditions and spend their lifetimes learning about the fraternity, rather than during an intense initiation.

Brandon Weghorst, an SAE spokesman, said the national group recognizes the “possibility” that some chapters may take pledging underground. Those that do will be subject to sanctions, including closure, he said.

Few campuses will watch the effects of the ban more carefully than Dartmouth, in Hanover, New Hampshire. The college’s Alpha Delta fraternity inspired the 1978 movie “Animal House,” which cemented the organizations’ reputation for misbehavior.

In 2012, Lohse, the former Dartmouth member, alleged pervasive hazing at SAE, including forcing pledges to eat omelets made of vomit.

The Dartmouth SAE chapter violated alcohol and hazing policies during the spring of 2012 and was given two terms of college probation through the winter, according to the SAE national website.

Students Skeptical

Some Dartmouth students who don’t belong to SAE said they were skeptical the ban would spark changes in behavior on campus. Stuart Gharfoor, a senior from New Jersey, said hazing is so ingrained in fraternity culture that the university should just shut down Greek organizations.

“Unless the national organization does some kind of serious regulation, I don’t imagine it having much of an effect,” he said.

Inside SAE’s stately Georgian-style chapter house, with its red-brick facade and soaring columns, members said their pledging involved activities such as hiking, learning chapter history, watching movies, renovating a chapter fire pit and growing mustaches for “Movember,” the fundraiser for prostate cancer.

Alex Olesen, a Dartmouth senior and the chapter’s president, said he didn’t believe allegations of extensive hazing in his fraternity. In recent years, SAE has revamped its pledging and made sure its activities pass muster with the administration, he said.

‘A Shame’

“I’m disappointed,” Olesen, 21, said of the ban. “It would be a shame if we had to rebrand and dilute what I consider to be a very wholesome and positive experience because of this.”

Only sophomores are pledges, giving the fraternity time to make sure that members are already a good fit before the initiation, Olesen said.

Matt McFarland, a sophomore engineering major from Sherwood, Minnesota, said the bonding of his SAE pledge experience can’t be replicated.

“It’s so tragic that chapters do dumb, dumb, dumb things, and people get hurt because of it,” said McFarland, 19. “It’s so backward to the idea of a fraternity. Instead of cherishing your relationship with your brothers, you end up hurting them.”

To contact the reporters on this story: David Glovin in New York at; John Hechinger in Boston at; Michael McDonald in Boston at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Golden at; Chris Staiti at

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