COVER STORY : 'Animal House Is Over' : Limits on Alcohol and Changing Student Attitudes Bring Hard Times to UCLA's Campus Greeks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If John Bishai had been president of his UCLA fraternity in the 1980s, he would have spent much of his school year planning rush parties, ski vacations and trips to football games for an organization flush with members.

But that was then. Today, the fraternity leader must tend to more important business: reversing a potentially fatal slide in enrollment that could soon cause his campus chapter to close.

Since 1991, membership at Bishai's fraternity house, Alpha Tau Omega, has plummeted from 90 to 40 students.

On a recent Thursday evening, "party night" for most Greek organizations, ATO's courtyard, once the scene of raging toga parties, hearty mixers and familiar alumni gatherings, was as quiet as a nursing home.

"UCLA has become more of an academic school. No one knows how to relax and have a good time, which is really needed in a college atmosphere," Bishai said. "Back in the '80s, things were nuts here. People flocked to us. . . . There's no fire here anymore."

It is a common lament among many of America's campus Greeks, and nowhere more so than at UCLA. After the bacchanalia of the 1980s, when numerous fraternities and sororities posted record enrollment, "party hearty" has given way to "party hardly."

Membership in UCLA fraternities has dropped overall by about 30% in the last four years, according to the organizations. The campus currently has 22 fraternities, down by six since 1991. Although a few sororities have full houses, many say they have noticed a significant drop in enrollment, with some organizations struggling to survive. Since the late 1980s, the campus has lost four sororities, leaving 17 today.

Some fraternity members attribute the trend to restrictions on alcohol consumption imposed on them by their national organizations. In the early 1990s, after a national rash of deaths caused by hazing and binge drinking, more than 30 Greek organizations formed the Fraternity Insurance Purchasing Group to create guidelines.

"We were facing rising costs for insurance coverage or, in some cases, even the capability to get insurance coverage at all," said Wynn Smiley, director of communications for the ATO National Fraternity in Champaign, Ill. "Recruitment [at fraternities] was becoming bigger in the 1980s, and it was turning into a group of people just getting together to party. Alcohol consumption was getting out of control. More risk and more lawsuits started to become a factor."

Since the group formed, fraternities at UCLA have felt the heat from their parent organizations.

At a party at the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity on a recent evening, evidence of the crackdown abounded.

There were, for instance, no kegs. Students drank only canned beer they had brought--and checked in at the bar in exchange for a card that would be used to keep track of each member's beverage consumption. Each card allowed for 12 beers, but participants rarely downed more than a few. Some, in fact, stuck to soft drinks.

Black-clad security personnel, hired by the fraternity, patrolled the front doorway, checking identification and handing out wristbands as proof of legal drinking age. Professional, bow-tied bartenders distributed the beers one at a time.

And midway through the proceedings, a member of a university group called GAMMA (Greeks Advocating the Mature Management of Alcohol) arrived unannounced to tour the house and make sure the rules were being followed.

"When the changes first happened in the early '90s, people hated our president for imposing them," said Gage Hauser, now president of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. "But now the rules seem smart. They make sense. They're just part of life now."

Besides the alcohol restrictions, which have limited a traditional social lubricant, other reasons have contributed to the enrollment dive, students and administrators say.

More and more students enter UCLA completely unfamiliar with fraternities and sororities--because they come from immigrant families, for instance, or because their parents attended college in the anti-Establishment '60s and refused to join.

And tougher economic times and rising tuition at private institutions have attracted higher-achieving applicants to UCLA, many of whom show little interest in joining social organizations.

Kay Cooperman, a UCLA spokeswoman, said the campus denied admission last year to more than 2,000 high school students with a perfect grade-point average of 4.0. The average SAT score for entrants is 1,128 out of 1,600, and the average GPA is 3.9.

