A Bidto Belong : In one frenetic week, the fraternities at CSUN look over hundreds of rushees and choose a few who will pledge their never-ending brotherhood
Seventy or so college students mingled in the back yard, talking loud to be heard over the blare of “Louie, Louie” from stereo speakers. The fraternity party offered predictable snippets of conversation.
“Gin and tonics aren’t too bad. They don’t get you too hung over.”
“So what major are you?”
“Seriously, anybody can score with girls.”
But the boys of Pi Kappa Phi were up to something more important than chit-chat. A dozen brothers were planted at strategic spots to keep an eye on their guests.
“They don’t know we’re watching,” said one brother. “But we are.”
Other Pi Kapps, secretly known as “runners,” glided through the crowd, relaying vital information to the house president.
Finally, the “closers” moved in. They asked one of the male guests to step aside. After a short speech, they invited him to join the fraternity.
The Pi Kapps had a new brother.
Last week, 14 fraternities at Cal State Northridge conducted rush, a one-week period when Greek houses glean new members from the student body.
Thanks to a large freshman class, this year’s rush was estimated to be the busiest since Greeks arrived at CSUN in 1959. Over the course of seven evenings, hundreds of rushees visited the fraternities.
The houses, for their part, offered enticement--Baja Bashes, Lei’d Back Luaus, Casino Royale nights and Toga parties. If the brothers liked a rushee, and if he seemed to like them, they “bid” him to join.
And although rush took on the appearance of a weeklong party, this was important business. A fraternity lives and dies by its ability to recruit. More members mean more prestige, more women and more money from monthly dues . . . to pay for more parties.
“You have to continually bring in a large group of guys,” said Jeff Schmidt, president of Pi Kappa Alpha house. “And to remain competitive, they have to be quality guys.”
So CSUN’s fraternities planned months in advance. They boned up on rush strategies that had been passed down from generation to generation, both within the house and throughout the Greek system.
“People don’t realize the strategy involved,” said Pi Kappa Phi President Dan Gustafson, who attended a summer seminar in Norfolk, Va., to brush up on rush techniques. “It’s down to an art.”
The art is subtlety.
“If you do it right,” said Jay Rubin, president of Zeta Beta Tau fraternity, “they don’t even know you’re doing it.”
Several days before rush, Rubin discussed the mechanics of the process. His fraternity took out advertisements in local high school newspapers last spring. During summer, the 118 ZBT members gathered for “rush camp” to discuss the psychology of persuading rushees. The brothers split into teams, with team captains, to handle preparations.
Still, Rubin was nervous. He and his rush chairman, Dave Singer, had to go out for drinks.
“It was imperative,” Singer said. “I’ll be a basket case until rush is over.”
Really, the ZBTs had it easy. As the largest fraternity on campus, they could ride a reputation and afford to throw expensive parties. Singer was expected to enlist 40 rushees, enough to keep the ZBTs ahead of rival Phi Delts and Pi Kappa Alphas (known as the “Pikes”).
Pi Kappa Phi, on the other hand, had been on campus just six months and had only 39 brothers. The Pi Kapps had no reputation. Plus, they were under the gun.
Almost all houses are branches of their national fraternity. The Pi Kapps, as newcomers to the national Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, were still on introductory probation. The national fraternity sent this directive: Come up with at least 16 new members.
Rush began on a Friday evening as 139 rushees filed into the Student Union for orientation. There were few blacks among this group; there are few within the fraternities. CSUN has four all-black fraternities, and they chose to hold a separate rush.
The rushees who came Friday were greeted by Fred Kreger, president of the Intrafraternity Council.
“You are about to enter CSUN’s biggest spirit squad,” Kreger told them. “Brotherhood. That’s what you’re going to be experiencing. It’s dynamic.”
Paul Laussen, a rushee, wasn’t so interested in male bonding.
“What fraternity gets the best-looking girls?” he asked.
Each house was given a room in the Student Union and 15 minutes to deliver a pitch. Phi Kappa Psi went first.
“We have exchanges with sororities planned. We have the usual road trips to Mexico . . . and we get into theme parties,” said the house’s social chairman. “If you’re looking for a social fraternity, this is it.”
Rushees were told of nightly study sessions and annual philanthropic activities. Slides were shown: brothers attending parties, playing touch football and kissing their dates. As if on cue, the dozen Phi Kappa Psis in the room clapped and whistled as each new slide appeared on the screen.
The brothers stepped forward immediately after the presentation and began shaking hands with rushees. It was a split-second operation.
The Phi Delts were slicker and more expensive, with a stereo pumping out dance music and women serving refreshments. Alpha Epsilon Pi had no music, no slide show.
“Friendship,” the vice president said. “At A-E-Pi, you’re going to meet the best man for your wedding and the pallbearer for your funeral.”
The Pi Kapps, eager to impress, showed up with Gustafson and several of his officers dressed in suits and ties.
The ZBTs, perhaps flaunting their position on campus, arrived in shorts and T-shirts. They did, however, bring a roomful of trophies for academic and athletic prowess. They handed out ZBT key rings. They promised trips to Dodger Stadium and Magic Mountain and exchanges with the best sororities on campus.
“If the smaller houses had more money, they could beef up their rush like this,” Singer noted. “Most of the rushees go to the bigger houses.”
The fraternities agreed not to bid at orientation. The real action started Saturday, when the parties began.
Not that rush week at CSUN was reminiscent of the movie “Animal House.”
