I’m sorry, but your chapter has been closed.” That’s a phrase that no student or alumnus wants to hear. It frequently causes resentment and disbelief and, often, we want someone to blame. The obvious choice for most is “nationals,” the slang term for the headquarters in Evanston, just as it is for most national college fraternities. No one wants to close a chapter, but Fraternity leadership has a responsibility to protect Sigma Alpha Epsilon in name, spirit and identity and to uphold our Mission, Values, Creed and Ritual.
Chapter and colony closures, and all of the fallout that comes with them, become necessary when members are not living up to our principles. When the meaning of “The True Gentleman” is compromised, we, as an organization, are compromised. The Fraternity’s Mission is really quite simple: Advancing the highest standards of friendship, scholarship, leadership and service for our members throughout life. When we think of values, we may think of our Ritual, which is true. But there are other values to keep in mind as well. They include trust, integrity, loyalty, honor and inclusivity.
How often do we as collegians or alumni espouse these core principles on a daily basis? When we speak of “tradition,” is it a practice that builds upon the vision set forth by Noble Leslie DeVotie? Or is it, which can often be the case, a local “tradition” that has perpetuated rogue, risky practices that have been rationalized through the years as activities that build brotherhood or make a new member earn the right to wear the badge?
The campus of 2018 is a drastically different place… Gone are the days when you had to be in a Greek-letter organization to be a student leader or enjoy a social life. Gone are the days when seemingly harmless pranks may have flown under the radar.
Sometimes the pattern is predictable. If a chapter decides its existence is based solely on its own chapter pride and not on being part of something bigger, something wide-reaching, then the Fraternity’s strength and beauty is chipped away brick by brick. To understand the current state and vastly changing landscape of the fraternity world and, thus, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, we must first pause and take a look at ourselves through a wider lens by considering some major issues facing all fraternities and sororities today.
The campus of 2018 is a drastically different place than you and I may remember. Gone are the days when you had to be in a Greek-letter organization to be a student leader or enjoy a social life. Gone are the days when seemingly harmless pranks may have flown under the radar. And gone are the days when members had to interact in person with someone in order to get information, find out when an event was taking place or catch up on a brother’s life. At many colleges and universities, there are hundreds of organizations vying for students’ attention, so why would someone join a fraternity or sorority?
That question ties directly to bigger, broader issues—some of the same issues in our society that are not specific to Greek-letter organizations. But because of stereotypes, coupled with individuals or a group of members who decide to act a certain way or an entire chapter’s environment and behavior, the system is fighting the battle of its life. Behaviors that deviate from our core values and those that work contradictory to our Ritual are the ones that increasingly threaten our existence if we don’t step up and combat them, not only as members of our own groups but also as members of our communities. People who stand by and fail to say or do anything—the bystanders—create a disservice and put lives at risk. Just as equally, alumni, advisers and parents may have the wool pulled over their eyes, oblivious to thoughts and deeds that would seem egregious if they were expressed out loud. And there are others that believe the fi ght for survival is a call-to-arms, mobilizing their intention to protect the behaviors that have created these issues. Many of these topics may sound familiar: hazing, alcohol and substance abuse and sexual misconduct and assault.
Behaviors that deviate from our core values… are the ones that increasingly threaten our existence…
When actions are consistent with our core values, the fraternity experience can provide valuable lessons and leadership that can’t be replicated in the classroom or in a textbook. Sigma Alpha Epsilon alumni who have earned successful careers can attest to that fact. In addition, news travels in an instant with the advent of our technological age. All eyes are watching around the clock. Capture an inappropriate and outrageous moment on a phone, send it out on social-media channels and prepare for a flood of angst, shock, outrage or hate. Sigma Alpha Epsilon knows all too well what can happen from just a few seconds of recording that makes headlines across the globe. Decades of a respected reputation can be shattered almost instantly.
While we may blame the media for focusing non-stop on negativity, reporters are simply doing their job. They may not get all the facts right nor understand Greek-letter life, but we are the ones who are fueling the fire that leads to the news they report.
