On Friday, March 7, 2014, Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) became the most recent fraternity to replace pledging with single-tier membership. The news came as part of more sweeping changes that introduced a new, member development program: The True Gentleman Experience.
SAE’s True Gentleman Experience is based on “five cornerstones” that are similar to SigEp’s own philosophical tenets, elements that have been central to the Fraternity’s Balanced Man Program (BMP) since its inception in 1992.
Recent Bloomberg and Insider Higher Education articles recognized SigEp as an early adopter of single-tier membership and continuous development. When SigEp first launched the Balanced Man Program, it represented a drastic departure from more familiar pledge programs as it sought to combat stereotypes associated with Greek life and return SigEp’s focus to its founding values. But in the two decades since the BMP’s launch, many fraternities have attempted to replicate the program.
SAE is the fifth member of the North-American Interfraternity Conference to remove pledging (along with SigEp, Lambda Chi Alpha, Alpha Gamma Rho, and Zeta Beta Tau), but several more, including Beta Theta Pi and Delta Upsilon, have adopted member development programs that share SigEp’s strong anti-hazing stance and emphasis on continuous development. Today, universities are demanding that fraternities evolve and adopt similar programs.
While SigEp’s transition was voted on by undergraduates and has been demand-driven since its inception, news of SAE’s own reform came as a surprise to many members when it was announced on Friday. Response from SAE members on their Facebook page shows that the fraternity will need to work to create buy in with alumni-volunteers and undergraduate brothers who must execute the program for it to succeed.
One Facebook comment from an SAE alumnus expressed concern about the way the changes were rolled out, “to effectively change national policy without a vote, by effectively enacting a change by what amounts to an executive order… isn’t the right way handle things, in my opinion.”
Still, other SAE alumni voiced support for the change, “I am very proud of our council. They had to know this move would be unpopular. This decision took the courage we wanted to see in the leaders of SAE when we elected them.”
SAE’s announcement that it will become the most recent fraternity to move in this direction creates new opportunities for SigEp to lead the Greek community. Many of SigEp’s chapters have already responded to SAE’s announcement with excitement, offering assistance to SAE chapters on their campuses. SigEp’s two-decade head start provides SAE with case studies and resources that will be helpful as they seek to implement a new development model.
Brothers at Southeast Missouri State spoke with a local CBS affiliate about the future of fraternities, a future that looks a lot like what SigEp has been doing for more than twenty years. Vice President of Communications T.J. Weber told reporters, “We call our guys new members as a blatant thing of respect.” He offered encouragement for other chapters on campus who might be considering a similar change, sharing that SigEp’s Balanced Man Program, and its emphasis on equal rights and responsibilities, “gives you more of that feeling of brotherhood.”
Four hours northeast at Indiana University, chapter officers spent Friday afternoon meeting with one of SAE’s newly rechartered and higher performing chapters to discus the BMP’s success and how SAE can thrive under their new system.
“As soon as the news came out on Friday, they reached out to us,” said SigEp’s Indiana chapter president, Denton White. “We went over there Friday afternoon and spent about 2.5 hours, talking through everything from risk management to recruitment, and how to pitch a horizontal rather than vertical membership system. We went through every bullet point of the Balanced Man Program.”
“A lot of them were initially hesitant,” admitted White. “But in the time we were there, they seemed to think it would help them in recruitment because of our success.”
White recognizes that culture is changing on the Indiana campus. He notes that students are increasingly less interested in pledging. “The way our community at Indiana is trending, people don’t really know what to think about pledging anymore. We’ve had a lot more guys come through recruitment in the past few years because we don’t pledge.”
When asked if this would force SigEp to work harder to stand out in recruitment, he replied quickly, “Oh yea! We’ve been number one in grades for last five years. SAE has been two or three consistently, and this is only going to help them.”
“We’re not the only fraternity now,” White acknowledged. “We can’t pitch that we are the only fraternity without pledging, where you’ll have equal rights. It will definitely force us to step our game up.”
But White sees SAE’s decision to mirror SigEp’s approach as a good thing for both SigEp and Indiana’s Greek community. He is excited about the possibility of a wider Greek movement: “It is going to help our community. Hopefully everybody is starting to take notice.”