Parties were held at the fraternities’ houses--the neighborhoods surrounding campus are zoned strictly for residential, so fraternities make do with suburban homes that they have gutted to accommodate a dance floor, a wet bar and bedrooms for six or so live-ins.
The brothers couldn’t let loose at these affairs because they were working. Some rushees said they were intimidated.
“It’s kind of confusing,” said Danny, who wouldn’t give his last name. “I’m not really sure what fraternities are about.”
And there were no “chugging” contests or beer kegs crashing out of second-story windows because alcohol was forbidden.
Two years ago, CSUN’s Greeks agreed to a “dry” rush. Fraternities at an increasing number of universities have gone this way as alcohol abuse has become an issue on college campuses. CSUN’s houses joined the trend as a show of good will. They also figured that the administration would demand such a policy sooner or later.
Each night, the Intrafraternity Council--which is made up of Greeks--sent undercover teams to rush parties. These investigators tasted the punch and watched for obviously inebriated guests.
They did not, however, search brothers’ rooms. A number of Greeks said it is common practice to serve a discreet cocktail to rushees behind closed doors. And temporary prohibition didn’t stop ZBT from promising future beery bashes.
“We have dry rush,” a ZBT official said. “But, as we say, we have a wet semester.”
The ZBTs’ first party was “Sports Night,” for which they tacked up football jerseys in the fraternity house’s courtyard and served pizza. A few nights later, for “Wild Kingdom” night, they hung stuffed animals around the house and served animal crackers.
The ZBTs used what they call the “spinoff.” As strains of Terrance Trent D’Arby or the Steve Miller Band wafted across the courtyard, each arriving rushee was greeted by two brothers. The brothers spent a few minutes with their guest, then “spun him off” to two more brothers. Later, each pair logged comments on a form that the rushee signed when he first walked in.
In this way, the ZBTs accumulated evaluations that would determine who was, and wasn’t, worthy of a bid. On the first night, there was just one bid, which was promptly accepted.
Several miles away, the Pi Kappa Phis--who don’t yet have a house--were throwing their parties at a home belonging to the family of one of the brothers. The back yard was equipped with a pool and Jacuzzi, a fire pit and four tremendous Corinthian columns standing on a raised concrete platform.
As brothers and rushees cavorted in togas, the Pi Kapps waged their battle with less sophistication than the ZBTs. The brothers were less glib and self-assured. They were quicker to bid--they handed out seven on the first night.
The smaller house couldn’t afford to sit back and wait.
“It’s like selling yourself,” said John Freeborn, the house’s rush chairman. “I’ll try whatever it takes as long as I’m honest.”
That put pressure on Pi Kapp “closers,” the final step in the house’s bidding process.
It works like this at almost every fraternity: Once the brothers decide to bid a rushee, the “closers” call him aside for a private talk. They must subtly discern whether or not he will accept--nothing is more embarrassing than having a bid turned down.
If the rushee is indecisive, the “closers” try to nudge him toward brotherhood.
“The closer has to be intelligent about the things he’s saying and the signs the rushee is giving off,” Freeborn said. “The rushee gives off signs with his body language.”
The ZBTs didn’t have to suffer the rigor of such sales pitches.
“If a guy is indecisive, we won’t pressure him,” Singer said. “We don’t do that because we don’t need to do that. If I was in a 30-man house, I’d be more aggressive. I’d jump on every guy.”
Yet, even the smallest fraternities won’t “scrape” to bid everyone who walks in the door. Brothers try to be sure that a rushee will fit in. A new member who doesn’t could cause friction. He might also quit the house.
“We happen to attract a lot of athletic guys,” Schmidt said of his fraternity, the Pikes, who are four-time fraternity football champs. “The ZBTs attract a certain type. The Phi Delts attract a lot of what I call ‘face cards,’ ” he said, referring to good-looking guys.
So fraternity leaders turn away eager rushees who aren’t right for the house. Those who are right experience the ultimate ritual of rush, the bid. It is virtually identical at every fraternity.
Inside a small room, several brothers surround the rushee and hand him an engraved invitation along with a pledge pin. Sometimes there is a short, quiet ceremony. If the rushee balks, the moment can turn quickly to a hard-sell speech.
Most Accept Offer
Rushees rarely decline. More often, the hesitant ones ask for time to think it over. They are usually told the offer stands until rush ends.
Those who accept--the majority do--are led into the center of the party and serenaded with fraternity songs. This celebration is a selling tool, too, the one trick that might persuade other hesitant rushees.
“It’s awesome,” said Joel Zide, who watched several such displays before receiving a Pi Kapp bid. “I came around the corner and there were 40 guys standing there. They put me in the middle and did a cheer. They make you feel wanted.”
Even veteran fraternity members say they get excited when a rushee accepts.
“Every single time I see a guy become a part of our pledge class, it makes me feel good,” Rubin said. “I just want to shake the guy’s hand and hug him.”
Rubin had plenty of opportunities to shake hands and hug new brothers last week--his house brought in 54. Rival fraternities griped that the ZBTs had forsaken quality for quantity.
“We got incredible guys,” the president argued. “Incredible guys.”
The Pi Kapps were just as pleased with their harvest of 27. That number rivaled the pledge classes at larger fraternities and put the young house in good stead with its national office.
And by Friday, rush parties were beginning to die down. The brothers were tired. They were antsy for a party where they could drink beer. Homework from the new quarter was piling up.
“They’re bitching about it,” Freeborn said. “I’ve had, on the average, three hours sleep each night.
“But it’s been worth it. We got the guys.”