Thursday, September 28, 2006

USC closing in on UCLA

From: Los Angeles Daily News

For decades, UCLA students have derided crosstown rival USC as the "University of Spoiled Children" and the "University of Second Choice."

But each of the past few years has drawn a smarter and more accomplished freshman class to the University of Southern California.

Just 10 years ago, USC was 12 spots behind UCLA on U.S. News and World Report's annual ranking of national universities - the bible for most college-bound high schoolers. Five years ago, USC narrowed the lead to eight spots and last year to five.

Now, it trails UCLA by just one.

With school starting at the Westwood campus today,Bruins can no longer thumb their noses at the "rich kids" attending the pricey, private school in South Los Angeles who didn't have the academic mettle to gain entrance to UCLA.

Trojans have already surpassed Bruins on one of the most critical academic assessment tools - the SAT - and are on the precipice of dethroning UCLA as L.A.'s highest-ranked university.

"There might be some soul searching," said Jeff Schenck, editor in chief of UCLA's student newspaper, the Daily Bruin.

Fellow student Edgar Campos, a double major in history and Chicano studies, worried that USC's ranking surge could devalue a UCLA degree.

"It weighs down the value," he said. "My paper (would be) worth less than theirs."

University of California, Los Angeles, officials downplayed the impact of USC's rise in the rankings, saying closer academic competition is good for both schools.

"A metropolitan world-class city like Los Angeles deserves two outstanding universities, one private and one public, to engage each other and egg on each other to greater heights," said Vivek Shetty, chairman of the UCLA Academic Senate. "Ultimately, they benefit and society benefits."

Drawing more applicants last spring than any school in the country, UCLA is not at a loss for bright freshmen. The issue is about bragging rights. The problem for Bruins is not that UCLA has fallen from grace, but that USC has risen so fast. The survey ranks schools on 20 categories, including the caliber of applicants, alumni donations and faculty resources.

In 1996, USC was ranked 43 and UCLA 31. USC climbed to 34 and UCLA to 26 in 2002. Last year, they were ranked 30 and 25, respectively.

When U.S. News' 2007 rankings hit newsstands last month, UCLA clung to 26 and USC rose to 27. If the trend continues, USC could pass UCLA as soon as next year.

"You talk about other major, major schools, and UCLA wants to be right up there as a prestigious university," said Larry Davis, a Northridge lawyer who sits on the board of the UCLA Alumni Association. "And to have SC sneak up there from behind, that is not the greatest news."

USC administrators credit President Steven B. Sample, who took the helm in 1991 and led a $100million faculty hiring campaign. Since 2000, USC has increased its tenured and tenure-tract faculty from 409 to 494. There are 10 students for every USC faculty member, compared with 18 for every faculty member at UCLA.

"USC is a very nimble, entrepreneurial institution," said Peter Starr, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. "I think we are seeing the benefits of that."

At the same time, USC has made huge strides. In 1996, only 12,778 high school seniors applied, forcing USC to admit 72percent. This spring, the admissions office received 33,979 applications and admitted 25percent - the same admissions ratio as UCLA.

During that time, average SAT scores of admitted USC students have climbed about 150 points, to 1,374 this spring (adjusted for the new test). The same average SAT at UCLA was 1,339.

"You hear about their GPA, and you hear about their SAT ...," USC Undergraduate Student Government President Sam Gordon said. "I don't know if I could get into the school myself now."

Interestingly, the increased caliber of applicants coincides with USC's rise to the top in college football. The Trojans shared the national championship in 2003, won it outright in 2004 and in January came within 26 seconds of beating Texas at the Rose Bowl for their third-straight title.

This put USC back in the national consciousness, and helped increase student applications, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

"The reason institutions support athletics, the cynics tend to home in on money, but in fact it is also a matter of visibility and the creation of attachment," Nassirian said. "I mean, how many applicants to Notre Dame got to know Notre Dame because of its phenomenal athletic tradition?"

