By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the oldest and largest U.S. college fraternities, said on Friday that it would eliminate its member initiation practices, following a number of hazing-related deaths and other incidents.
Starting Sunday, the fraternity with 14,000 undergraduate members across the country will end pledging, according to a statement from SAE, based in Evanston, Illinois.
Pledging usually involves doing chores and learning fraternity history for weeks or months. At times, initiates have been subjected to physical abuse and forced to consume alcohol.
"We have experienced a number of incidents and deaths, events with consequences that have never been consistent with our membership experience," SAE said in a statement.
It said that the organization has suffered a "painful" number of chapter closings as a result of hazing. Chapter leaders have complained that the damage to the fraternity's reputation has made it difficult to operate.
The head of a national fraternity advisory group said response to the SAE decision from campus advisors and on social media has so far been positive.
"I think it absolutely has potential to be a game changer," said Mark Koepsell, executive director and chief executive officer of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, based in Fort Collins, Colorado. "It will be interesting to see what the university response is. If this works well there could be pressure to ask other groups to do the same."
SAE, which has its 158th anniversary on Sunday, noted that the pledge program was not adopted until after World War II and it has failed to serve the true purposes of the fraternity by creating a system of second-class citizens.
"Often, in a new member's desire to belong, other members forgot our ritual and values and sought to use their power over others and rob them of their dignity as men," it said.
Under the new program, the organization's 226 chapters and 15 probationary chapters may continue to recruit prospective members, who must complete a certification program and accept an association agreement.
One death attributed to hazing was that of Carson Starkey, 18, who died of alcohol poisoning in December 2008 while pledging to SAE at California Polytechnic State University, also known as Cal Poly, in San Luis Obispo, California.
Starkey consumed rum, beer, and Everclear, which contains 75 percent alcohol, in a matter of minutes, following direction from fraternity leaders, according to a local media account of the incident posted on SAE's website.
Tests after Carson's death determined that he had a blood-alcohol level of between 0.39 and 0.44 — five times the legal limit for driving. Four men were charged criminally and received jail time for the incident.
Famous members of the fraternity have included President William McKinley and author William Faulkner.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)