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Sig Ep chapter back at Missouri: accepts Balanced Man program and quits pledging

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By LAUREN ZIMA   COLUMBIA-It has been three years since it was punished for hazing, and MU’s chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon has made a number of changes to become a better fraternity. Now, it has taken the fight one step further by eliminating pledging.

The fraternity commonly known as Sig Ep, which was disciplined by MU’s Greek Judicial Board for hazing in fall 2004, has adopted the national chapter’s Balanced Man program, an initiative that focuses on the growth and development of members from the moment they step into the house through graduation.

The program also throws out pledging, an intense period of initiation ranging from a few months to a full semester when potential members undergo rigorous education about the fraternity. In some cases, the rite includes hazing, verbal abuse and other rituals, such as cleaning older members’ rooms.

In fall 2006, Sig Ep brought in directors from its national headquarters in Virginia to help revamp the chapter. Some members were asked to leave to make room for young men whom officers believed better fit the chapter’s new image.

“We had a definite consensus that we needed to go in a new direction,” said Keith Ziercher, the chapter’s president. “Recruitment hadn’t been going well for a few years. We just needed to change.”

To raise the fraternity’s standards, the directors began to recruit and evaluate new members based on ACT scores, grade-point average, campus involvement and overall character. John Hartman, the chapter’s alumni advisor, said Sig Ep is looking at the bigger picture.

“We’re trying to change the image of the fraternity system,” he said. “We don’t want that frat boy, ‘Animal House’ image. We want our fraternity to produce leaders.”

The chapter has already sponsored etiquette classes for its members, hosted speakers to talk about how to properly treat women, and organized yoga and ballroom dancing classes as date parties with sororities for the fall.

The Balanced Man program was developed by the Sigma Phi Epsilon national headquarters in the early 1990s and revolves around the ancient Greek philosophy of having a sound mind and sound body. Since its inception, 78 percent of Sig Ep chapters have adopted the program. As a result, Sig Ep has become the largest fraternity in the nation in terms of number of undergraduates, and its membership has the highest average GPA of any national fraternity, according to Chris Minnis, the national fraternity’s director of operations.

Unlike other fraternities, which have new members go through a pledge phase, new Sig Eps are automatically conferred member status, meaning they can vote on chapter issues and run for office. New members are mentored by older members and faculty who help them meet different objectives such as leading service projects and meeting the chapter’s 3.0 grade-point requirement.

The idea of not having to pledge is apparently appealing. Rob Deleeuw, Sig Ep’s vice president of recruitment, said the chapter has recruited 24 new members this summer.

“We did meet some guys who were looking for the traditional (fraternity),” Deleeuw said. “They wanted the pledgeship experience. But the guys we recruit are the ones who did well in high school, who are more mature, and they don’t want that.”

Sig Ep hopes that another benefit of eliminating pledging will be that members have equal respect for each other.

“When you go through pledgeship, you’re verbally abused by older guys. You don’t respect them, and they don’t respect you,” Deleeuw said. “You only bond with your pledge class. We want all the guys in our house to be brothers.”

Adam Berkowitz, president of Alpha Kappa Lambda, said he understands the desire to eliminate pledging because the rite does have a bad reputation. But, he said, that reputation is not necessarily deserved.

“We absolutely do not haze our pledges,” Berkowitz said. “For us, it’s a growth stage. We educate about our house. It’s very positive.”

Berkowitz said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Balanced Man program gives Sig Ep a recruiting advantage, but he would advise potential members that other fraternities, such as Alpha Kappa Lambda, also value good grades and mentorship of younger members. Berkowitz agrees with Sig Ep’s mission to change the fraternity stereotype, but he wishes the chapter would share its ideas with other fraternities.

“You can’t change the fraternity stereotype alone,” he said. “We all want to change it. Few people know what we do for the community, the campus, what we stand for.”

By Hank Nuwer

Journalist Hank Nuwer is the Alaska author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives; Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His current book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press. He is married to Malgorzata Wroblewska Nuwer of Warsaw, Poland and Fairbanks, Alaska. Nuwer is a former columnist for the Greenville (Ohio)Early Bird and former managing editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska.
Nuwer was named the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists columnist of the year in 2021 for his “After Darke” column in the Early Bird. He also won third place for the column in 2022 from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He and his wife Gosia, recently of Union City, Ind., have owned 20 acres in Alaska for many years. “The move is a sort-of coming home for us,” said Nuwer. As a journalist, he’s written about the Alaskan Iditarod sled-dog race and other Alaska topics. Read his musings in his blog at Real Alaska Daily--http://realalaskadaily.com and in his weekly column "Far from Randolph" in the Winchester Star-Gazette of Randolph County, Indiana.

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