Brad Cohen is the current leader of one of the nation’s oldest andlargest fraternities. SAE has 240 chapters nationwide with over 14,000members. Last month Cohen announced an abrupt end to one of the bestknown fraternity traditions, the pledge process prior to becoming amember. 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 60fraternity related deaths including nine that were connected to SAEchapters. In addition, more than a dozen chapters were closed byuniversities fed up with the behavior and the negative publicity.
Cohen seems to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. In the video announcingthe change, he presents the move as a solution to an existentialquestion for his organization. Either hazing stops or SAE stops, maybein as soon as five years.
I spoke with Cohen by phone this morning and asked him about hisdecision to, as he put it, “cut the head off the snake.” Ourconversation 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 itall. I would say SAE was probably decades ago one of the first to say nohazing. And we’ve had it in our laws. We have a pretty extensive healthand safety manual called Minerva’s shield that outlines everything. Theproblem is, what we found, was when you have two classes, initiatedmembers that have gone through the ritual and the new members or thepledges, it just leaves that door open for potential hazing. And as theincidents grew and it became more of an issue, we figured the only wayto totally eliminate it was to cut the head of the snake off. So byeliminating pledge ship and putting everybody on a level playing fieldwe should be able to eliminate hazing.
Breitbart: The video announcement you released framed this as anexistential question. Either something changes or the fraternity maycease to exist in five years. Was that a reference to the threat of legaljudgments or to something else?
Cohen: I think it’s a combination of everything. First of all if wefind it difficult or almost impossible whether it’s a pricing structureor insurance companies say we’re not going to insure you. You can’texist in today’s world without insurance. And I can’t imagine any alumnivolunteers putting their personal assets at risk without coverage. Youknow, originally we used to have each chapter have their own individualcoverage, they’d go out and get it themselves. And the nationalorganization would have its own. Ten, fifteen, almost twenty years ago,chapters couldn’t obtain their own insurance. And so that’s when we wentand got an umbrella policy for the entire organization. So when achapter has an incident, whether it’s a little incident at a localchapter, the national organization has insured them so we’re all payingfor it.
The second part is, if universities don’t like the behavior andwhat’s going on eventually they close the chapters down and don’t allowyou to come back. That leads to extinction. And I think parents arebecoming more and more aware of the potential issues that their kidscould face where there is hazing. Now don’t get me wrong, we’ve got 240groups across the country. By no means is every chapter out of controlwith hazing. I compare hazing to cancer. You know it might start withthe smallest little thing that is almost insignificant but as each groupcomes in and gets initiated the next groups wants to do a little moreand 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 thelast ten years, nine years at the number of hazing related deaths, that wasobviously a driving force. The negative publicity certainly didn’t help.The other part is we started our expansion program – we had a couple ofuniversities basically say, due to all this negative publicity andwhat’s going on, we’re denying you the ability to colonize our campus.Also looking at the financial element, the insurance costs going up sodramatically has been putting a tremendous burden on our undergraduatemembers who are footing that bill.
Breitbart: You’ve been in contact with the parents of one of thestudents who died in a hazing incident, a boy named Carson Starkey. Howhas that affected you?
Cohen: Their tragedy has weighed heavily on us and anyone that’s beeninvolved in the organization since that incident occurred. There wasjust absolutely no reason for it. First of all hazing is not tolerable.It’s disgusting. But when hazing involves forced alcohol consumption toyoung freshmen, who are doing whatever they have to do to be part of ateam and get in, and that leads to a death…that weighs heavily,especially on our board, on our staff, on anybody who is involved inthis organization.