Meanwhile, tuition at UCLA, which has increased from $534 a quarter in 1991 to $1,388 a quarter today, has made it harder for students to pay dues and social fees that at some sororities and fraternities can cost as much as $200 a month.

"Today, students are more academically oriented rather than pursuing a balance of academia and social and extracurricular activities," said UCLA fraternity adviser Neil Cadman, a UCLA and ATO alumnus.

Then there's the spate of bad publicity in the last few years. A Beta Theta Pi "Tequila Sunrise" party in 1990, decorated with a large banner of a tequila worm wearing a mustache and sombrero, offended Latino campus organizations.

In 1992, three fraternities were suspended from campus activities because of raunchy songbook lyrics. One of them, Phi Kappa Psi, had used lyrics joking about the use of chain saws, cheese graters and whips as instruments of sexual torture.

Many of the school's minority undergraduates hold a stereotypical view of the Greek system as a bastion of affluent white elitists--heavy-drinking, date-raping frat boys and shallow, materialistic sorority girls.

Often, minority students describe fraternities and sororities as passe, relics of a more homogeneous time in American society. Some say they fear they would be ostracized if they were to consider joining a Greek organization.

"If I were to join, my Indian friends would view me as a sellout," said Anil Rao, a junior in engineering at UCLA, whose parents emigrated from India.

Many white students, who make up 36% of the undergraduate population at UCLA, say they have their own reasons for not wanting to join.

"Individuals in the Greek system are nice, but when they get in a pack this mob mentality takes over. You see them causing trouble in bars in Westwood," said Eric Hance, an engineering undergraduate student at UCLA. "It's just not my lifestyle. I don't see the point in paying [to have] friends. I'd like to do it myself."

Greeks disagree, arguing that the positive aspects of fraternity and sorority life are often ignored.

"Never again will you be able to live with 40 of your peers in a communal living situation, sharing the bathroom and the kitchen while going through the rigors of school," said Cadman, the ATO alumni adviser. "The most positive part of my experiences were not from the parties, the socials and the drinking. The most positive aspect was sitting there at midnight with five other guys just talking about life."

To generate interest in that lifestyle, sororities and fraternities are organizing dormitory seminars and slide shows on the benefits of Greek life. Tables have been set up on heavily traveled Bruin Walk to give potential participants a chance to meet sorority and fraternity members one-on-one. And on Wednesdays, Greeks are encouraged to wear clothing emblazoned with the letters of their organizations.

Some fraternities, meanwhile, are issuing guidelines and conducting seminars on racism, sexism, elitism and homophobia, and seeking more diverse memberships. Efforts also are being made to expand Greek groups' volunteer community projects.

"Everyone assumes that our activities are only social. But we have a strong academic focus, and a lot of us go right on to graduate school and successful careers," said Mike Chao, president of the university's Inter-Fraternity Council. "We have a lot of commitments on campus and are involved in community service, local and national philanthropies."

Other Greeks speak of the academic mentoring, professional ties and lifelong friendships forged in their organizations. They say Greek life offers exposure to a diverse group of personalities and unique experiences. It is the most effective means of making a large, sometimes anonymous campus smaller and more personal, many members say.

Sororities, some of which have felt unfairly linked to the actions of their brethren across campus, have terminated the door songs, skits and elaborate costumes of rush week to create a more grown-up atmosphere. Computer study rooms, on-line networks and CD-ROM equipment are now part of their living environments.

"We have become more informal and informational than exhibitional," said Elizabeth Flanagan, president of the Panhellenic Council, a governing body of sororities at UCLA. "Many of us are overachievers and want things more substantive. The focus has shifted from wild parties to more mature social settings with an emphasis on scholarship and professional networking."

A number of fraternities are looking to their charters, written more than a hundred years ago.

"We need to focus more on brotherhood, relationships and boarding-house camaraderie as opposed to social events," said Tim Carmichael, an alumni adviser to UCLA's Lamda Chi fraternity. "It can't just be a party house anymore. 'Animal House' is over."

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