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

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.”

Plus, there are so many ways you can circumvent these new rules, like telling students not to formally accept a bid to prevent the clock running, says Dr. John Foubert, an Oklahoma State University professor of higher education and student affairs, who studies sexual assault prevention.

Foubert cautions against interpreting SAE’s actions as bona fide concern for the welfare of its pledges. “I would say with a good degree of confidence that they ran into some serious insurance problems, and didn’t want any more lawsuits that they can’t win,” Foubert speculates.

In general, according to Foubert, there’s an ongoing, informal agreement between a national fraternity office and it’s local chapters: Local chapters do their best to pull the wool over national’s eyes, and national looks the other way as much as it possibly can. And there’s no reason to think that such gamesmanship won’t continue even if other fraternities follow SAE’s lead and “eliminate” pledging.

“Whether there’s pledging or not doesn’t make a bit of difference in the environment and culture in that house,” he warns. “Pledging is not what leads to rape in a fraternity. We certainly need more research, but fraternities appear to create rapists, irrespective of hazing or the pledging process.”  While his sample was limited to a single college, Foubert’s 2007 research found that men who joined a fraternity were 3 times more likely to commit sexual assault during their freshman year than respondents who were not fraternity members.

Without “standard drinking controls” in place—things like sobriety checkpoints around campus, age verification for alcohol purchase, clear university policies—compressing a pledge period to 96 hours, or even eliminating pledging altogether, does little to reduce the rates of binge drinking or alcohol-related injuries once the clock runs out, explains Dr. Thomas F. Barbor, chairman of the department of community and health care at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. As he puts it, “extensive research suggests that excessive drinking is associated with conditions that facilitate alcohol and support expectations that intoxication is acceptable.” In other words, as long as binge drinking is endemic to fraternity life, national offices routinely turn the other cheek, and universities fail to take alcohol abuse seriously—the culture and health problems associated with fraternities aren’t materially going to change.

To that end, what types of rules and sanctions will be enforced for these 96 hours? asks Dr. Traci Toomey, a professor of public health at the University of Minnesota, who studies alcohol policy and underage drinking. If there are real mechanisms in place to ensure safety during the process, SAE’s policy may reduce a member’s chances of injury and death throughout the initiation period—whatever that now entails.

However, without external controls or enforcement for the four-day period and beyond, Toomey believes SAE’s new pledging stance isn’t a solution. Like alcohol abuse and the Greek system, spring break trips are relatively well-tread research ground, and another example of the dangerous combination of college students and excessive alcohol use, and a compressed period of time in which to party. In fact, alcohol-related incidents may occur on spring break trips precisely because it’s short, says Toomey, or because there aren’t sufficient controls on student access. Either way, a four-day bid to initiation period may create a similar incentive structure.

In any case, Dr. Charles Eberly, a professor of counseling and student development at Eastern Illinois University, whose research focuses on the American college fraternity, reminds people that a fraternity is, first and foremost, a business enterprise—both at the national and the chapter level. “What’s going on here has certain parallels to what we see now with General Motors,” he said, referencing General Motor’s CEO Mary Barra’s apology for deaths linked to a “delayed recall” of 1.6 million small cars. “This is another organization concerned with the health of its bottom line. How long did it take GM to recall the cars they needed to?”