Sigma Alpha Epsilon has been called the “deadliest fraternity” by Bloomberg News, the “most out-of-control fraternity” by Rolling Stone and a “racist, bigoted fraternity” by news outlets internationally in the past decade, three titles that don’t describe what our Founding Fathers envisioned more than a century-and-a-half ago. Whether or not you believe the typecast is true or just a bunch of hype, the stigma is real. When our great qualities of a positive, beneficial experience fail us because of individuals’ or groups’ poor decisions—and, more importantly, when fellow brothers and peers stand by and watch them unfold, not holding them accountable — we are quickly becoming dinosaurs on campuses. And instead of worrying about dues coming back to us, or a refund being issued for what we have paid, shouldn’t we be focused on our campus reputation or on the sense of wrongdoing we may have caused others?
“The most compelling change in campus climate is how differently university and college officials are reacting to bad behavior and rule breaking, especially situations involving alcohol and hazing,” says Tom Dement, Eminent Supreme Archon. “The actions taken by administrators today versus 20 years ago is much more serious and swift. My concern is that colleges and universities may have decided fraternities cannot be counted on to self-police and have, therefore, resolved to take action on their own. If we want to be a respected, valued part of campus life, we must live up to our values in their truest sense. When they and our Mission are challenged or ignored by our own members, we must take action to ensure our future, no matter how painful. We realize that these decisions may be unpopular with some, but we have a responsibility to the men in our chapters that wake each morning and live our Mission. We cannot risk the livelihood of our most committed brothers for the sake of the few who choose to stray.”
Administrators are not the ones who are looking to close long-standing chapters nor are the respective headquarters and boards. Years of litigation and negative headlines taint reputations, and if fraternities and sororities aren’t immediate in preventing bad behavior, somebody must enforce accountability. Campus officials can be the last line of defense because our actions, even in isolated cases, affect the bigger Greek-life movement.
Articles in major publications, such as Time, US News, Thee New York Times and Newsweek, have called for schools to ban fraternities. A number of states may push through legislation that prevents recognition on campuses. And there is a growing movement at Ivy League institutions. Harvard University, for example, is at the center of a controversy due to a policy that bans students from holding leadership roles if they join a single-gender organization, including athletic teams. It also prevents recommendations for post-graduate academic opportunities and scholarships.
With the recent news from college campuses nationwide, there has never been a more relevant time to reflect upon who we are as Sigma Alpha Epsilon and how we want to be defined. We are part of a different world, and we are at a crossroads to make bold decisions and measures or succumb to a society that will not stand for unacceptable, intolerant, illegal behavior.
This is not a story about doom and gloom, as there is equally reassuring news. The overwhelming majority of our 13,000 collegiate members operate with our Mission and Creed in mind, making Sigma Alpha Epsilon proud of scholastic and leadership achievements along with excellence in stewardship and community service. They maintain valuable membership education along with proactive health and safety measures.
Garrett Palmquist, a collegiate brother at Arizona Delta says his chapter is focused on debunking the stereotype. “In the last few years, we have moved from ‘Let’s plan a social for this weekend!’ to ‘What community service can we do that day?’” he says. “Many of our brothers perform hundreds of hours of community service each year, and the quality of their character is noticeable. When the chips are down, they’re the brothers who step up to do the work that needs to be done.”
We additionally have been the first to make some groundbreaking choices that served as examples for others. Sigma Alpha Epsilon was the first to conduct a national Leadership School, the first to eliminate pledging and the first North-American fraternity to establish a staff position solely dedicated to diversity and inclusion. Furthermore, we are committed and are embarking upon several new initiatives that include an expanded education model and an online news magazine to better serve our members, collegiate and alumni. You can read more about these programs as part of this article.
Also taking place on campuses nationwide is a trend of either school-imposed or self-imposed suspensions for the Greek-letter system. During the 2017-18 academic year, 36 institutions, 23 of where Sigma Alpha Epsilon has a chapter or colony, issued cease and desists stemming from deaths, hazing, or alcohol-related incidents. If we tallied the numbers, 573 fraternity and sorority chapters are affected, with suspensions varying from halting all new-member activity to all social events to all operations, period. School administrators and self-governed groups, such as Interfraternity and Panhellenic Councils, used the freeze as a means to determine the next steps, addressing problems plaguing their culture or creating higher standards that must be met to realign with values.
