SAE abolishes pledging process in favor of ‘true gentleman experience’


On its 158th birthday, March 9, 2014, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, a social fraternity, decided to return to its roots by eliminating its pledging process. 

According to Brandon Weghorst, associate executive director of communications for Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s national organization, the board of directors made this decision out of respect for its founding fathers.

Weghorst said there was no particular incident that led to the decision, rather, it came as a result of a couple of different factors that he preferred to not convey. 

According to a report from Bloomberg on Dec. 30, 2013, in the past three years, colleges have suspended or closed at least 15 Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapters. Nationally, the fraternity has had nine deaths related to drinking, drugs and hazing since 2006, more than any other Greek organization. 

Brendan McEwen, president of Pitt’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter, declined to comment on the changes, saying that they were an internal matter.

Weghorst explained that the elimination of the pledging process would bring about positive changes to the fraternity.

“We’re improving the membership experience for undergraduates, keeping it consistent with what Sigma Alpha Epsilon is all about. We’re going back to what the membership experience used to be like,” Weghorst said. 

According to a document extended from apress release on Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s national website, the fraternity did not originally have a pledging process.

“In order to protect the future of the organization in challenging times, the Supreme Council unanimously voted to eliminate new-member (pledge) programming and the classification of new member (pledge),” the document said. “Those concepts, which came to Sigma Alpha Epsilon more than 60 years after our inception, will no longer exist.” 

According to the press release on Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s national website, brothers can continue to recruit new members just as they had before, offering bids to potential members. 

Before the elimination of the pledging process, once the bid was extended, new members were required to go through an eight-week initiation process, during which prospective members would have to prove their loyalty and desire to be a brother of the fraternity. Now, after the bid has been accepted, the men will become collegiate members within 96 hours of acceptance of their bids.

According to Brandon Benjamin, president of Pitt’s Interfraternity Council and a brother of Delta Chi, this initiation process is a time for new pledges to become accustomed to the fraternity, learn its traditions and values and gain a respect for the fraternity of which they are soon to be a part. 

“In [Delta Chi], we encourage new members to participate fully as if any other brother in the fraternity. There is no divide except for one secret ritual. We wait eight weeks to show them to make sure they have a profound respect and understanding for what it means to be a Delta Chi,” Benjamin said. 

In addition to the respect and education aspect of the process, pledging has long been a historical tradition for many fraternities. 

Benjamin does not foresee that straying from this tradition will be a problem for the brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

“They are good at adapting. In three or four years, members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon won’t know that anything is different. They won’t know that there ever was a pledging process,” said Benjamin.

According to Weghorst, there was no particular incident that led to this decision. Rather, the new board of directors has been working to improve the Sigma Alpha Epsilon experience since it began.In July 2013, Bradley M. Cohen became the new Eminent Supreme Archon, who serves as president of the national organization. In a message on the national fraternity’s website, he expressed his interest in making the fraternity stronger and better than how he found it. He added that the fraternity eliminated the word “pledge” from its nomenclature to “keep with the times.”  

“The term pledge has so many negative connotations both in the Greek-letter world and especially in today’s media. We no longer use this term and refer to all those joining our organization as new members,” he said in the message. “Our goals are to build chapter unity and not new-member unity.” 

According to Cohen, the new initiation process will change the way new brothers learn about the history of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

According to the press release, the fraternity will switch to a more “holistic educational period” that will last throughout the student’s time as a brother of the fraternity. 

“Learning never really ends. It is important for members to learn something new every year and continue to educate themselves so that when they near graduation they will have the skills and networks to be successful,” Weghorst said. 

One of the main goals of any fraternity, Benjamin said, is to prepare its brothers to be successful in the future. 

“Most people don’t see all the good that Greek life is doing. When you wear the letters of your fraternity, you are representing them,” Benjamin said. “You hold doors for people, you participate in class, things like that. You show people that Greek life is a good thing.”

Benjamin said that this historical change will do a lot to improve Greek life’s reputation as a whole. 

According to Benjamin, a bad stigma develops around the Greek community as a result of the issues related to hazing. It is commonly thought that the pledging process always includes hazing, but according to Benjamin, this is not always the case. 

Summer Rothrock, assistant director of Leadership Development and Greek Affairs at Pitt, said that Pitt does not tolerate any form of hazing. However, she acknowledged that new member education was an individual process for each group and that hazing is a concern for any organization. 

“I commend [Sigma Alpha Epsilon] for taking any strides that will ensure the safety of college students and an enriching college experience,” Rothrock said.

Benjamin emphasized that bad stories related to hazing or any other incidents should not be blamed on Greek life itself, but on bad individuals within Greek life. He said that he is hopeful that this new initiation process, among other steps taken by the Interfraternity Council, will help reduce the stigma surrounding Greek life. 

Benjamin also said that he hopes that Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s changes will inspire discussion among other fraternities.

“It won’t be a bandwagon thing, but other houses will consider their attitude towards new members and whether the gap between new and initiated members needs to exist,” Benjamin said.

Weghorst said he has talked to more than 70 different media outlets since the announcement.

“We realize that people are watching to see how Sigma Alpha Epsilon will incorporate these changes and to see how they can have a similar model,” Weghorst said. 

According to Weghorst, the change has been welcomed by most alumni and chapters. 

“It is hard to please all the people all the time, but if we want to protect this organization and its future, then this is the right thing to do,” Weghorst said.