Getting course books in UCLA's Ackerman Student Union, communication studies senior Andrew Green, however, said he is more concerned with UCLA keeping pace with other top-ranked public schools - UC Berkeley, the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

"Among private schools, USC is definitely second tier," Green said. "For that kind of money, you want to be going to something top 10, top 15."

Indeed, the U.S. News and World ranking favors private universities, which tend to have higher rates of alumni donors and smaller classes. The top 20 schools are all private - from Princeton to Notre Dame. Berkeley, Michigan, Virginia and UCLA fill four of the next six spots.

Believing that the rankings accounted more for a campus's reputation than the education it provided, Washington Monthly created its own annual rankings guide two years ago that focuses on social mobility, research and service. This year, the magazine ranked UCLA No.4 among national universities.

"In social mobility, UCLA really trounces USC," said T.A. Frank, a contributing editor to the monthly.

UCLA also was named a "New Ivy" in the 2007 Kaplan/Newsweek college guide. Two professors made Popular Science's "Brilliant Ten" list, and five faculty members have Nobel Prizes. The Westwood campus is second in the nation in total research expenditures only to Johns Hopkins University.

"Students react to what is cool and uncool," UCLA's Shetty said. "But that changes every year. We are a constant."

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Undie Run I Remember

For: UCLA Magazine

The first run began with 13 guys jumping up and down in our skivvies. At the stroke of midnight during spring 2002 finals, we raced from my bedroom onto Glenrock Avenue. Undie Run was our sophomoric act of defiance against UCPD for deploying scores of officers to prevent Midnight Yell from again digressing into a melee of broken windows and burning couches.

Four years later – the length of study for most undergraduates – Undie Run has become a bonafide Bruin event. UCLA officials last spring tired of testosterone-fueled guys running across the hoods of parked cars and of drunken students face-planting on Westwood streets, and designated a path through campus.

No longer 13 strong, Undie Run boasted 5,000 participants by police estimates in June – about 150 more than this fall’s anticipated freshman class. Wearing boxers or briefs, cotton panties or lace thongs – and in some cases miraculously less – students ran, walked and frolicked down Gayley, across De Neve Plaza, past Pauley Pavilion and up Bruin Walk. The run culminated for many with a dip in Shapiro Fountain, between UCLA’s most iconic buildings.

“No other event at UCLA brings students together like this,” the Daily Bruin editorialized.

I was dumbfounded by what had become of our little run. I met at the June run alums who returned after skipping the event as students; underclassmen participating for the fourth or fifth time; and students from other schools who heard the call of the wild. Mostly, I found an event that thrives without any leadership, any organization or even any awareness of how the dance began.

“I have no idea,” Brandon Lafferty, a sophomore wearing cycling shorts, a cowboy hat, aviator sunglasses and a beach towel for a cape, told me. “I know it’s a tradition though. It’s gotta be like 20 years now.”

My, how quickly things change. When Undie Run began, runners were target practice for Glenrock residents lobbing beer-filled balloons and firing paintball guns. For this reason and the sheer silliness of prancing around in my underpants with what was then mostly guys, I was never excited about Wednesday night of finals week. But I remained more embarrassed to sit on the sidelines than to show off my Scooby-Doo boxers.

My college roommate, Eric Whitehead, B.A. ‘04, founded and fostered the quarterly event. He was a theater student who loved to strap on his booty shorts, slip on his frog cap and slap a boombox blaring “Eye of the Tiger” on his shoulder.

“Crazy,” Whitehead said when he heard what had become of his legacy. “I hope it doesn’t get out of control like Midnight Yell, with people lighting couches on fire and the cops showing up in riot gear and shooting people with rubber bullets.”

Since being moved onto campus, the event has continued with limited disturbances and UCLA has no plan of terminating it. But Dean of Students Robert J. Naples said that would change if Undie Run becomes a safety or criminal concern. “This is just a problem waiting for intervention,” he said. “I hope I’m wrong because this is something students do look forward to.”

The original 13 runners have moved on to law school and record deals, newspaper reporting and cruise-ship singing. But assuming Undie Run will live on – and it’s the only contribution some of us made at UCLA – I wonder who will be the first among us to have a son or daughter take the jog.

