After less than a year of active recruitment, Columbia’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon colony is no more.
In an email sent to The Lion, Columbia’s Director of Communications and Special Projects Katherine Cutler confirmed that SAE’s provisional charter, granted in May 2012, was withdrawn in the spring. Since then, SAE has been removed from the Inter-Greek Council's (IGC) meeting rosters, and from SAE’s national website, where it was listed as an active colony as recently as January.
The email states:
Last spring, Student Affairs conducted a thorough review of the organization and it was determined that SAE was in violation of several Columbia policies. As a result, SAE’s provisional recognition was withdrawn. Under federal student privacy law, we do not comment or disclose any additional information about specific cases.
No official announcement by the national organization has been made regarding the reasons behind the decision, but a former member of SAE confirmed to The Lion that the fraternity’s provisional recognition was revoked by the university after an SAE pregame resulted in a pledge being taken to the hospital for excessive alcohol consumption. Following the incident, which involved a call to CU-EMS, ex-Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger ruled that the presence of alcohol at an event with pledges constituted hazing, choosing to remove SAE from campus.
Representatives for the national organization did not respond to The Lion’s requests for comment. Though SAE’s Columbia leadership initially agreed to provide a statement, they had not responded on record by press time.
A Double Standard?
According to a brother in SAE, some ex-brothers see their charter’s revocation as proof that the university holds Greek life to a different standard than other student organizations. A former brother, who was willing to comment to The Lion anonymously, gave his take on the rationale behind the decision.
The former brother stressed that drinking at the pregame was not mandatory and that the event was “casual, unofficial, and without full member attendance.”
“For the record, the pledge was eventually told to stop drinking, was taken by brothers back to his room...we did everything in our power to ensure his safety and well being,” added the ex-brother.
“A pregame ending with excessive drinking is not something that occurs exclusively to fraternities. It [could have], quite simply, have happened to anyone. The question then becomes whether or not the disproportionate response we received from Columbia would have been identically issued if we were an a capella group, student government, or an ethnic cultural organization."
These concerns have been raised in the past by leaders within the Greek community, as Columbia’s ALPHA standards for fraternities and sororities have become more stringent, nearly tripling from twenty-two requirements in 2011 to fifty-eight in 2013. Administrators have also created a Task Force on Hazing to explore the deeper issue.
According to Columbia’s Student Affairs Website, hazing is defined as:
any action taken or situation created intentionally:
that causes embarrassment, harassment or ridicule
risks emotional and/or physical harm
to members of a group or team
whether new or not
regardless of the person's willingness to participate
The ex-brother also compared SAE’s woes with those of Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT), another Columbia fraternity whose demise can be tied to a hazing incident. According to the former SAE member, both fraternities were “kicked out for trivial things.”
Although ZBT’s eventual suspension was ultimately self-imposed, rather than university-mandated, the chapter was first placed on probation following a hazing incident with the women’s field hockey team at the fraternity’s brownstone.
The fraternity later lost its brownstone when kegs were found from a victory party celebrating the baseball team’s Ivy League championship.This violated their action plan with the university. This impromptu party shares similarities with the SAE pregame, in that both violated rules stated in the Greek Life Social Events Handbook.
Last month, ZBT’s national organization announced it had suspended operations on campus until 2015 due to the resignation of all current Columbia undergraduates.
The former brother also implied that the university should have taken SAE’s accomplishments into account when deciding its punishment. According to the ex-brother, “We had the second highest [fraternity] GPA,” the student argued. “Every member participated in philanthropy, we had cultural excursions for members, and we donated over $4000 for Relay for Life.”
The former brother’s complaint echoes arguments made by Matthew Renick, former president of AEPi, after his fraternity failed to secure a brownstone in November 2012, and Ben Ramalanjaona, in a February 2013 interview. In both cases, they emphasized the contributions their chapters made to the community and argued for the administration to evaluate fraternities on the basis of these contributions.
SAE at Columbia
SAE first appeared at Columbia in 1895 as the New York Mu chapter, but disbanded in 1961. A fifty-year long period of dormancy ended in the spring of 2012, when Anirban Poddar CC`14 and Kofi Agyapong CC`15, successfully petitioned to start an SAE colony at Columbia and received a provisional charter from the university.
