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Frat Banned At Oklahoma University Is Familiar With Controversy


This is far from the first time the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon has been engulfed in scandal. An investigation by Bloomberg News found that 15 chapters were closed or suspended over the past three years. Their investigation turned up 10 deaths tied to SAE events since 2006 - more than any other fraternity. They also chronicled the brutal initiation process that recruits endured. John Hechinger was part of the team writing about Sigma Alpha Epsilon for Bloomberg News. I asked him about the fraternity's history.

JOHN HECHINGER: Well, it was founded in 1856 at the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa. And its original members - interestingly enough - fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. It has famous members like William Faulkner and Eliot Ness, President William McKinley. These days a lot of people on Wall Street first joined this brotherhood at SAE. So it has - it's a powerful - it's a wealthy fraternity, and now it's finding itself in big trouble.

CORNISH: Do you have any sense of the demographics there? For instance, are there any African-Americans in any of its chapters?

HECHINGER: Yes, there are. You know, it's made a lot of efforts to become more diverse and to change its ways. We did a story last year about Brad Cohen, who is the current president. He gained national attention by banning pledging - that's the initiation ritual where a lot of the abuse takes place. He was kind of hailed as a reformer and I spent some time with him when I did a profile. And he feels very strongly about diversity - feels that that's, you know, part of their creed, as people who belong to SAE call themselves true gentleman. And so if you saw his reaction in the couple of days ago, he was really horrified by what happened. So, you know, this is yet another challenge for them - because of all of the deaths, SAE had very high insurance rates. And, you know, they had chapters closing - a hundred chapters disciplined. And now they're facing this. So I think it's really - there's now a struggle for the heart of this fraternity.

CORNISH: We mentioned your report earlier that that - it's an incident that took place in Maryland, which is the story of one recruit. Tell us about that incident. It involved hazing.

HECHINGER: That's right. The recruit told us that it sounded like something out of Guantanamo Bay. Recruits were submerged in ice while having to say the fraternity's motto. They were confined for nine hours in a basement while listening to earsplitting German music. They were forced to drink until they almost passed out. It was just horrifying, and it was all pretty much secret. They received sort of a slight penalty, but when we did a records request we found out that a lot of this had happened and they later ended up disciplining the fraternity further. And all of this led to the fraternity deciding to end the whole pledging process.

CORNISH: You write there are a lot of Wall Street connections among SAE members. Does this give the fraternity a certain amount of, I guess, protection in a way?

HECHINGER: Well, I think it does. I mean, well, the - one of pledges who was hazed told us that part of the reason that he put up with some of the abuse was that he felt that this was a way to get an edge to get a job on Wall Street. We found not just at SAE but in many fraternities when colleges try to crack down, when they close fraternities, there's - sometimes there's a backlash. You have donors big and small. They stop giving to fraternities, and colleges often, you know, tout their relationship with fraternities as a selling point in admissions. In the case we wrote about in Maryland, after the fraternity was sanctioned, a big donor who had been a member and supporter of the fraternity said he was withdrawing a $2 million pledge. So they do have power. They do have money, and sometimes that makes a difference.

CORNISH: John Hechinger - he covers education for Bloomberg. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

HECHINGER: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.