--By Brad A. Greenberg '04

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Gone ...

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Before Youssef and Elana Tehrani flew from Iran to Austria, they entrusted their eldest son to smugglers who would transport him into Pakistan.

Babak Tehrani was 16 and evading military service so he couldn't travel freely out of Iran. He expected to meet up with his parents and two brothers in Vienna, then travel with them to Los Angeles, where he would continue his studies and become a doctor.

That was in 1994, and the Tehranis haven't seen him since.

They are convinced he was arrested and tortured as he tried to emigrate illegally through the flat desert near Zahedan. A former neighbor has testified he saw Babak in a notorious prison in Tehran, giving them hope he is alive.

"Imagine going 12 years not knowing where your son is - no news, no letters," Elana Tehrani said, brewing Persian tea in her Westside apartment. "How would you feel if you were in my situation?"

This month, the Tehranis and six Iranian Jewish families living in Israel filed suit against the former president of Iran, whom they hold responsible for the disappearance of 12 Iranian Jews between 1994 and 1997.

Relatives believe the men, ages 15 to 60 when they disappeared, have been secretly incarcerated and tortured.

"It's a last hope," said Siamak Tehrani, the middle son, who was 14 when Babak vanished. "We've knocked on every door hoping one would work."

Elana Tehrani has spent much of the years crying her tear ducts dry. Youssef Tehrani blames his heart attack on worrying about his son.

"There is not even a moment when we don't think about the situation," said Siamak Tehrani, now 26. "We open our eyes in the morning and we think about this until we go to bed at night."

The Tehranis and the other families that sued have received no record of their sons', husbands' and fathers' whereabouts. Inquiries with the Iranian government have been rebuffed. But multiple witnesses claim to have seen the men in Iranian prisons.

"Where they are? Why they are being held? If in the opinion of Iran they have committed any crimes, what are their charges?" asked Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation. "There are a lot of unanswered questions. These are citizens of Iran, and the government needs to provide answers."

The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran for more than two decades.

Messages left for Mohammad Mohammadi, spokesman for the Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations, were not returned.

On a two-week speaking tour in the United States, Mohammad Khatami, a relative moderate who was Iran's president from 1997 to 2005, was served the lawsuit by two retired police officers while attending a private reception in Arlington, Va.

Khatami has until Thursday to respond.

Filed in U.S. District Court in New York, the suit seeks unspecified damages - "hundreds of millions of dollars," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner.

In a phone interview from Tel Aviv, Darshan-Leitner said U.S. law allows foreigners to sue other foreigners violating the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act. If her clients win, she said, they could target Khatami's assets in nations friendly to the United States.

Elana Tehrani hopes the case attracts international attention to her son's disappearance. At a pro-Israel rally outside the United Nations last week that coincided with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defending his nation's nuclear program before the General Assembly, Tehrani took the stage and begged for her son's return.

"If President Bush can hear us," she had said in her apartment. "He supports all the Jews and he has been there for the Jews. In the war with Israel (and Lebanon), President Bush supported Israel because of the hostage situation. This is a hostage situation."

For 2,700 years, Jews have lived in Persia, now called Iran. They were persecuted often during that time, but remained for the culture they cherished.

The middle of the 20th century brought prosperity to Iranian Jews. But after Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was deposed in 1979 during the Islamic revolution, Jews left Iran en masse.

Some 35,000 now live in Los Angeles, the most populous Iranian Jewish community outside Israel. Treatment worsened toward the estimated 20,000 Jews who either couldn't leave or decided to stay.

"By 1995, Jews were accused of bringing AIDS into Iran and causing economic chaos," the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles reported in 2000. "That same year, Fayzollah Mekhubabt, a 78-year-old cantor in a Tehran synagogue, was taken to prison. His eyes were gouged out before he was executed. Mekhubabt was buried in a Muslim cemetery. His family was forced to disinter his remains in order to bury him in a Jewish cemetery."

The source of that information, and the focus of the article, was Frank Nikbakht, a Jew who escaped Iran in 1982 and has become a voice for those who remain. A leader of the tiny L.A.-based Committee for Religious Minority Rights in Iran, he speaks ominously of the sectarian cloud over his homeland.