Florida State University, for example, released a number of new initiatives for Fraternity and Sorority Life following its suspension of the entire system in the wake of a fraternity death and a separate incident of drug-trafficking arrests for two fraternity men. Among the many changes: Every Greek-letter member must maintain a 2.5 GPA, complete at least ten hours of service each semester as well as stringent expectations for new member education, advisory boards, training and oversight.
At the same time, some national organizations’ leaders have introduced sweeping changes for their own groups. Recent changes accentuate other organizations that are joining us in talking about change for member education, social events and alcohol policies.
Sigma Alpha Epsilon was the first to conduct a national Leadership School, the first to eliminate pledging and the first… to establish a staff position solely dedicated to diversity and inclusion.
But as uncertainty, movements and turmoil churns on campuses, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, too, has been hard at work creating initiatives that focus on three core components: leadership, culture and environment.
Late last fall, the Supreme Council voted and the Fraternity Service Center notified the Realm of a temporary social moratorium, which placed a halt on social functions involving alcohol. During that period, the Fraternity sought feedback through surveys, town halls and direct contact with collegiate and alumni brothers and gathered information from campus administrators, counselors and medical specialists. The question was simple and direct: How do we address the issues and challenges facing our members?
Then in March, the Fraternity outlined a series of initiatives to lead the way, yet again improving the membership experience. Some of the measures include the expansion of in-person educational opportunities, enhancing the safety and wellness of our members and guests by elevating the health and safety offi cer to the executive board, and eliminating hard alcohol at all Fraternity social function, and use or possessions of hard alcohol in a Sigma Alpha Epsilon house, regardless of age. Additionally, events with alcohol will not be permitted in the first seven days of the start of each term and five days before, during and one day following final exams.
“No matter how safe a chapter is, no matter how well a chapter manages risk, the dangers of alcohol can aff ect everyone,” says Zachary Watson, Eminent Archon of our chapter at Texas State University. “The moratorium gave us an opportunity to sit back and think about what’s important to us. We actually got to see real brotherhood that wasn’t fueled with alcohol for once.”
While these newly introduced initiatives largely focus on our collegiate brothers, the path to protecting Sigma Alpha Epsilon is a task andgoal for all of us.
We are not the only fraternity taking these actions nor are we the only fraternity addressing hard alcohol. While there may be slight differences to policy implementation, other fraternities, including Beta Th eta Pi, Delta Upsilon, Sigma Chi, Sigma Phi Epsilon, Phi Delta Th eta and Phi Kappa Psi have each enacted policies with similar objectives—and others are in the process of following suit.
Every member, regardless of his age or involvement, should strive to promote our values system, not fight it. If brothers want to make a diff erence, it’s not by trying to recreate the past. Rather, it’s about redefining the possibilities that are ahead. When you took your Oath of Initiation, you spoke words that transcend any chapter, province or region. While pride in your local brotherhood is beneficial, keep in mind that we are part of a much greater and bigger brotherhood and that our actions affect the entire Fraternity.
If we want to return to our campuses, visit the chapter house, proudly look up and see our letters mounted on the façade, and off er a young man the grip, we must pay attention to the past, open our eyes to the ever-changing world around us and embrace the true meaning of Sigma Alpha Epsilon—with all of its teachings and values and goals—for the future. Earning the right to wear the badge isn’t about enduring endless weeks of menial servitude. And maintaining a tradition doesn’t involve acting in ways that you wouldn’t share with a parent, grandparent, sibling or significant other.
We can stand by and watch our Fraternity and the Greek-letter community be less and less relevant on today’s campus to the point where we have no purpose, or we can recall what we know and work together for a better tomorrow as true gentlemen.
We are more than one chapter, on one campus, in one community. We are a national Fraternity with a responsibility to one another to promote the best of what the opportunities of membership can provide. We are an international brotherhood that must bond together so we can celebrate more milestones and Founders Days.