Sigma Alpha Epsilon house

A USC student runs in front of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house in October 2013 on the university's "fraternity row." The fraternity has been put on probation after a student from another college fell from a table during a party and was taken to the hospital. (Spencer Bakalar / Los Angeles Times / October 15, 2013)

Sigma Alpha Epsilon, among the nation's largest and most storied college fraternities, eliminated the controversial "pledging" process Sunday, saying new members once referred to as "pledges" immediately would be treated as fairly and equally as more senior brothers.

In a practice common across many fraternities, new members often endure a ritual of back-breaking tasks, silly pranks and alcohol-fueled hijinks. Sometimes it rises to the level of hazing, when the welfare of pledges is put at risk.

Survivors of the pledging, in the minds of many veterans, show they have the guts to be full-fledged members. But dozens of pledges have died in hazing incidents around the U.S. in recent years, with 10 deaths at Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapters topping the chart, Bloomberg reported last year.

The Bloomberg report focused on the Salisbury University chapter, where a student was dunked in freezing water, beaten with a paddle and driven around blindfolded in a speeding car during his pledging process. The Salisbury chapter has been suspended through 2015. The allegations brought the issue to the fore, prompting Maryland lawmakers to draft a bill that would change criminal penalties for hazing, increasing the possible fine from $500 to $5,000. If the bill becomes law, the offense would continue to carry a possible sentence of up to six months.

Towson alumna Jen Rudolph, on campus for an unrelated Greek meeting, was surprised to learn of the decision to end the pledge process.

"Just because it is such a part of the process," she said, to determine whether the student and the organization are a good fit.

"This is an interesting solution to a difficult problem," she said. "But hazing can happen in any campus organization."

The University of Maryland, College Park's SAE officers did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

The fraternity, which has several chapters in Maryland and 14,000 college students nationwide, said the "historic" revision to its 60-year-old membership process would help project a "positive, proactive" image and stem the "painful" wave of fraternities being closed down by hazing scandals. New members now will get a four-day crash course on safety and the history of the fraternity, pay their dues and not face any sort of probationary period.

"We are making this change because it's the right thing to do and because we firmly believe in returning to what our founding fathers envisioned," Sigma Alpha Epsilon said in a statement. On its website, the fraternity spends several paragraphs attempting to sell its members on the change and warns of consequences for those ignoring the new rules:

"We don't want our collegiate members to jeopardize what others have created for them. If we find that the chapter is treating its newest members as second-class citizens, the chapter will be closed."

Hazing cases around the country have led to lawsuits and criminal charges at several fraternities, including Sigma Alpha Epsilon. That's made for a difficult environment to operate in, the fraternity said, suggesting that one of the benefits of the new policy would be lower insurance costs. The fraternity had $6.7 million in revenue in 2012 and spent the largest chunk, about a quarter of that, on insurance, according to a federal tax filing.

The fraternity said it was a myth that hazing was a valid test of a pledge's worthiness.

"When much is required of a new-member (pledge) class but not the active chapter members, the new members (pledges) learn only that they don't have to do anything once they get initiated," a statement said, adding that chapters should only offer membership to students who fit the right mold rather than inviting a lot of people in hopes of boosting numbers.

Chapter leaders also could do more to later kick out people who fail to live up to academic and social expectations, the statement said.

SAE, as its commonly known, has chapters at about 240 colleges and universities. The fraternity, which turns 158 years old Sunday, says it has initiated more than 310,000 members in that time, including former President William McKinley, ESPN President George Bodenheimer, oil magnate T. Boone Pickens and baseball agent Scott Boras. The term "pledge" first appeared in Sigma Alpha Epsilon's bylaws in 1914, the organization said.

Eliminating the pledge process entirely is rare, but not unheard of.

National President Brad Cohen, a University of Arizona graduate who runs an escrow services company in Newport Beach, has vociferously defended the change on Twitter. He and the five other members of the fraternity's Supreme Council unanimously voted to end pledging.

Baltimore Sun staff reporters Susan Reimer and Colin Campbell contributed to this report.