"The Jews are in danger of being exterminated with one little incitement from the heads of government," Nikbakht said. "They have created enough hatred so that when the time comes that they decide to get rid of the Jews, they can do it in a matter of hours."

Among the 12 missing men is Shaheen, whose last name is not being used because his parents still live in Iran. He was 20 and with Babak when they disappeared June 8, 1994.

Shaheen was trying to get to Los Angeles, where his brother had settled after fleeing Iran through Pakistan in 1989. Their parents were going to follow once Shaheen was out and safe.

"This is not just an accident that kids disappear," his brother said. "It was an orchestrated effort to eliminate the Jews from getting out of Iran. I believe they have captured them to create a fear."

Shaheen's family did not join the lawsuit because they feared that the government would retaliate, possibly lethally. But they are running out of options.

"We have been pleading to these people for the last 12 years," Shaheen's brother said. "We haven't gotten any answers."

Monday, September 18, 2006

Manny and Me

From: Los Angeles Daily News

It's 5:41 a.m., and Manny Covarrubias' cell phone is already buzzing.

"Good morning, Hilda," he says to an assistant to LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer calling with a schedule change.

Manny swings into the alley behind the superintendent's beachfront Venice apartment. He opens the mailbox - "No mail" - grabs Romer's newspaper and climbs the stairs to the second floor, slipping a key into the lock and letting himself in to the residence of one of Los Angeles' most powerful public officials.

And so begins the first day of a new school year with the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Manny's official title is sergeant at arms - a fancy moniker for chauffeur to the CEO of the nation's second-largest school district. In reality, he is the glue that holds the superintendent's office together.

"It is probably the most important relationship I've got," Romer says. "He is just the guy who helps me function, who helps me keep things together."

The two have become quite close. Romer considers Manny one of his best friends; Manny thinks of Romer as a doting father.

But Romer is on his way out of the district, out of California, back to his Colorado ranch and the state where he served as governor from 1986-98.

And Manny doesn't know if the next superintendent will keep him or revert to the past system of having a rotation of armed police escorts, which would return Manny to the bus-driving schedule he kept before Romer arrived in 2000.

But Manny, too, is entering a new chapter. This summer, he finished the required courses to transfer from East Los Angeles College to California State University, Los Angeles, where he will start classes Thursday.

"It is going to be intense," he said. "I know I am up to the challenge and I know I am going to pass."

Exhausting would be an understatement.

Chauffeuring the superintendent is a dawn-to-dark duty. It's dodging L.A. traffic jams. It's midday catnaps to push through 16-hour shifts. It's dropping off the boss at 1 a.m., driving 31 miles to his wife and teenage son sleeping in their two-bedroom house in Whittier and being back in Venice at 6 or 7 a.m. to repeat the routine.

Long days are something Romer brought to the office, said his secretary, Raquel De Leon, who has worked with seven superintendents in 20 years. But none of it seems to bother Manny.

"Working with them is like being in the Army: It's not a job, it's an adventure," he said.

Manny is 42, lean and muscular, with dark skin, salt-and-pepper hair in a buzz cut and a scruffy moustache. He has never called in sick - not during his nine years as a bus driver, not in the six years since Romer arrived.

He works 50 to 60 hours most weeks - less when Romer is out of town - and last year pulled in about $65,000.

Team members said he makes himself available to assist with any task.

"He was just a spark plug in the whole team," said Stephanie Brady, who served as press deputy until this past June and considers Manny a friend. "He did everything possible to make things run smoothly for the superintendent, who has so much to juggle."

Romer arrived on the heels of an eminent domain campaign for new schools that embittered some in the district's path.

"The situation was very hostile," said school police Sgt. George Sandoval, who was the detail for Interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines in early 2000. "Since I can remember, there has been a police officer attached to the superintendent."

Romer didn't want an armed guard, but an assistant on whom he could count for more than security and transportation.

