This fraternity's facilities went alcohol-free. Here’s their advice for colleges.

Kathleen Escarcha, staff writerKathleen Escarcha, staff writer

Last November, Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEp) announced a substance-free facilities policy for all fraternity facilities throughout its network of 212 chapters at colleges and universities across the United States.

We spoke with SigEp's chief executive, Brian Warren, to discuss how they are implementing the policy and their advice for any colleges who are considering a similar change. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Alcohol abuse has been an ongoing issue for many college campuses. Why did SigEp adopt a substance-free policy now?

This was a continuation of other recent policy changes we've made to keep our members safe while providing them an invaluable experience. It was a data-driven decision. Previously, 75 of our chapters had decided to become substance-free. When we compared the performance between our substance-free chapters and those that were not, it was clear that the substance-free chapters had higher academic performance, higher retention rates, and fewer student safety incidents.

In our most recent legislative meeting, our undergraduate legislative body wanted to take a bold stand and voted to adopt a fraternity-wide substance-free facilities policy.

How did you communicate these changes to current students, alumni, and administrators?

We first prepared our student leaders to communicate the change to their members. We then reached out to our higher ed partners, including fraternity advisors and university presidents, to explain what the policy entailed.

How are you working with higher ed administrators to implement the change on campus?

We have consultants who sit down with student affairs administrators on each campus. In these meetings, we discuss the new policy, how they can notify us of any policy misalignment on their campus, and how we can work together to intervene.  

Also see: How to support professional development for student leaders

What challenges have you encountered when implementing the policy on campus?

Some students worry that following the substance-free facilities policy will make them different and less accepted among their peers. To help our students feel more confident, we host leadership workshops to teach them how to lead their chapter through the transition and how to recruit under these new expectations.

We also point students to specific staff members they can contact to discuss transition issues or report policy violations without fear of penalty.

How do you communicate with students or alumni who worry that a substance-free policy will change the college experience?

We focus on what matters most—student safety and student success. When you consider the number of fraternity closures and student deaths in the past year alone, it becomes clear to most alumni that a substance-free facilities policy not only keeps our members safe, but also helps us prepare them for careers after graduation.

Career preparedness is an important issue for many our members. How does the new policy help you prepare students for post-graduation life?

Under the substance-free facilities policy, our students are being more creative and proactive about their recruitment and programming strategy. We don't do "rush week," so they're recruiting year-round. Through that, they're learning valuable business development and communication skills they can take into the workplace. Their future employer won't focus on growth two weeks of the year and higher education shouldn't instill that mentality.

Related: Three tools to prepare graduating students for the job search

Have you noticed any changes in recruitment or professional outcomes since the policy change?

The fraternity-wide policy adoption is relatively new, so we don't have hard numbers yet. Moving forward, we’re enlisting the help of an outside, unbiased firm to assess the policy's effect on our members' academic performance and professional outcomes.

What advice do you have for higher ed administrators or other college groups considering a substance-free policy?

Ultimately, going substance-free is an issue of student success and student safety. Administrators who are interested in encouraging other organizations on campus to adopt a substance-free facilities policy don’t have to rely on costly rewards.

A dinner with the college president or student affairs leader to celebrate the substance-free facilities policy gives students a special experience they'll remember long after they graduate. Or administrators could make a substance-free policy a prerequisite before a fraternity or sorority house is a recognized student organization on campus.

Keep reading: 3 ways to make your alcohol policy education more effective

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