Last fall, SAE began to put down roots at Columbia. SAE’s Facebook group (Addendum: 6:02 pm: The group has since been taken down, but had 32 members) and website show impressive growth during this period. According to a listing of brothers, the chapter gained nearly twenty members in its first semester, despite the lack of a permanent East Campus townhouse or brownstone.
An Ivy League phenomenon?
The loss of SAE’s charter at Columbia marks but another major setback, after the fraternity suffered a death and a hazing scandal at its other Ivy League chapters. At Cornell in 2011, an SAE brother died due to alcohol poisoning and asphyxiation during a pledge event, resulting in the chapter’s recognition from the national organization being revoked, followed by its recognition by Cornell being revoked. In a separate police investigation, three pledges were arrested, and later acquitted.
One year later at Dartmouth, after an SAE brother named Andrew Lohse was arrested for cocaine possession and witness tampering, he gave a tell-all interview to Rolling Stone. In the interview, he blasted the chapter for its brutal hazing practices, such as being forced to swim through a kiddie pool filled with vomit.
The subsequent investigation by the College resulted in the chapter receiving a year-long probation, although this didn’t hurt the chapter’s recruitment. This past fall, they took in 35 brothers, the largest pledge class out of all Dartmouth’s fraternities.
A commitment to change
In the wake of these scandals, news of SAE coming to Columbia prompted mixed reactions. While proponents of Greek life celebrated the appearance of the chapter, others questioned the judgment of letting a fraternity with such a reputation colonize.
The new chapter’s leadership sought to distance themselves from the stigma surrounding SAE in their recruitment efforts. A Facebook post recruiting new members last spring, emphasized the fraternity's commitment to service, contrasting their goals with negative stereorypes of fraternities. SAE’s national organization also implemented new policies to prevent future scandals. According to SAE’s website, new chapters are now held to much higher standards than previously established ones.
In order to receive a provisional charter, SAE’s presidents needed to form a list of potential new members, propose plans for new member education, and pass periodic evaluations on their philanthropy and volunteer efforts.
It remains uncertain what effects, if any, SAE’s disappearance may have on the general state of Greek organizations at Columbia. In the spring, the InterFraternity Council reported that Greek life on campus was growing at a steady rate, with over 1200 students having a fraternity or sorority affiliation. In the spring, in part due to the arrival of Alpha Omicron Pi, a record number of students received sorority bids.
[Photo credit: The Blue and White]
Countering this trend, the removal of SAE and ZBT brothers from the equation means that there are fewer Greek students and two fewer growing chapters — a significant development, because the level of Greek participation influences the IGC’s budget. These funds are used for various Greek life projects, awards, and general expenses. At F@CU, a distribution of funds from the Student Life Fee by the student councils, the number of Greek students is taken into account when approving any increases in the IGC's budget.
The climate at Columbia for new chapters seems to be different for fraternities and sororities. Though Alpha Omicron Pi and Gamma Phi Beta, two sororities, both recently received charters, SAE was the first new fraternity on campus in recent years. SAE and ZBT’s removal may discourage other fraternities from attempting to open Columbia chapters. That SAE’s disbanding follows the recent announcement that ZBT had lost its charter — making it the second fraternity in the past year to lose recognition — is cause for concern.
Greek life at Columbia isn’t going anywhere soon — in fact, according to a tip published in the November issue of The Blue and White, this past semester has been a very successful recruitment period for fraternities. But the fate of SAE sends a clear message of continued enforcement of regulations by the administration for Greek chapters.
Additional reporting was contributed by Daniel Stone and Jake Davidson.
[Header photo credit: sae.net]
[Addendum, 1:24 pm: We have received questions as to the identity of the chapter featured in this post. To clarify, the fraternity in question is Sigma Alpha Epsilon, not Sigma Phi Epsilon.]
[Addendum, 2:57 pm: The Spectator received a comment from national spokesperson Brandon Weghorst, who confirmed the loss of SAE's charter.
From the article:
"We closed the colony at Columbia University for failing to maintain the stringent standards, expectations and principles of Sigma Alpha Epsilon," Brandon Weghorst, a national SAE spokersperson told Spectator in an email.]
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to The Blue and White as "The Blue & White Magazine." The Lion regrets the error.
Correction #2: An earlier version of this article stated that George Desdunes, the Cornell student who died at a pledge event, was an SAE pledge, and that four brothers were arrested. He was a brother, and the students who were arrested were pledges. The Lion regrets the error.