"A lot of people around here, you'll ask them to get something done and you don't know if it will," Romer said. "But you can always count on Manny to come through with anything you ask him."

The superintendent's office, at district headquarters on Third Street just west of the Harbor Freeway, is on the north side of the 24th floor. It is the size of a large living room, with a long conference table and a breathtaking view of the Hollywood sign, Mount Baldy and downtown.

A large red chair and a small desk that resembles a TV tray sit outside the door. Here Manny studies for his classes, or naps when Romer is in a meeting.

Manny's office is some 200 feet below, in the third floor of the parking garage. It crisscrosses L.A. at a rate of 60 to 200 miles a day.

The silver Crown Victoria is a mobile workstation, a down-sized motorhome. The trunk is filled with office supplies, gym bags, a book bag, a pillow and a change of clothes.

Romer is constantly at work in the back seat, reviewing documents, talking on his cell phone and, occasionally, resting.

"I couldn't do the job without a driver because I couldn't get to all the places and do all the work I need to do," Romer said. "I literally work out of the back seat of the car, and it just extends my day by two or three hours to have a driver."

When Manny's not transporting Romer, he's picking up office supplies, taking colleagues to LAX and visiting Romer's dry cleaner and cobbler. The varied schedule afforded Manny the intervals to scurry to class, and he developed a passion for reading.

The Crown Victoria merges onto the Santa Monica Freeway, heading east toward Crenshaw Avenue. It's 6:12 a.m. and traffic is light. Manny weaves in and out of lanes, passing other commuters as he shaves seconds off the 25-minute drive to Wilshire Park Elementary School.

L.A.'s vast system of schools and its labyrinth network of highways and byways demand an ace automobiler.

Manny's reputation is somewhat mythical in the office. How, during rush hour, does he get Romer from downtown to the West Valley in 30 minutes?

"Artful driving," said former spokeswoman Brady, who regularly rode shotgun.

Brady called Manny "the most frightening driver ever," but said it was comforting to know that no matter how much Romer overloaded his schedule, Manny would find a way to deliver him on time.

The car is quiet except for the sound of Romer flipping through the newspaper, catching up on what happened while he was in Virginia over Labor Day weekend.

The sedan exits and heads north on Crenshaw, turns right on Olympic Boulevard and then left on Wilton Place.

"Are we near?" Romer asks.

"We're here, governor. Are you ready?"

"I'm still doing my homework," Romer says.

Manny parks and goes to help out the 77-year-old superintendent, who has a bad ankle and often uses a cane. Manny's phone rings.

"Manny, it's Hilda. Where are you? How far away are you?"

"I'm looking at you," he responds, not sounding the least irritated.

Manny walks with Romer to Hilda Ramirez. KNBC (Channel 4) is waiting for an interview, and the news conference touting the seven new schools opening their doors for the first time today is set to begin.

During the next two hours, while reporters sling queries about the Legislature's passage of the mayor's school takeover plan and district chiefs give a tour of the new Koreatown campus, Manny stands patiently on the curb, holding Romer's briefcase and answering his cell phone to resolve a logistical crisis.

At 6:41 a.m., it's district spokeswoman Shannon Murphy, who is trying to find her way from West L.A. Manny puts her on hold, clicks over to Ramirez, who is calling because Romer needs something out of his briefcase, then clicks back to Murphy.

"Shannon did you exit Crenshaw? No, no, keep going east to Crenshaw," Manny says.

"I've got to write this down," Murphy says. "Hang on while I grab a pen."

"Be careful," Manny says.

He hangs up and flashes a smile, and then his cell rings again. It's Lucy Okumu, the director of external affairs. She's lost, too.

"God, Manny is a lifesaver," Okumu says later.

The 10-member Covarrubias family immigrated to California in shifts.

Patriarch Miguel Covarrubias was a migrant worker who picked whatever fruit was in season and returned to Tijuana in between. Manny joined his mother, younger brother and three of his six sisters in L.A. during the summer of 1979.

At age 14, he didn't know a word of English and planned to return to Tijuana to continue his studies and become a teacher. But he decided to stay in L.A. and eventually graduated from Garfield High School.

