Monday, August 31, 2009

It’s Time to End Pledging

The onset of recruitment activities in fraternal organizations across North America leads to the onset of pledging activities. The former involves the best of fraternity – self-governance, building friendships, creating connections, etc. The latter, in my view, represents the worst of fraternity.

I believe it is time to consider eliminating pledging from the fraternity experience. Of course, this is a decision each fraternity needs to make on their own. However, it’s become ridiculous to see how much we bend over backwards to keep some form of pledging alive. 12 weeks, 8 weeks, 4 weeks. Instead of shortening the pledge periods, or trying to soften their effect by creating elaborate “member education programs,” I think we’ll solve many problems by just scrapping pledging altogether.

At least a couple of national fraternities have tried to eliminate pledging (most recently in 1989). Typically, these attempts are thwarted by alumni who couldn’t go along with the idea of a pledge-free experience. Zeta Beta Tau continues to be pledging-free. New members must be initiated within 72 hours of receiving a bid. I would challenge ZBT to more actively promote this, since it is a very distinguishable selling point.

Most fraternities hold tightly to pledging as if it was part of our founders’ vision. Pledging was something added to the fraternity experience much later, and we existed for many years without it. It emerged in the early 1900’s. How it came about is unclear. Some sources point to the influx of G.I. Bill students who brought military-style rites of passage into fraternities. Other sources claim it to be just an outgrowth of hazing activities older classes inflicted upon new freshmen (imagine kids wandering the campus wearing beanies). The point is, pledging wasn't there from the start, although we act as if it was. Pledging wasn't a necessary change or evolution of fraternity - it was an add-on. Add-ons can be removed.

Pledging has never served a critical purpose. The best pledging programs can be useful, and perhaps even beneficial to the fraternity. However, can these benefits only be gained by pledging programs? Do the positives outweigh the negatives? I cannot think of any compelling reasons why pledging is necessary for the health and sustainability of fraternal organizations. I can think several reasons why it could continue to be our downfall. Chief among these is hazing, one of the single biggest reasons men will not join our organizations.

My biggest problem with pledging is that it leads to apathy. Why would we take committed, eager, energetic young men, and right from the beginning of their experience, give them a finish line? That’s what initiation has become in most fraternities and sororities. It’s viewed as the end, and not the beginning.

Those that cling to pledging argue that it’s the best way for a new member to learn about the history and values of the fraternity. Really? I’d bet that in 90% of fraternities that use pledging as the primary educational vehicle, 90% of the chapter forgets everything they were taught in pledging. History can be conveyed to new members outside of the pledging structure. Values are taught through Ritual, which is something used continuously – again outside of the pledging structure. Pledging is not the only (or even the best) vehicle to teach history and values.

Proponents of pledging also argue that it creates pledge class unity. Why do we care so much about pledge class unity? We don’t need to force unity upon a group of men who will likely bond anyway due to their similar ages, class year, and life experiences. As Dave Westol and others have taught me, individuals join a fraternity, not a pledge class.

Finally, those who argue for pledging describe it as the best way to test the commitment level of potential initiates. If this were true, we wouldn’t have member apathy as an issue of concern in almost 100% of our chapters. Commitment can be judged based on a recruit’s past experiences (the best predictor of future behavior). Pledging is a false test of commitment.

So what should we do instead? Recruit better. We should employ effective, well-designed, and disciplined recruitment processes that allow us to investigate a man’s character before we offer a bid. We should take time to get to know his past accomplishments and his future goals. Maybe we should even demand recommendation letters from high school teachers or coaches? After we give him a bid, we should immediately assign him a mentor (such as a big brother) who helps him learn fraternity history, policies, and responsibilities. We should immediately include him in all fraternity activities except for Ritual activities. We should then initiate him as soon as possible.

I believe that the national fraternity that eliminates pledging, gains buy-in from alumni and undergraduates by arguing the points described above, and then promotes a pledging-free experience to potential members, will see immediate benefits. Alumni may be angry. Give them a fraternity that grows and excels, and they will get over it.

