The basement of the Sigma Phi Epsilon house at the University of Missouri-Columbia is filled with familiar fraternity icons, from its well-worn pool table to the stacks of “Kill Bill,” “Gladiator,” and other super-violent movies on DVD. The smell of stale beer is unmistakable.
A closer look reveals a different scene altogether: with the soothing sounds of a “Zen Cafe” CD playing in the background, Sig Ep brothers listen raptly as a campus yoga instructor leads them through a series of contortionist poses during an 8 a.m. workout.
Early morning yoga is just one of the changes at the Sig Ep house since the Missouri chapter adopted its “Balanced Man” program in 2006 just a few years after the university punished the chapter for hazing. Fraternity leaders and campus officials declined to release details about that incident.
There are trips to the opera, wine tastings and documentary film screenings. And by eliminating the pledging system a tradition of initiation critics say encourages hazing new members are treated as equals from the start.
“I didn’t really feel like the traditional fraternity life was for me,” said Tony Brown, a sophomore journalism major from Denver who joined the chapter as a second-semester freshman. “I wanted a place I could come into and immediately feel respected.”
For years, fraternity pledges were forced to perform menial tasks, memorize arcane fraternity history and willingly submit to verbal and sometimes physical abuse all to prove their loyalty and devotion to the group.
Those who survived the system could count on eventually repeating the process with the next batch of recruits.
But after decades of wrestling with the stigma and the legal liabilities created by alcohol abuse, cheating, poor grades, hazing and other problems, fraternity leaders across the country are looking to reinvent if not restore the ideals of going Greek.
“The fraternity industry is responding to the calls that we be who we say we are,” said Peter Smithhisler, executive vice president of the North-American Interfraternity Conference.
At Missouri, a handful of the 28 traditional Greek fraternities have eliminated pledging. The change isn’t new on campus Lambda Chi Alpha took that step nationally more than three decades ago.
What has changed is the amount of effort fraternities and sororities must exert to recruit new members.
Just as choosing a college has become a consumer-driven experience, so too is the decision to go Greek, said Janna Basler, director of Greek life at Missouri. With more than 500 student groups on campus, Greek leaders can no longer rest on their reputations alone.
“Students are more consumer savvy,” she said. “If a fraternity or sorority is going to keep them from their career or educational goals, students will figure that out and join other organizations.”
Nationally, programs such as Beta Theta Pi’s “Men of Principle,” Lambda Chi Alpha’s “True Brother Initiative” and the Sigma Phi Epsilon Balanced Man effort are seeking a return to the roots of campus Greek life.
Organizers talk of honor, virtue, scholarship, civic engagement and other core values.
“We’re doing our best to destroy the frat boy stereotype,” said Matthew Ontell, who directs the national Sigma Phi Epsilon initiative. “This is what Greek life is supposed to be about holding men to a higher standard.”
Nearly 80 percent of the fraternity’s 253 chapters participate in the voluntary initiative, which began in 1992, he said. The changes have helped make Sigma Phi Epsilon the nation’s largest fraternity.
The choice to abandon traditional pledging doesn’t always come easy. At Missouri, the national organization cleaned house after the hazing incident, kicking out 75 members who didn’t measure up to the new standards, which include a minimum 2.6 grade point average, said chapter president Keith Ziercher. And skepticism ran high among some of those who remained.
“It was kind of difficult for us,” he said. It’s been a hard transition.”
After the national purge, membership had dwindled to 35 men at Missouri. But over the past two semesters, another 25 have joined many attracted by the opportunity to build friendships through mutual respect, not servitude.
“We have ways of building brotherhood without the fear that goes along with hazing,” said Brown. “We can accomplish the same thing.”
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