He took a year after high school to clear his head before enrolling in an electronics course at L.A. City College. He quickly dropped out and began wandering the workforce - embroidery machinist, dye factory worker, custodian, bus driver.

He long outstayed his passport and became an undocumented resident. In 1986, he and 2.7 million other illegal immigrants received amnesty. And on Jan. 5, 2000, Manuel (no middle name) Covarrubias became a U.S. citizen.

"Nothing ever came free for Manuel," said his wife, Gloria. "He took advantage of every opportunity that came his way."

Manny joined LAUSD in 1991 and bounced around coverage areas for five years. He spent another five years as a cover driver - the utility infielder of transportation workers - before Romer arrived in July 2000.

Manny was given the temporary task of driving him. He was told to dress formally but wasn't sure what that meant. Tuxedo? Black cap? He fished out of the closet a black tie, his only white-collared shirt and his sole pair of black slacks - dress pants he hadn't warn since he stopped attending church years before.

"His pants were really tight and he looked like a chef," Gloria Covarrubias said. "He was embarrassed, but Manuel carries himself very well. He knows how to play things off."

That laid-back spirit won Romer's favor. After about two weeks, the new superintendent asked Manny to be his regular driver. But some of the other district drivers weren't happy that a coveted transportation gig had been given away without their invitation to apply.

"Manny, you know, I think they want to take your job," Romer told him after the union inquired. "What can I do to keep you?"

"Excuse my French, governor," Manny responded, "but this is a bunch of B.S. What you say, governor, goes."

And it did. But then Romer laid the challenge back to Manny.

"He said, `Don't get me wrong, you're a good driver, but you're smart. Why didn't you go to college?"' Manny recalled. "I said, `Governor, I'm a good driver, but I'm not smart."'

But at the urging of the boss, Manny entered East Los Angeles College, first taking not-for-credit remedial English and math courses.

"I had to start climbing the hill. It was English 21 and then English 61 and then English 65, then English 101 and English 103."

Taking four to nine units each semester and summer for the following 3 and 1/2 years, Manny received his associate's degree - what his wife called one of his proudest moments.

He'll begin his university studies with an elective course about inequalities based on class, race, ethnicity and gender. If all goes according to plan, he will complete his bachelor's in 2010 with a major in kinesiology, and then might spend the following year getting credentialed and searching for a job teaching physical education.

"Manuel is like, `You can do it if you just set your mind to it,"' Gloria Covarrubias said. "Sometimes, I rub my head next to him so I can get some of his brain."

The news crews finish their tour of Wilshire Park and step onto what must be the cleanest yellow bus in the district's fleet. Romer is going along for the ride, and before he steps on, Manny hands over the briefcase. Manny will follow the bus to each of the schools it visits between now and noon.

Walking to his sedan, he sees a distressed TV reporter whose car has been partially blocked by a double-parked pickup. Without her asking, Manny goes searching for its owner. The reporter maneuvers around, and Manny walks back to find her pulling out - with her SUV's hatch open.

He closes it and sets out for the district office. His phone just rang, and they need him to deliver some documents to Romer before the closed session of the school board meeting at 2 p.m. The route around MacArthur Park takes Manny through his old neighborhood and past the bus stops where he used to wait because he didn't get his driver's license until he was 19.

He continues from the office to Abram Friedman Occupational Center on Olive Street. Manny parks in front of the touring school bus and chats with its driver, Louis Gholar, whom he's known for 12 years and with whom he regularly lifts weights.

"What's going to happen when he leaves?" Gholar asks about Manny's role with the district.

"I don't know yet," Manny says.

Reporters board the bus, and Manny leaves, following it to the next school and then another before the tour winds up at 450 N. Grand Ave., the former district headquarters on which a new high school is being built. When the show's over at 12:19 p.m., Romer slides into the back seat.

"Manny, am I free to stop and eat and read all this crap?" Romer asks, referring to the closed-session materials Manny brought to him.

"Yeah, you're free until 1:30," Manny says.

