Few fraternity houses have received as much national attention as the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at Dartmouth College, and much of that is thanks to Andrew Lohse.
Lohse rocked the campus in early 2012 when he wrote an op-ed for the student newspaper describing illegal hazing activities he claimed were happening at SAE, where he was a member. A subsequent Rolling Stone feature expanded on his allegations, even as Lohse's own troubled background became fodder for tabloids and blogs.
But Dartmouth's SAE house has ultimately suffered very little fallout. What investigations there were came to nothing. And according to the current chapter president, it's more popular than ever among the new classes of students.
This month, the national SAE organization announced a ban on pledging, meant to ensure that those new brothers suffer no hazing. Pledging, a multi-step process in which prospective members are told to complete various tasks in order to earn a bid to join the fraternity, will be replaced by a house simply extending bids to interested students. What once lasted weeks will now last three days.
The national organization did not attribute its decision to Dartmouth or Lohse directly, but conceded that it acted in part due to news reports about various SAE chapters behaving badly, which made it more difficult for the fraternity to operate.
"At first, I felt vindicated," Lohse said of the decision. He said that he "hoped there would be big changes. That's why I made the decision to do the things I did." Maybe the ban on pledging would be a real step toward eradicating dangerous hazing, he thought.
But on further reflection, Lohse said, he's not sure a top-down approach will be very effective.
"After all, SAE has always seemed to claim that it didn’t have a hazing crisis, even when brothers died," Lohse said, "and since hazing was officially against its rules before this policy change, how can one think this is more than just PR?"
The Dartmouth chapter maintains to this day that most of what Lohse described did not happen. The national organization said it had investigated and could not corroborate the claims, and so today the house is in good standing.
Brandon Weghorst, spokesman for SAE, told The Huffington Post that the fraternity regrets Lohse didn't bring his concerns to national headquarters when he was still an active member of the house.
"If he had, we may have been able to investigate and look into those allegations sooner when he was an active member," Weghorst said. He added, "It's disgusting and shocking if it is true, but we've done what we can to try to determine if that was the case, and no one else has stepped forward to say yes, those allegations were accurate."
Lohse said he did go to Dartmouth administrators with his hazing claims prior to going public. He told them that pledges were forced to drink shots of alcohol and salt water, eat "vomlets" made of eggs and vomit, and use a slippery slide covered in urine, among other allegations.
"One seemed to gasp," Lohse recalled of a meeting with two officials in fall 2010. "They seemed genuinely surprised to me, which surprised me. Both had been at the college for quite a long time. One was an alumnus. It was basically common knowledge of undergrads. We all knew of hazing that we had gone through. The drinking culture was written about in the school newspaper."
There were a few more meetings, but nothing happened, Lohse said. Eventually, he said, the administrators stopped returning his emails. After Lohse went public with his allegations, Dartmouth attempted to charge him with the hazing activities he had reported. The charges against Lohse, along with those against 26 other SAE members, were eventually dropped by the administration. The SAE chapter was punished with a three-term probation for hazing in April 2012.
Following Lohse's revelations in February 2012, then-Dartmouth President Jim Y. Kim also established the Committee on Student Safety and Accountability, tasked with evaluating how well the college handled sexual assault, hazing and binge drinking. A mostly positive report was published in 2013, and the college is taking comments. According to spokesman Justin Anderson, Dartmouth is working hard to combat problematic behaviors, spending $1.1 million on initiatives devoted to sexual assault, high-risk drinking and overall campus climate in the last three years.
Lohse left the college without a degree in 2013 and has written a book about his experience.
Since then, the SAE fraternity has actually become more popular on campus.
Alexander Olesen, current president of the Dartmouth chapter, said his number one priority is to “make my fraternity the safest space for people” to be. Olesen said that he prides himself on being transparent with the administration and that he hasn’t felt under any increased scrutiny.
“I always use our recruitment yield as a barometer as how we’re perceived on campus,” Olesen said. According to Olesen, SAE has attracted more new members in each of the past two years than in any of the previous five. He said that 50 students interested in pledging a fraternity named SAE as their top choice this past fall, up from a record 38 a few years ago.
“It’s been pretty smooth sailing,” Olesen said.
Several SAE members who entered Dartmouth as freshmen in the fall of 2012 -- the academic year after Lohse made his allegations -- and were inducted into the fraternity as sophomores said the Lohse controversy wasn't even a discussion point during pledging.
"It didn't play a role at all," said sophomore Robert J. Scales, a newly inducted SAE brother. "The most important thing is, are these the types of guys that you want to associate with long term."
Several current Dartmouth SAE members told HuffPost that they had mixed feelings about eliminating pledging. Most of them didn't predict a drastic change in life at the house next year, but they lamented the loss of an experience in which they had first gotten to know the brothers. As for the possibility of illegal hazing in the future, some current members take a somewhat cynical stance similar to Lohse's.
"As hazing is already prohibited, by national policy and by law, it seems unlikely that the elimination of the new-member period will do anything to prevent already rogue chapters from making harmful mistakes," said sophomore Luke Dawson.
That's why the national headquarters will need cooperation from campus administrators, local police, parents and students, who can call SAE's anonymous hazing hotline, Weghorst noted.
"We have 13,000 undergraduates, 190,000 living alumni -- it's hard to please all the people and to get 100 percent buy-in," Weghorst said. "But in the past week, we've received more praise and compliments than complaints."
What may change with the elimination of the lengthy pledging process is that some of the fraternity's secret rituals -- which are forbidden to be revealed -- may simply take place sooner in the year, surmised sophomore and SAE member Adam Grounds.
The ban on pledging may make people "think twice if they're going to do anything illegal," Grounds added. "It'll give them another incentive to not do something stupid -- I think this is where the benefit will come from."