Leader of One of America's Largest Fraternities Moves to End the 'Cancer' of Hazing

Brad Cohen is the current leader of one of the nation's oldest and largest fraternities. SAE has 240 chapters nationwide with over 14,000 members. Last month Cohen announced an abrupt end to one of the best known fraternity traditions, the pledge process prior to becoming a member. His goal is to stop the "cancer" of hazing.

The motivation for the dramatic change isn't hard to discern. Since 2005, there have been at least 60 fraternity related deaths including nine that were connected to SAE chapters. In addition, more than a dozen chapters were closed by universities fed up with the behavior and the negative publicity.

Cohen seems to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. In the video announcing the change, he presents the move as a solution to an existential question for his organization. Either hazing stops or SAE stops, maybe in as soon as five years.

I spoke with Cohen by phone this morning and asked him about his decision to, as he put it, "cut the head off the snake." Our conversation went a bit long so it has been lightly edited for length.

Breitbart News: You put an end to the pledge system. Was it your goal to eliminate the potential for future hazing incidents?

Brad Cohen: Yeah that really was the mental goal behind it all. I would say SAE was probably decades ago one of the first to say no hazing. And we’ve had it in our laws. We have a pretty extensive health and safety manual called Minerva’s shield that outlines everything. The problem is, what we found, was when you have two classes, initiated members that have gone through the ritual and the new members or the pledges, it just leaves that door open for potential hazing. And as the incidents grew and it became more of an issue, we figured the only way to totally eliminate it was to cut the head of the snake off. So by eliminating pledge ship and putting everybody on a level playing field we should be able to eliminate hazing.

Breitbart: The video announcement you released framed this as an existential question. Either something changes or the fraternity may cease to exist in five years. Was that a reference to the threat of legal judgments or to something else?

Cohen: I think it’s a combination of everything. First of all if we find it difficult or almost impossible whether it’s a pricing structure or insurance companies say we’re not going to insure you. You can’t exist in today’s world without insurance. And I can’t imagine any alumni volunteers putting their personal assets at risk without coverage. You know, originally we used to have each chapter have their own individual coverage, they’d go out and get it themselves. And the national organization would have its own. Ten, fifteen, almost twenty years ago, chapters couldn’t obtain their own insurance. And so that’s when we went and got an umbrella policy for the entire organization. So when a chapter has an incident, whether it’s a little incident at a local chapter, the national organization has insured them so we’re all paying for it.

The second part is, if universities don’t like the behavior and what’s going on eventually they close the chapters down and don’t allow you to come back. That leads to extinction. And I think parents are becoming more and more aware of the potential issues that their kids could face where there is hazing. Now don’t get me wrong, we’ve got 240 groups across the country. By no means is every chapter out of control with hazing. I compare hazing to cancer. You know it might start with the smallest little thing that is almost insignificant but as each group comes in and gets initiated the next groups wants to do a little more and so it grows like cancer and eventually it’s out of control.

Breitbart: What was the final straw for you? What made you decide this had to happen right now?

Cohen: That’s a good question. I would say when we looked over the last ten years, nine years at the number of hazing related deaths, that was obviously a driving force. The negative publicity certainly didn’t help. The other part is we started our expansion program – we had a couple of universities basically say, due to all this negative publicity and what’s going on, we’re denying you the ability to colonize our campus. Also looking at the financial element, the insurance costs going up so dramatically has been putting a tremendous burden on our undergraduate members who are footing that bill.

Breitbart: You’ve been in contact with the parents of one of the students who died in a hazing incident, a boy named Carson Starkey. How has that affected you?

Cohen: Their tragedy has weighed heavily on us and anyone that’s been involved in the organization since that incident occurred. There was just absolutely no reason for it. First of all hazing is not tolerable. It’s disgusting. But when hazing involves forced alcohol consumption to young freshmen, who are doing whatever they have to do to be part of a team and get in, and that leads to a death…that weighs heavily, especially on our board, on our staff, on anybody who is involved in this organization.

I’m not going to get into the legalities, that case was settled, but we never had an opportunity to ever speak to the Starkey family. But what really touched me was when we made this announcement the Starkey family reached out to us. Our executive director and myself had a conference call with the Starkey family and a couple members of their foundation. Their foundation is called Aware, Awake, Alive that was started after Carson died. They called to basically tell us they were extremely moved and appreciative of what we had done as a board. They called it a bold decision and said we had courage to do what we did. The basic gist was that by us doing this, they felt this was the beginning of the healing process for both organizations, for SAE and for their family. And for me that reinforced what we had done was the right thing.

Breitbart: I understand you have a personal motivation for making this change. You have a son nearing college age?