I’m not going to get into the legalities, that case was settled, butwe never had an opportunity to ever speak to the Starkey family. Butwhat really touched me was when we made this announcement the Starkeyfamily reached out to us. Our executive director and myself had aconference call with the Starkey family and a couple members of theirfoundation. Their foundation is called Aware, Awake, Alive that was started after Carson died. They called to basically tell usthey were extremely moved and appreciative of what we had done as aboard. They called it a bold decision and said we had courage to do whatwe did. The basic gist was that by us doing this, they felt this wasthe beginning of the healing process for both organizations, for SAE andfor their family. And for me that reinforced what we had done was theright 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 reallygrown up around SAE. He’s been to all of our national events, thenational leadership schools. He always feels like he’s a little SAE. Heknows some of the songs and he’s had a lot of fun around these guys andhe 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 havepersonal choices to make in life. And no matter how much you wantsomething if it’s the wrong thing you say no. However, I also realizewhen a kid is 18–he’ll be just 18 when he goes to college by a couplemonths–yeah he’s legally an adult but at that age he’s still very youngand very impressionable. And when he gets offered a bid to joinwherever he goes, as much as I think and hope he’ll do the right thingif he was potentially hazed–to be able to say no and walk away–I alsoknow that peer pressure can be great. And I couldn’t imagine getting aphone call at 2 o’clock in the morning to say something has happened toyour kid, a death or a significant tragedy because of something asstupid as hazing.
While I love the fraternity and it’s important and it’s been a bigpart of my volunteer life, it’s not everything. You know I often sayyour faith and your family is first, and then your career, then yourcommunity, then SAE. Other board members also have kids and we all sharethe same thoughts, “God that could have been our kid in four or fiveyears.” No parent should ever have to deal with a tragedy like theStarkeys went through for something as stupid as hazing.
Breitbart: Last year after you took over as leader you proposed a banon drinking in chapter houses. Other fraternities have made thatdecision. 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 2009at 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 toamend the national laws. We modified our policy saying the fraternityhas indicated they don’t want to have alcohol free housing but the voiceon the floor was pretty emphatic that those chapters that violate thealcohol policy should be punished. And so we got more aggressive onthat. We tried to bring it up again at our convention a year ago inChicago and it didn’t pass.
Alcohol free housing doesn’t stop the drinking problem. Alcohol freehousing, what it does is it changes a little bit of the culture so thatthe house isn’t the central focus of the parties and it also helpspreserve the properties. If you look at the sororities, sororities areall 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 ofthese kids will go to an event where they know they’ll be carded andthey’re not 21, they’ll go to pre-parties at people’s homes orapartments or dorm rooms and that’s where they’re binge drinking. Theother problem is a lot of the kids today versus 20 years ago, 30 yearsago when I was in college, a lot of these kids are onmedication–anti-anxiety, depression drugs, attention-deficit drugs–andwe don’t know what the combination is for each individual when mixedwith 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 theyrecruited on campus and they offered him a bid and initiated him. When Isay initiate, initiate doesn’t mean a hazing. Initiate means go throughthe formal ritual, the ceremony, which is actually a beautiful ceremonythat talks about how to be a brother, how to be a gentlemen, how to beyour brother’s keeper. It talks about values; it’s got a lot of greekmythology. I haven’t been a mason but a lot of people said it’s verysimilar to the Masonic ritual. And some of our greatest SAE’s thathelped 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 newprogram does is take education from a 4, 6 or 8 week pledge programinto an educational program over the course of their full undergraduateexperience. And they still have to meet requirements.
Breitbart: Not everyone has been happy about these changes. How wouldyou assess the mood of the organization right now? Has anyonethreatened to quit?
Cohen: No. At first there was a major– oh my god what have you guysdone. And I’ll tell you every one of our chapters has met therequirements. They all initiated their pledge classes. They’re all in alearning curve but we’ve been having webinars. We had a series of fourlast week and the attendance was fantastic. We’ve had some pushback fromsome of the alumni, you know that old mentality–well we went throughit they should have to go through it. But I will tell you I’ve had anoutpouring of incredible support especially the leadership, I’m talkingabout chapter advisers, our regional presidents, our three boards, ourpast national presidents. Parents are extremely supportive of what we’vedone 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, itsown agenda. I will tell you the response I’ve personally received from alot of the national fraternities has been extremely positive. They’veall said we’re watching, we’re evaluating, we’re having similardiscussions. Now whether those discussions mean we’re going to make thechange tomorrow, nobody knows, but I haven’t had anyone call and sayI feel good about it.
What the board feels good about too, we speak about this regularly, youknow we might be doing this for insurance and for all these other thingsand protect SAE but most importantly we keep reminding ourselves we’redoing this because it’s the right thing to do. In today’s world there’sjust no reason for anyone to be hazed. I’m all about education, I’m allabout setting high standards, I’m all about accountability, but I’m notabout anyone being abused and taken advantage of just purely because oftheir status in an organization.