On the otherwise gray wall of the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity house is a painting of the U.S. Marines struggling to raise the American flag at Iwo Jima. Beside the painting is a testimonial to fraternity brother Colonel Harry Liversedge, who “led U.S. forces” in the famous World War II battle.
Now nearly 60 years later, the brothers of Alpha Sigma Phi are again looking for a few good men, not to save their country, but to save their fraternity and their house.
Three weeks ago the eight non-graduating brothers plastered flyers around campus offering residents of Bowles Hall—the last all-male dormitory on the UC campus with rituals not unlike a fraternity—the chance to join the Alpha Sigma Phi and take over the house.
“We want to bring a group of friends here, teach them our ways and our traditions and then let them run with it,” said Jay Lynas, a junior. When Lynas pledged the fraternity last fall, he was one of a pledge class of only four. This spring, no one pledged. Lynas loves his brothers, but in the cutthroat world of Greek life at UC Berkeley, four new brothers a year isn’t enough to keep a fraternity viable.
To survive, Alpha Sigma Phi has opened its doors to boarders—residents who live at the fraternity house but aren’t members. It’s enough to pay the rent, but ultimately it might not be enough to keep the house, which is owned by alumni and run as a nonprofit corporation.
“They have no reason to run it if no brothers are living in the house,” Lynas said.
Tasvir Patel, president of the Inter Fraternity Council, said an overflow boarder population is not unique to Alpha Sigma Phi. UC Berkeley’s Greek population has been declining at an average of 1.5 percent a year for several years, while two new fraternities have been established. “It’s survival of the fittest, to some extent,” Patel said.
The brothers of Alpha Sigma Phi didn’t always live on the edge of extinction. The fraternity was founded in 1913. Like many UC Berkeley fraternities it died in 1965 at the peak of the Free Speech Movement. A new group revived the fraternity in 1983, however. It boasted a strong membership until the early 90s, when its ranks began to dwindle and the number of boarders at the 20-room fraternity house sometimes topped the number of brothers.
Even in a friendly housing market, the Alpha Sigma Phi and other similar fraternities have always found tenants. Since their landlord doesn’t seek a profit, they offer bedrooms starting below $400 with free cable television, DSL Internet hook-up, and a cook.
Lynas, like several of the fraternity brothers, entered the house as a boarder, and chose to pledge. Still, he said, some lines were drawn between the brothers and the boarders. “We make sure they’re out of the house or in their rooms when we’re having our ceremonies or stuff,” he said.
Frank Hane, a brother who graduated last year, said some of the boarders are actually bigger partiers than the brothers. “We’ve had a few guys come in and puke all over the place. We’re not cool with that by any means,” he said.
For Hane, the house has been the centerpiece of his college life. “This place is my connection to UC,” he said. “We’ve had a great group of brothers. It’s more intense than a regular friendship.”
No member of Bowles Hall took the fraternity up on its offer, but five underclassmen from different dorms expressed an interest, and last Wednesday night they were made pledges. If all goes well, this week they will become full-fledged members.
Theo Widjaja, a fraternity brother said he had mixed feelings about the future members only having to pledge for a week, buy Lynas thought that was insignificant.
“We met them and kind of got a feeling that somehow they had that spark to carry on what we’re offering to them,” Lynas said.
Although they are offering easy membership, Lynas said the fraternity still has standards. “Despite how we’re appealing to people, we’re still selective of who we’ll allow to take over the house,” he said. “We don’t feel like we’re moving out and it’s going to nothing. We still have a few active members trying to rebuild it.”