IMAGE: Sigma Phi Epsilon yoga class
L.G. Patterson  /  AP
Members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at the University of Missouri-Columbia work out in their morning yoga class on Sept. 14.
updated 10/4/2007 5:04:05 AM ET 2007-10-04T09:04:05

The basement of the Sigma Phi Epsilon house at the University of Missouri-Columbia is filled with familiar fraternity icons like a well-worn pool table, stacks of violent films like "Kill Bill" on DVD, and of course, the stench of stale beer.

A closer look reveals a much different scene. With the soothing sounds of a "Zen Cafe" CD playing in the background, Sig Ep brothers listen raptly as a campus yoga instructor leads them through a series of contortionist poses during an 8 a.m. workout.

Early morning yoga is just one of the changes at the fraternity since the Missouri chapter adopted its "Balanced Man" program in 2006 — just a few years after the university punished the chapter for hazing.

Now, there are trips to the opera, wine tastings and documentary film screenings. And by eliminating the pledging system — a tradition of initiation critics say encourages hazing — new members are treated as equals from the start.

"I didn't really feel like the traditional fraternity life was for me," said Tony Brown, a sophomore journalism major at Sigma Phi Epsilon. "I wanted a place I could come into and immediately feel respected."

For years, fraternity pledges were forced to perform menial tasks, memorize arcane fraternity history and willingly submit to verbal and sometimes physical abuse — all to prove their loyalty and devotion to the group.

That all changed at the Missouri chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon when the national organization cleaned house last year following the hazing incident in which a group of pledges were told to "kidnap" an unwitting older member — a prank that caused worried onlookers to call campus police.

The national group kicked out a dozen members who didn't measure up to their new standards, which include a minimum 2.6 grade point average, said chapter president Keith Ziercher. Another 41 members chose not to return under the revamped system.

Skepticism remains
For the members who remained, skepticism ran high.

"It was kind of difficult for us," Ziercher said. "It's been a hard transition."

After the national purge, membership had dwindled to 32 men at Missouri. But over the past two semesters, another 25 have joined — many attracted by the opportunity to build friendships through mutual respect, not servitude.

"We have ways of building brotherhood without the fear that goes along with hazing," said Brown. "We can accomplish the same thing."

After decades of wrestling with the stigma and the legal liabilities created by alcohol abuse, cheating, poor grades, hazing and other problems, fraternity leaders across the country are looking to reinvent — if not restore — the ideals of going Greek.

At Missouri, four of the 28 traditional Greek fraternities have eliminated pledging. The change isn't new on campus — Lambda Chi Alpha took that step nationally more than three decades ago.

Back to basics?
Nationally, programs such as Beta Theta Pi's "Men of Principle," Lambda Chi Alpha's "True Brother Initiative" and the Sigma Phi Epsilon "Balanced Man" effort seek a return to the roots of campus Greek life. Organizers talk of honor, virtue, scholarship, civic engagement and other core values.

Nearly 80 percent of Sigma Phi Epsilon's 253 chapters participate in the voluntary initiative, which began in 1992, said Matthew Ontell, who directs the national Sigma Phi Epsilon initiative. Ontell said the changes have helped make Sigma Phi Epsilon the nation's largest fraternity.

"We're doing our best to destroy the frat boy stereotype," he said. "This is what Greek life is supposed to be about — holding men to a higher standard."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments