A college fraternity is making headlines again, but it’s not all bad news. Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), the largest US fraternity, announced it will seek to combat an alarming number of injuries and even deaths in its ranks by banning pledging, the process by which potential new “brothers” compete to be accepted into the fraternity.
Pledging is a rite of passage deeply embedded in American fraternities and sororities. On many college campuses, however, pledging has involved hazing: a physically and emotionally stressful initiation frequently involving humiliation, excessive alcohol intake and generally poor judgment. Bloomberg News recently dubbed SAE “The Deadliest Frat”, crediting it with nine hazing-related deaths since 2005. More than 60 similar deaths have occurred at fraternities during the same timeframe, Bloomberg said.
With media coverage like this, it’s safe to say SAE’s hand is being forced. But regardless of motivation, their decision to fundamentally alter the fraternity landscape is their best move – both for their “bros” and their image. Once, fraternities were seen as positive institutions that helped instill values in their members, shaping tomorrow’s leaders. Today, they’re more often associated with allegations of hazing, racism or sexual assault. While some smaller frats have already banned pledging, that the nation’s largest organization is now doing so sends a strong message, both to its own members and to others.
THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Sigma Alpha Epsilon. The bigger you are, the more you have to lose.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Lead by example. For U.S. fraternities, the story has gone from bad to worse over the past decade. Isolated incidents have become seen as an out-of-control systemic problem. In situations like this, a dramatic gesture must be made to right the ship, lest everyone go down. At more than 300,000 members, Sigma Alpha Epsilon is a powerful force. Its bold decision will be seen now the right thing to do, and everyone from university presidents to insurance companies will approve. Fraternities that don’t follow suit do so at their own peril.