Let’s quit tinkering around the edges and instead, show boldness that would make our founders proud. It’s time for pledging to go. We don't need it anymore. Actually, we never did.

16 comments:

  1. You're not smart are you? Pledging and recruitment is a lifeblood and a serves as a foundation. Without that, what do you have? Sorry that you picked the wrong chapter!!

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  2. You have some interesting ideas. In my opinion not all that well thought out, but interesting. I believe pledge education should be relatively short but non existent...no.

    Yes the pledge education program is a time to learn about the chapter and the national/international HQ. The reason there was not candidate education when organizations were founded was because they had no history when they were started. If 90% of the chapter forgets everything the learned about the organization you have a pathetic program. More importantly pledging is a time for candidates to learn about the members and the members to learn about the candidates. This way everyone has more than the standard recruitment week to get to know each other. This idea of investigating and requiring recommendations is also just awful. We would see a membership decline worse than we did in the 90's.

    Initiating men and women within 72 hours is a terrible idea. Groups would have to have several initiations per semester, maybe two in the same week. Don't get me wrong, frequent ritual is important but this would just get excessive.

    You should do some research on this topic rather than making up statistics. 100% of chapters have a problem with apathy? You cannot tell me that came from a credible source.

    Something needs to be done about the hazing problem that is all too common. Maybe we need a MORE structured and a consistent program from HQ’s. Sigma Phi Epsilon’s balanced man program is amazing and they have seen tremendous success. We need more structure not less. Taking away what structure chapters do have will only perpetuate hazing in chapters.

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  3. Great argument from the fraternity perspective, but what about from the recruit's?

    When I accepted a bid, I knew next to nothing about fraternity life and only knew a handful of brothers. I wouldn't have been ready so make such a huge commitment before the pledge process. I needed the pledge period to learn what I was getting myself into. I needed to get to know all the brothers, learn what fraternity meant, and what was expected of me as a brother before making the plunge.

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  4. I advocate for inverse minimum member expecations. what if the new members had lower expectations and as they progressed through the organization, the expectations on them actually increased?

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  5. It seems to me that initiating a man or woman after only 72 hours of giving them a bid sets an organization up for pinning in members who they may not know very well. I know you are going to advocate for a longer recruitment process in order to get to know the potential new members but from a formal recruitment stand point I am not sure how this would work.

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  6. I don't see this working for women's/NPC groups, especially when the majority of new members enter through the formal recruitment process. You talk to a potential new member for 30 minutes each day in an intense, pressure-filled environment where EVERYONE is on her absolute BEST behavior, bid her, then initiate her 72 hours later? Not only that, but look at it from a PNM's perspective. She is making a lifetime commitment to an organization and people in it that she has known for less than a week. The new member period in the NPC's case does serve a practical purpose: chapters get to make sure that their new members will not create severe risk/grade/safety/other problems, and the new member gets to make sure that she is making a lifetime commitment to the group that is right for her.

    In regards to the recommendations, NPC groups already have that on some campuses where recruitment is intense. Recommendations will not solve any problem there.

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  7. I definitely don't agree with eliminating a pledge program.
    Joining a fraternity to big of a commitment to make within 72 hours of receiving a bid.
    One big reason is the amount of $ that is involved with joining fraternities. Compared to others my chapter was cheap only having dues that were $65 a month (8 total months a year). Thats over $2,000 for someone who attends college for 4 years.

    Although my fraternity did not have a pledge program in it's beginnings, they did spend long amounts of time getting to know a guy before they offered them a chance to join. Sometimes watching, following and doing research about a person for over a semester. They would watch the person to see how they interacted & treated people for months before deciding if they would even ask the person if they were interested in joining the fraternity.
    These days that just isn't possible with all the rules & guidelines that schools' put on the greek system.

    So I disagree that pledging needs to go away, but I do feel that fraternities should do a better job at finding potential members before they give out bids.

