Northwestern’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter is in the process of permanently eliminating its pledge system, a nationwide change the fraternity’s national leaders mandated last week.
The fraternity’s national headquarters, which are located in Evanston, announced its plans March 7 to replace its new member classification system with a four-year member education program called the “True Gentleman Experience.” All brothers will be required to participate, regardless of length of membership. The change came partially in response to a growing number of dangerous incidents nationwide related to fraternity pledging and hazing, national SAE spokesman Brandon Weghorst said.
“We regret all of the incidents that happened with Sigma Alpha Epsilon for the past couple years because it’s given us a bad public image,” Weghorst said. “This new program will not prevent or guarantee that there will be no more incidents or problems, but … it helps to mitigate many of the problems that we find happen as a result of the pledging process.”
The changes nominally went into effect on March 9, requiring all chapters to initiate current pledges by March 11. Future recruitment processes will remain the same, but under the “True Gentleman Experience” program, all men who receive a bid from SAE must be initiated within the next 96 hours.
NU’s Illinois Psi-Omega Chapter of SAE has yet to execute the changes but supports the reasons behind it, chapter president Brenton Howland said.
“Obviously this is a big change for us on a national level. It affects each chapter differently … I think our chapter’s initial reaction was positive. It’s something that we understand why it’s happening, and it’s something we’re fully supportive of,” the Weinberg junior said. “If we can step up and support the national organization in something like this, we’re more than happy to do so.”
Howland said he was aware of the impending changes for several weeks because of his close work with the national headquarters. However, he said the announcement came as a surprise to most other NU’s SAE members. He said the chapter is working with the national headquarters to find an appropriate way and time to initiate their current pledges, although the process has been slowed down due to Finals Week.
“What we’ve really been trying to do is just have an open dialogue as a chapter and as an executive board about what we need to do moving forward,” Howland said. “Fortunately right now, we’re not in a position where we feel like we’re pressured to make immediate changes.”
The national fraternity’s Supreme Council made the decision to eliminate the pledge system as an effort to ameliorate the situation and in honor of the fraternity’s 158th anniversary. In its official statement, the national headquarters said the pledge system, which was introduced into SAE about 60 years after its creation, deviated from “the original member’s experience that our Founding Fathers envisioned.” The pledge system created “second-class citizens” who were treated as inferior to existing members, SAE headquarters said.
“We are hopeful that this will solve a lot of the issues because we’re taking away that stratification or classification of members,” Weghorst said. “The hope is that if you are a full brother with full privileges in the organization, then you’ll have all equal rights, and that’s really what our membership is about.”
Mark Koepsell, CEO and executive director of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, called the decision a “bold move.” He applauded SAE for “stepping up to the plate to make a difference” but said the biggest challenge will be getting all chapters to cooperate.
“It’s certainly not an end-all, be-all solution. I think it is absolutely a step in the right direction, but the reality is there’s a big difference between making a big announcement and actually implementing that,” Koepsell said. “What’s the implementation strategy? How do they get all of their members to buy into this?”
Weghorst said the national headquarters staff is working with chapters to provide resources to help facilitate the changes but will rely on the individual brothers, campus administrators and advisors to provide assistance as needed.
Similar to other requirements the national headquarters establishes, individual chapters that do not comply can be suspended. Individual brothers who do not comply can have their membership removed, Weghorst said. He said he has heard mostly positive responses from chapters and does not anticipate opposition to be a major problem.
But Koepsell said changing traditions still will not be so simple.
“What keeps the active members from just taking ‘pledging’ type activities underground? How often will those underground activities result in hazing?” Koepsell said. “Like any decision, they’re going to have their chapters that implement this in the spirit of what they intended and do a great job with it, and they’re going to have the chapters who fight it … and that is going to be their challenge.”
SAE’s new “True Gentleman Experience” program will share some aspects of the pledge program, such as understanding SAE history, values and traditions. But the new system will spread this education over all four years of college.
“(With the pledge system) you’re cramming all the knowledge … into a very short time period and putting that burden to do everything on just the pledge class in order to prove their worthiness. This new program actually takes a more holistic educational approach,” Weghorst said. “They’re learning something and gaining something new every year that they are in college.”
With this announcement, SAE joins two other Interfraternity Council member groups, Zeta Beta Tau and Sigma Phi Epsilon, who utilize “non-pledging” new member processes, said Dominic Greene, Northwestern’s director of fraternity and sorority life. ZBT refers to its system as non-pledging, and Sig Ep uses the “Balanced Man” program.
Christine Farolan contributed reporting.
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