Amid allegations that sorority members belittled pledges and locked them in a basement in 2010, Union College has put a halt to Sigma Delta Tau pledging.
The group cannot induct new members or run any events for them until the college finishes an investigation, Union spokesman Phil Wajda said.
Read the "Cosmopolitan" article
College officials took action after reading an article in Cosmopolitan magazine in which Union College graduate Tess Koman described her experience as a pledge three years ago.
She did not refer to the types of hazing that have led to deaths at other colleges, which involved alcohol abuse and beatings. Instead, she wrote of various means of verbal humiliation intended to make the pledges bond over their shared misery.
Union College and Sigma Delta Tau define that as hazing, but it doesn’t meet the definition of illegal hazing under state law.
Police Lt. Mark McCracken said he read Koman’s article carefully to see if any crimes had been committed.
“No criminal act took place based on what I read in her article,” he said. “It’s not illegal to shine a spotlight in their face and tell them they’re not cute.”
Not only is it not illegal, but the treatment she described reminded him of his weeks in boot camp and in the police academy.
“A lot of that stuff, it’s not that different from tactics used in the military,” he added. “You basically break them down with a group of other people. They humiliate you. The name-calling, the close quarters … although I didn’t have to pole-dance for my drill sergeant, and he didn’t tell me I was cute or not cute.”
The experience does form close bonds, he said, recalling how close he is to friends who served with him. But most importantly, the public humiliation forces soldiers to consider the military to be more important than themselves.
“Instead of the individual, you’re thinking of the team, the platoon, the Army,” he said. “It’s the same thing with the police. You’re trying to change their behaviors and mold them to conform the way you want them to.”
But taking such measures just to build bonds between students in a social organization is not appropriate, according to Union College and Sigma Delta Tau. Both are investigating Koman’s claims.
Sigma Delta Tau Executive Director Debbie Snyder said that humiliating pledges is against the sorority’s “mission of empowering women.”
“Hazing is absolutely against our values and policies,” she said.
She declined to answer questions about her experience as a pledge or the way in which she expects sororities to appropriately initiate new members.
The sorority’s published policies include a ban on any activities that are “destructive, demeaning or abusive,” and state that “all sorority activities should promote self-worth, human dignity and a positive Greek image.”
Koman described the opposite in her account.
It started with a “pledge name,” which she said was designed to be “condescending.”
“Some of them were just ridiculous and the whole point was to torment yourself wondering why you were called that in the first place,” she wrote.
Then, sisters sent them all an email telling them to get to the sorority house within seven minutes with all of their makeup removed. One by one, they sat in a spotlight as sisters described all of their physical imperfections, she wrote.
At other times, they were humiliated as a group.
“The sisters, who wanted to be amused and make us cry, asked us ridiculous and mean questions,” Koman wrote. “At any given line-up, at least a third of my pledge class cried.”
She wrote that she “alternated between sweating and wanting to vomit” during those sessions. Sometimes they were locked in the basement, she said, or screamed at by sisters.
By the end of it, she wrote, she was brainwashed into seeing nothing bad about the sorority.
“We were constantly told the sorority was special, that it was a privilege. And it is. To this day, I absolutely believe it is. That being said, I know now that I was being totally mind[expletive]ed,” she wrote.
She said she later dispensed the same treatment to others, even when her fellow sisters left the room because they didn’t want to see the pledges “squirm and cry.”
She said her desire was “twisted” but that she honestly believed the pledges needed to be humiliated to form close bonds with each other.
And she implied that she still believes that, writing that she speaks every day with several close friends from her pledge class.
“Pledging and getting hazed is horrible. But there’s a reason it’s not going anywhere any time soon,” she wrote, describing the experience as “weirdly worth it.”
But she also wrote that she was scarred by the experience and now has an overwhelming “fear of missing out” every weekend.
“I can trace both my best friends in the entire world and the [fear of missing out] that haunts me every Friday and Saturday night to this day back to the term during which I pledged my sorority,” she wrote.
Union College considers emotional damage to be hazing.
But that doesn’t make it a criminal act. Hazing is illegal if there is “risk of serious injury,” according to state law.
Locking the students in a basement could violate fire codes and possibly qualify as a risk, McCracken said. But he’s not sure how “locked up” they actually were during pledging.
“It depends on what other egress points are in the basement,” he said. “Were there other ways to get out? Were they physically locked in or just told they couldn’t leave?”
McCracken said he couldn’t even see grounds for a harassment charge.
“Not unless they threatened to beat her up,” he said. “Or maybe there’d be a charge if one of the students attempted to leave and someone physically blocked them.”
Koman’s article was published just as Sigma Delta Tau finished recruiting its new class of pledges at Union College. They were facing up to six weeks of pledging before being initiated, but those plans are now on hold until Union finishes investigating.