    Jacob
    http://sharesigmachi.wordpress.com
    http://www.sharesigmachi.com

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  8. Great post, John. As an alumni advisor and someone who has gone through a very structured pledge program, I can't tell you how much I agree with your sentiments. Of course, there will always be people afraid of making the changes for the better, because changing a tradition is hard, but not impossible. It only takes one time to make a tradition.

    While I don't 100% agree with the 72 hours of ZBT, as I think its a little hard for someone to decide in 72 hours, I tend to agree with the broad concepts of a new member education process that give new members a learning opportunity but also a sense of self worth. Too often, pledging becomes a system where the new members are "second class" and can fall victim to all forms of hazing. I do believe we, as a fraternal system, need a better process. I think our system tends to also be very cumbersome, and change takes a long time to ingrain itself. I think we should start slow, but with energy. I do agree that pledging is a bit overrated, however, I just don't know how willing any national organization would be to eliminate the entirety of pledging in whatever form it is.

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  9. Man, you are right on. I helped refound a chapter as a sophmore and we had our ups and downs until we had our ah ha moment when we realized it was about the brotherhood, not what your status is. Since graduating in 2003 the chapter went from a 17 to 70 man chapter. I recently took on the role of National Chapter Advisor for the group and looking back now I wish we never would of had a pledge program. I think it caused more division than unity. We never hazed but we did have our fun events and rituals. When I was President I made it clear to treat new members as if they were already active members because if you don't and they made it through the pledge program they would in turn act that way to the next batch of pledges causing each pledge class to have its own smaller group within the group. This is no good as people are not willing to work together. If you want to prove your worth to your chapter than do as much as you can for it. Once we decided to do as many events, fundraisers, etc. we had a lot of our guys who were only there for the social parts of it drop out. To me, this was the best pledge program you could offer.

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  10. Maybe the correct frame of thought should be that it's time to end hazing -- which it is.

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  11. Awesome argument from a fraternal standpoint; there were plenty of valid points you raised I can honestly agree with.

    But one area I disagree on is that pledging should be done away with altogether. If men are truly committed to learning more about their fraternities & the chapters they're pledging to, it's imperative that such introductory programming takes place. Not to take offense; just saying.

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  12. I would argue that the pledging process is one of the most valuable processes at which fraternities undergo. I would be extremely upset of the opportunity to pledge was stripped of me. I formed stronger bonds with my pledge class and eventually the "actives" through pledging. There are tons of things that I will cherish and laugh about until the day I pass. I also lost some of my pledge brothers throughout the pledge process, but it was for the better. If there was not a pledging program then they would be in my fraternity right now, never showing up or contributing to the fraternity in any way.

    Madden Rodrigue

    University of Louisiana at Lafayette Greek community

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  13. Some of my most memorable "official" fraternal experiences were through my pledge process. These events brought me far closer to my fellow pledges and members, in a way I would NEVER have done otherwise. It elevated our bonds to the next level, redefining how I interact and engage with people.

    It will be different for each Fraternity/Sorority, and it'll be whatever they decide. Pledging is the thing that made me certain I wanted to join the Fraternity.

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  14. ummm... Errr... I couldn't get past the 4th paragraph...

    "..It emerged in the early 1900’s. How it came about is unclear. Some sources point to the influx of G.I. Bill students who brought military-style rites of passage..."

    Dude! The Servicemen's Readjustment Act (a.k.a. The G.I. Bill) was passed into law in 1944! What kind of sources are pointing to that???

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  15. Several National fraternities have replaced pledging programs with continuous advancement programs. Look into Sigma Phi Epsilon's Balanced Man Program or SAE's True Gentleman Experience. Eliminating pledging can be and is being done with remarkable success

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  16. In ZBT the pledging process was replaced with membership development program known as "The Journey". It focuses on continued development of the individual during his college days and beyond. Since 1989 this program has helped us build a better brotherhood. It is a program based on equal rights and equal responsibilities for all brothers.

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