Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the largest U.S. fraternities and the deadliest, said Friday it will ban the initiation of recruits, citing the toll that hazing has taken on its newest members.
SAE announced what it called a "historic decision" to eliminate pledging, typically a months-long induction period featuring secret rituals. During pledging, recruits have been subject to forced drinking, paddling and other abuse. At least 10 deaths since 2006 have been linked to hazing, alcohol or drugs at SAE events, more than at any other fraternity, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
SAE becomes one of only a handful of about 75 national fraternities - and perhaps the most prominent - to eliminate pledging. The ban, which takes effect Sunday, may spur broader change among Greek organizations, fraternity and college officials said. There have been more than 60 fraternity-related deaths since 2005. Many victims were freshman pledges, considered the most vulnerable because many are away from home for the first time.
"This is a very big deal," said Brian Madison Jr. president of SAE's alumni association at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. "The fraternity set a line in the sand. The students will have to adapt and change."
Under the new plan, SAE chapters will still recruit new members and extend them a "bid," or invitation to join. Students accepting the bid will become full members almost immediately. All SAE members will be required to complete additional training, including alcohol education, during their college years.
In its statement, SAE lamented recent deaths and injuries and said the "bad publicity" it has recently received is "challenging and regretful."
In December, Bloomberg News reported that SAE brothers at Salisbury University in Maryland forced pledges in 2012 to drink until they almost passed out, dressed them in women's clothing and diapers and ordered them to stand in their underwear in trash cans filled waist-deep with ice. SAE members pay among the highest costs of any Greek organization for liability insurance and universities suspended or closed at least 15 chapters within the past three years.
In response, the head of the University of Maryland system and a state legislator called for tougher penalties for hazing.
SAE, based in Evanston, Ill., has more than 240 chapters and 14,000 college members. Its alumni include Wall Street titans such as T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman-turned investor; and hedge fund managers David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital and Paul Tudor Jones of Tudor Investment Corp.
The organization has repeatedly said it has "zero tolerance" for hazing and noted Friday that pledging was adopted only after World War II. SAE was founded in 1856 at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.
In a statement to members, SAE's national headquarters said college students will still be attracted to the fraternity once "we get rid of pledging." Chapter leaders complained that damage to the fraternity's "national reputation" has made it difficult to operate.
"We have experienced a number of incidents and deaths," according to the statement, which SAE posted on its website. "We have endured a painful number of chapter closings as a result of hazing. Research shows that hazing, which hides in the dark, causes members to lie."