The initiation rite known as fraternity pledging is tolerated far beyond its worth. Since 2005, many of the 60 fraternity-related deaths across the country have been freshmen pledges. This is no surprise given the brutal tasks pledging can sometimes demand from its new members. Surely there must be other ways to build brotherhood and strong character than requiring members to wade through vomit and endure other gruesome trials described in some high-profile cases.
It would be naive to believe that SAE’s decree signals the end of pledging in its own chapters or among other fraternities. Pledging has proven to be an adaptable beast—Duke knows full well that University attempts to thwart hazing have merely driven it further underground.
Fraternities’ institutional inertia and norms are so strong that it will be nearly impossible to bring pledging to a full halt. Of course, certain forms of pledging, like familiarizing members with the fraternity’s history and building class bonds, are harmless and can help build brotherhood. Less convincingly, older members often cite as a reason to pledge new recruits the fact that they went through the wringer themselves and emerged a more united class.
At best, the threat of sanctions from the national organization may prompt SAE chapters to think twice before hazing new members. But it is more likely that chapters will preserve pledging and only work harder to hide the practice from their national organization.
On the surface, SAE’s decision seems like an acknowledgment of the problems with pledging and, therefore, a step in the right direction. But even this is too generous. The national organization instituted the change because its insurance company said it would stop covering the fraternity, presumably because of safety concerns, if it did not end the practice. It seems that calling for the end of pledging was the fraternity’s way of washing its hands of the issue, rather than actively protecting its members. We are disappointed that it took being backed into a legal corner for SAE to reconsider hazing.
Furthermore, we question whether a blanket ban on pledging is the right policy. The pledging process involves a range of activities. Some are productive and safe, and others are pointless, dangerous and even deadly. SAE’s leaders avoided making this critical distinction and refused to navigate the grey territory of the painful but possibly constructive group exercises that older members often defend. To call for the end of pledging as a whole is to miss the point.
We appreciate SAE’s gesture, however, even if it was just to save face. But the more important and challenging task is to filter out the truly harmful pledging from its benign or useful forms. Pledging is not going anywhere, and some manifestations may actually be positive. But changes to the practice are unlikely to emanate from a fraternity’s legal department; rather, they will require a cultural sea change among current members.