From Animal House to Bleak House

-- dry rush. No hazing. And you need to pull a permit to throw a decent party. It's enough to make a UM Greek hurl.

At age nineteen, Noah Tepperberg is a nightclub promoter in his native Manhattan, a student at the University of Miami, and a consummate salesman, the sort of fellow out of whose mouth the right words spill. On this particular August evening, he is selling his fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, to the fifteen freshmen gathered before him. But, like any salesman shilling for a product he truly believes in, Tepperberg looks edgy. His hands flutter like birds, and sweat mists his doughy face.

He takes a deep breath.
"Two years ago, when I came through that front door, I was just like you," he says, scanning the group. "I didn't know what to expect. But I can tell you, the stuff that goes on in this house is crazy. Crazy. Last year these guys threw a party and they turned this hallway, right where you're standing, into one big, pink, PUSSY! And let me tell you something, I have never walked through a piece of pussy like that!"

Tepperberg pauses. Confused, the freshmen murmur among themselves. One sniffs at the wall. "Now, when I chose a house," Tepperberg resumes, "I wanted the kind of place that my little sister could come see and she would say, 'This house is the shit.' The shit. Well, that's the kind of house you're gonna get if you go ZBT."

With this Tepperberg begins a breakneck tour of the premises, zipping from room to room on stubby, chinoed legs, spinning tales of libidinal merriment in his cabdriver mutter.

"We didn't actually turn the hallway into a pussy," he concedes later. "That was just a bit of hype."

A bit of hype, as it turns out, is just what UM's frat system needs these days. Recent years have not been kind to the Greeks.

Last spring the frats' governing body, the Interfraternity Council (IFC), convened an emergency conclave at the Biltmore Hotel. Membership was down for the fourth consecutive year. Even the sororities, whose ranks had tripled in the previous decade, were losing ground. If the illustrious tradition of Greek life were to survive at Miami's most renowned university, steps would have to be taken. Dramatic steps.

During this fall's orientation, the IFC blitzed new students with information about the merits of going Greek. They mapped a full week of recruiting events with military precision, and nixed the five-dollar fee for potential members. "We went all-out," explains IFC member David Gershman. "This is the year that will tell us if the frat system has a future at UM."

Gershman is inclined to attribute the drop in membership to complacency on the part of past leadership. The truth is more disquieting. It hinges on a change in the nature of fraternities, one spurred by skeptical administrators, a prevailing spirit of political correctness, and the dread of liability lawsuits.

Once a fount of besotted revelry, a refuge from the regulations of adulthood A a place, in short, to get wasted A frats across the nation have had to publicly refashion themselves as model members of the campus community. Academic aces. Campus leaders. Community volunteers. At UM, a gauntlet of prohibitions, imposed by national frat honchos and a once lenient administration, has sped this sober metamorphosis. Rules now forbid:

Serving alcohol to freshmen during the recruitment period
Hazing frosh
Serving alcohol at a party without a university-issued permit
Holding parties without a designated "risk manager"
Purchasing alcohol with chapter funds
Purchasing kegs, period

The selling of Greek life at UM has thus become a fascinating two-tongued experience, in which the official script ("Hi! I'm Biff! Wanna read to some orphans?") is faithfully recited until such a time as newcomers can be sequestered for unofficial readings ("Hi! I'm Biff! This here's a beer bong!"). And in which the deeper lure of going Greek -- the adoption of a persona at once relaxed and boisterous -- appears diluted by desperation, like a spiked punch into which some geek has poured far too much Hi-C.

It is the eve of the first day of classes at UM, and an army of color-coded students -- scrubbed clean and sharing an unfortunate inclination toward group cheers -- has invaded the patio that abuts the school's artificial lake. The boys of ZBT are here, dishing out HĄagen-Dazs ice cream and sticky handshakes. The Kappa Kappa Gammas, hair frothed to appropriate radiance, speak ardently of their symbolic Anchor of Hope. Even the Alpha Tau Omegas, chronic fuckups to a man, have dragged a snow-cone machine into the fray.

In fact, every one of UM's eleven frats, six sororities, and eight historically black Greek societies has assembled a booth for the annual rite known as Greek Expo. About fifteen percent of UM's 8500 undergrads are Greeks, a vocal minority.

The annual expo marks the official opening of Rush Week, during which Greeks replenish their ranks by courting freshmen with the requisite attributes -- Are they cute? Are they confident? Are they cool? -- while the frosh troll for an identity that, as they are reminded with numbing regularity, will extend from college to grave.

Such stakes might engender considerable angst among the 800 "rushees" who wander the pavilion this evening. But they appear carefree enough. It is the expo's organizers, members of the IFC and its sister group, the Panhellenic Council, who look stressed. Overhead, a veil of bruised clouds hovers, spitting droplets of rain every few minutes.

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