Cohen: Yeah. I have three kids but two sons. My older one has really grown up around SAE. He’s been to all of our national events, the national leadership schools. He always feels like he’s a little SAE. He knows some of the songs and he’s had a lot of fun around these guys and he describes them as true gentlemen. He’s obviously seen the best of SAE. I’ve instilled in them through this whole process that we all have personal choices to make in life. And no matter how much you want something if it’s the wrong thing you say no. However, I also realize when a kid is 18—he’ll be just 18 when he goes to college by a couple months--yeah he’s legally an adult but at that age he’s still very young and very impressionable. And when he gets offered a bid to join wherever he goes, as much as I think and hope he’ll do the right thing if he was potentially hazed—to be able to say no and walk away—I also know that peer pressure can be great. And I couldn’t imagine getting a phone call at 2 o’clock in the morning to say something has happened to your kid, a death or a significant tragedy because of something as stupid as hazing.

While I love the fraternity and it’s important and it’s been a big part of my volunteer life, it’s not everything. You know I often say your faith and your family is first, and then your career, then your community, then SAE. Other board members also have kids and we all share the same thoughts, "God that could have been our kid in four or five years." No parent should ever have to deal with a tragedy like the Starkeys went through for something as stupid as hazing.

Breitbart: Last year after you took over as leader you proposed a ban on drinking in chapter houses. Other fraternities have made that decision. Do you still see that as a future possibility for SAE?

Cohen: I can’t take credit. I’ll give you a little history. In 2009 at our national convention in Memphis it was one of the law proposals. It passed by a majority but it didn’t get the 2/3 majority needed to amend the national laws. We modified our policy saying the fraternity has indicated they don’t want to have alcohol free housing but the voice on the floor was pretty emphatic that those chapters that violate the alcohol policy should be punished. And so we got more aggressive on that. We tried to bring it up again at our convention a year ago in Chicago and it didn’t pass.

Alcohol free housing doesn’t stop the drinking problem. Alcohol free housing, what it does is it changes a little bit of the culture so that the house isn’t the central focus of the parties and it also helps preserve the properties. If you look at the sororities, sororities are all alcohol free and their houses look beautiful and smell beautiful, not all fraternities do. I am a huge proponent of controlling it, eliminating the binge drinking. Because what’s happening is a lot of these kids will go to an event where they know they’ll be carded and they’re not 21, they’ll go to pre-parties at people’s homes or apartments or dorm rooms and that’s where they’re binge drinking. The other problem is a lot of the kids today versus 20 years ago, 30 years ago when I was in college, a lot of these kids are on medication—anti-anxiety, depression drugs, attention-deficit drugs--and we don’t know what the combination is for each individual when mixed with alcohol.

Breitbart: As I read through your written announcement, you seem to see this as a reformation, a return to original intent. Is that how you see it?

Cohen: Yes to some degree. Our fraternity was founded in 1856 by eight young guys, I think they were 17 and 18 years old. The 9th guy they recruited on campus and they offered him a bid and initiated him. When I say initiate, initiate doesn’t mean a hazing. Initiate means go through the formal ritual, the ceremony, which is actually a beautiful ceremony that talks about how to be a brother, how to be a gentlemen, how to be your brother’s keeper. It talks about values; it’s got a lot of greek mythology. I haven’t been a mason but a lot of people said it’s very similar to the Masonic ritual. And some of our greatest SAE’s that helped grow and build this fraternity in the 20s and 30s were the same. They were recruited and initiated within a couple of days. What this new program does is take education from a 4, 6 or 8 week pledge program into an educational program over the course of their full undergraduate experience. And they still have to meet requirements.

Breitbart: Not everyone has been happy about these changes. How would you assess the mood of the organization right now? Has anyone threatened to quit?

Cohen: No. At first there was a major-- oh my god what have you guys done. And I’ll tell you every one of our chapters has met the requirements. They all initiated their pledge classes. They’re all in a learning curve but we’ve been having webinars. We had a series of four last week and the attendance was fantastic. We’ve had some pushback from some of the alumni, you know that old mentality--well we went through it they should have to go through it. But I will tell you I’ve had an outpouring of incredible support especially the leadership, I’m talking about chapter advisers, our regional presidents, our three boards, our past national presidents. Parents are extremely supportive of what we’ve done and the universities have been very supportive.

Breitbart: You’ve been in contact with other fraternities. Do you think other people are going to follow this lead?

Cohen: It’s hard to say. Every organization has its own politics, its own agenda. I will tell you the response I’ve personally received from a lot of the national fraternities has been extremely positive. They’ve all said we’re watching, we’re evaluating, we’re having similar discussions. Now whether those discussions mean we’re going to make the change tomorrow, nobody knows, but I haven’t had anyone call and say “God you guys are out of your mind.” Everybody has been very supportive. I feel good about it. 

What the board feels good about too, we speak about this regularly, you know we might be doing this for insurance and for all these other things and protect SAE but most importantly we keep reminding ourselves we’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do. In today’s world there’s just no reason for anyone to be hazed. I’m all about education, I’m all about setting high standards, I’m all about accountability, but I’m not about anyone being abused and taken advantage of just purely because of their status in an organization.


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