Banning Pledging Doesn't Fix Fraternities' Health Problem

Sigma Alpha Epsilon's new pledging policy may be good for PR, but it doesn't address the health risks of frats' binge-drinking culture
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One of the country’s largest fraternities, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, realized it was in trouble—and needed to change drastically to survive.

In its own words, SAE had received “challenging and regretful bad publicity,” because of a “number of incidents and deaths.” So it wrote in a document given to members. Parents, SAE said, “have also expressed a growing concern over the perception of Sigma Alpha Epsilon as a deadly fraternity or one that is going to harm their son.” In fact, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, since 2006 at least 10 students have died as a consequence of SAE-related events, more than any other fraternity. So earlier this month, the national office took what, at first blush, looks like a groundbreaking step toward ensuring student safety and welcoming a modern era of fraternity culture.

As of March 9, SAE announced it was eliminating its infamous pledge process, in which young men are routinely forced—by SAE’s own descriptionto “earn their membership” through “servitude,” “memorizing obscure facts,” or “enduring physical challenges.”  In his recent video address, Brad Cohen, SAE’s “eminent supreme archon” and national president, who was  raised in South Africa, likened fraternity pledging to apartheid, creating a second class of brothers. And given SAE’s stature within the Greek community, it’s likely other fraternities will follow suit—mimicking both the language and the spirit of the pledging ban.

But SAE fashioned for its members a substantial loophole, one that at best perpetuates existing dangers for male pledges and a culture of sexual assault at fraternities, and at worst, creates additional vulnerabilities for their youngest brothers.  

According to SAE’s new guidelines, prospective members who accept the invitation to join Sigma Alpha Epsilon have 96 hours to “complete the requirements of membership.” The four-day clock begins from the time “a man accepts his bid” and within that time “there can be no activities or events in which newly signed members must prove their worth, complete tasks, or any other recreation or notion of pledging their commitment to the fraternity.”

It might sound like meaningful improvement and the guidelines make pledging sound fairly innocuous. But the new policy doesn’t ban the most dangerous aspect of pledging—the parties. In actuality, SAE may have replaced a two or three month pledge period with an intense, compressed, four-day binge-drinking frenzy. So while the policy is a step in the right direction, and definitely good for PR, it does little to mitigate the health risks of fraternity culture.

Historically, the pledge period, punctuated by bid night (when a young man receives a formal invitation to join a house) and initiation, when he becomes a member can be the most dangerous time for a fraternity hopeful. And conspicuously absent from SAE’s new guidelines are how those milestones should (and should not) be celebrated under the new 96-hour regime—leaving ample room for student interpretation.

“There’s an intensity of partying around these moments, like bids, during pledging,” describes Dr. Elizabeth Armstrong, a University of Michigan sociology and organizational studies professor and author of Paying For The Party: How College Maintains Inequality. Armstrong views the fraternity’s decision as a cost-benefit analysis or a public relations fix, rather than a referendum on Greek culture or fundamental reform. “People keep it in some rough balance where only a certain amount of students can die. What is the acceptable number?” she asks.

In addition, SAE’s March letter to members does not condemn binge drinking or link those behaviors to the hazards of initiating new members, in whatever form that initiation actually takes. While the organization is shortening the timeframe in which the power differential between “pledge” and member exists, potentially mitigating hazing related deaths— it doesn’t reprimand the excessive drinking associated with initiation (either during or after the 96 hour period) or cleanse fraternity culture.   

“Almost all national fraternities long ago banned hazing which usually takes place during pledge periods and is illegal in many states,” explains Dr. Nicholas Syrett, a professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado and and author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities. But many chapters still haze, just as pledging may well continue sub rosa, according to Syrett, in some SAE houses despite a national ban. 

Moreover, banning official pledge periods or effectively compressing them to 96 hours doesn’t address the more pervasive causes of injury, assault, and death related to fraternities.  “While the pledge period is particularly dangerous for pledges,” Syrett says, the entire rest of the year remains dangerous for women invited to fraternity parties, as well as regular members who drink to excess and become injured at various other fraternity events.” 

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Jacoba Urist is a contributing journalist for NBC News, where she covers health, education, and gender issues. More

She received her JD and LL.M in taxation from New York University School of Law and a Masters in Public Policy from The Johns Hopkins Institute For Health and Social Policy. She has also written for Time, Newsweek/TheDailyBeast, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

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