By LAUREN ZIMAÂ Â COLUMBIA-It has been three years since it was punished for hazing, and MUâ€™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 MUâ€™s Greek Judicial Board for hazing in fall 2004, has adopted the national chapterâ€™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 membersâ€™ 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 chapterâ€™s new image.
â€œWe had a definite consensus that we needed to go in a new direction,â€ said Keith Ziercher, the chapterâ€™s president. â€œRecruitment hadnâ€™t been going well for a few years. We just needed to change.â€
To raise the fraternityâ€™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 chapterâ€™s alumni advisor, said Sig Ep is looking at the bigger picture.
â€œWeâ€™re trying to change the image of the fraternity system,â€ he said. â€œWe donâ€™t want that frat boy, â€˜Animal Houseâ€™ image. We want our fraternity to produce leaders.â€
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 fraternityâ€™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 chapterâ€™s 3.0 grade-point requirement.
The idea of not having to pledge is apparently appealing. Rob Deleeuw, Sig Epâ€™s vice president of recruitment, said the chapter has recruited 24 new members this summer.
â€œWe did meet some guys who were looking for the traditional (fraternity),â€ Deleeuw said. â€œThey wanted the pledgeship experience. But the guys we recruit are the ones who did well in high school, who are more mature, and they donâ€™t want that.â€
Sig Ep hopes that another benefit of eliminating pledging will be that members have equal respect for each other.
â€œWhen you go through pledgeship, youâ€™re verbally abused by older guys. You donâ€™t respect them, and they donâ€™t respect you,â€ Deleeuw said. â€œYou only bond with your pledge class. We want all the guys in our house to be brothers.â€
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.
â€œWe absolutely do not haze our pledges,â€ Berkowitz said. â€œFor us, itâ€™s a growth stage. We educate about our house. Itâ€™s very positive.â€
Berkowitz said he wouldnâ€™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 Epâ€™s mission to change the fraternity stereotype, but he wishes the chapter would share its ideas with other fraternities.
â€œYou canâ€™t change the fraternity stereotype alone,â€ he said. â€œWe all want to change it. Few people know what we do for the community, the campus, what we stand for.â€