He drops the boss off at the Marriott Hotel, takes Murphy to the district office and swings into the East Side Market to scarf a roast beef and turkey sandwich before going back to the Marriott and then back to the district office. He's already worked eight hours.

From Third and Beaudry avenues, Manny drives to South Los Angeles to help his goddaughter, who got in trouble at school. He refuels at the district pumps, stops at the Downtown Car Wash and at 3:13 p.m. heads back to Venice to drop seven of Romer's shirts at the dry cleaner.

He kills a little time strolling the boardwalk before making the short trip to LAX; Romer's wife, Bea, is flying in from Denver, as she does about every two weeks. Then it's back downtown so the Romers can eat dinner at the Water Grill.

The Crown Victoria pulls back into the alley behind Romer's apartment at 10:06 p.m. and unloads its passengers. There is no traffic left on the freeways, so it will only take Manny about 30 minutes to get home.

He'll be back in Venice in nine hours.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Greek drama

From: Los Angeles Daily News

The Greek system at CSUN was on the brink.

Police had been dispatched to disperse inebriated partygoers up to no good. Neighbors demanded the university designate on-campus housing for fraternities and sororities. Vilified students felt like pariahs.

"At this point, fraternities are doing everything with kid gloves," the president of the Interfraternity Council said. "I've made it known that we have to be real careful. The Greek system feels it's hanging on for dear life."

That was spring 1986. Twenty years later, tensions are again running high. Complaints about the fraternities have recently consumed hours of discussion at neighborhood council meetings, and the City Attorney's Office is pursuing cases to shut down some. Officials declined further comment.

With the fall quarter beginning today and fraternity rush week in tow, neighbors are bracing for raucous parties, while students are clinging to CSUN's unsanctioned college experience.

The Northridge East Neighborhood Council wants California State University, Northridge, to take responsibility for its fraternities and sororities, particularly by creating a Greek Row, and to take the burden off families and elderly residents living near the Greek houses that dot Halsted Street, Zelzah Avenue and other suburban streets.

"We look at this as a defining moment for us," said council President Kelly Lord. "Either CSUN has rules and they follow them, or they do not."

The current spat is the latest on a long list of grievances between Northridge and the state college that put it on the map. Unchecked campus growth and unbridled traffic have long topped that list. But the Greek issue pops up like a gopher every few years.

Nude volleyball?

"With these frat parties going on, some of them are getting to the point the neighbors can't even enjoy their weekends," said Steve Patel, who lives near CSUN. "It's not just the adjacent homes. They end up parking throughout the streets, littering, making noise."

Neighbors complain of loud music. Blinding party lights. Nude volleyball.

Well, that match actually was played a decade ago by the Sigma Chi guys, for what reason, no one seems to remember. But unhappy neighbors speak of the incident as if it were a semesterly event.

Students say locals have unrealistic expectations.

"They want to live next to a college and yet they want it to be like they live in a forest and there is no noise," said Justin Weisman, 25, who graduated in June and lives in one of the homes on Halsted.

The problem is CSUN never planned for Greek life. There was a push in the mid-1980s to designate 10-plus acres for fraternity and sorority houses, followed by a university offer to move the organizations into a residential tower on campus. But those never materialized.

"They have just unfortunately inherited a situation that is 30 years old," said Jamison Keller, the school's Panhellenic adviser.

Instead of fraternities and sororities living side by side in 20-room mini-mansions, much like they do at most major universities, Greek organizations rent one- and two-story homes around CSUN.

Illegal use

Most of them operate illegally because their houses are not zoned for high-density living. To reduce unwanted attention, some have taken down their letters and profess to not be a "frat house." A few organizations have sought conditional-use permits from the city.

"We've gone through a tremendous amount of work," said Greg Morris, the brother in charge of getting Sigma Chi into compliance with its permit, which has included building a nine-foot-tall fence around the entire house - at a cost of $9,000 - and planting 30 Italian cypress trees three feet apart to create a visual wall above the fence.

Because of years of neighbors complaining, CSUN's 11 Interfraternity Council fraternities and six sororities host most of their larger parties - several hundred students - at nearby bars and clubs. They use campus rooms for weekly meetings.

The residences inhabited by a handful of brothers exist as a home base, a place for informal Thursday night bashes. Other than a place for bros to throw back a few six packs, they say, the houses aren't socially used for much more.

Most of these houses are located on Halsted, which runs along the northern edge of campus. Students consider its route east of Zelzah the closest thing they have to Frat Row.

The loudest complaints, however, come west of Zelzah on Halsted's 18200 block. A few hundred yards from university dorms, the only residences are two single-story homes with long wooden fences that enclose dead lawns, tattered couches, empty Bud Light cans and houses full of testosterone.

The residences are occupied by members of Pi Kappa Alpha and Zeta Beta Tau, two CSUN fraternities. These are not frat houses, technically - PKA and ZBT letters do not hang from the homes. They are unmaintained and filthy, but they are a far cry from "Animal House."

"It's ridiculous. We'll have five people come over, and the cops will come up - and the cops will tell us this is ridiculous," said Dan Schneider, 23, who lives with the ZBTers.

No shootings or stabbings have occurred at fraternities during CSUN Police Chief Anne P. Glavin's four years on the job, nor have any related cases of sexual assault been reported to her department. Glavin said "98 percent" of the Greek-related complaints deal with parking, noise and litter.

"There is not a knee-jerk solution," she said, adding that students should be respectful of their neighbors. "But I've been in the business 30 years. This is not a new problem for college communities."

Last spring, ZBT notified neighbors of an upcoming event to raise money for breast cancer. The philanthropy event included a Chippendale-style show at which sorority girls would buy dates with the student strippers. The neighbors pushed back, and the event was canceled.

Housing turnover

The pressure has caused regular turnover in the run-down houses rented by fraternity members. Sigma Phi Epsilon gave up on a three-bedroom Halsted home in April. But it wasn't replaced by a family of four or a few young professionals. In moved three members of Pi Kappa Alpha.

"Who else is going to want to live there?" Schneider said. "Have you seen that house?"

CSUN is a commuter campus at heart, with 2,200 beds for its 33,000 students. With an average age of 27, only 4 percent of the student body claims Greek membership, compared with about 12 percent at UCLA and 20 percent at USC. But over the years it has grown in stature and in admissions draw.

"This is no longer Valley State College," said Los Angeles Councilman Greig Smith, who represents the Northridge district and has lobbied CSUN to establish a Greek Row. "They are bringing in students from all over the state, from all over the world. And they need to evolve."

The 48-year-old campus recently unveiled its growth plan. Called Envision 2035, it detailed goals to build 600 faculty and staff housing units, expand on-campus housing for 2,500 students and construct a $100 million performing arts center.

No Greek Row

Left out was a Greek Row, which would cost millions to create.

"As we went out and had conversations on and off campus, there was not a big push for that," Dean of Students William C. Watkins said. "If that had emerged, that kind of need is directly in competition with academic space needs. We needed to make sure that we had adequate facilities to take care of our primary mission, which is teaching and learning.

"I don't imagine this is a challenge that is going to disappear overnight."

Patel wishes it would. He attended the University of Southern California, with its stately fraternity and sorority houses centered in a T-shape among the apartments east of Hoover Street. And he blames CSUN for forcing neighbors to deal with its students.

"This is typical of CSUN," said Patel, a real estate investor who works out of his home. "The leadership of CSUN adheres to the minimal requirements to get by. If a student practiced the same criteria, they'd fail in life."

That's not to say Northridge doesn't benefit from having a state university. Besides being one of the largest employers in the San Fernando Valley and pouring millions annually into the local economy, CSUN gives this safe community some of that enlightened-minds spirit.

But it's difficult to live alongside a college campus without dealing with college students - both when they're a blessing and when they're a curse. The solution, according to the past land-use chairman of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council: Live west of Tampa Avenue.

Judie Levin wouldn't relent on that issue when she and her husband moved to Northridge. And she has little sympathy for newcomers who don't follow that advice.

"The neighbors, as far as I am concerned, made a mistake in moving there," she said, "and now they are stuck."