This article appears in the 2007 edition of The Sun’s annual Freshman Issue.
Every January, the numbing cold appears to numb the minds of 500 otherwise bright, accomplished, talented freshman women — the season is rush. Wearing miniskirts and stiletto heels in three feet of snow would clearly be a felony if the sororities forced girls to do it, but they don’t even have to, as girls do it voluntarily.
“It definitely seems a bit ridiculous at times, but it’s how you play the game,” said Juliana Gansl ’07, a member of Kappa Alpha Theta.
Inside the houses, what goes on seems comparably illogical. A cut-throat competition develops over which sorority can make the most fragrant hot chocolate, and a third of the female upperclassmen lose their voices cheering before the potential new members have even set foot inside their houses.
The biting cold and tactical warfare are part of the strange creature we call “rush,” a practice that has existed at Cornell almost since the institution was founded but has evolved largely over the last half-century.
In 1956, rush was over two weeks long and sororities were under siege from “independents.” To join a sorority was to “conform to a certain amount of conscious and unconscious ideas and ideals,” The Sun wrote in an article intended to advise freshmen.
Many debates were held on the topic of “independent vs. Greek.” A major argument in favor of “independence” was that dormitories gave women the opportunity to meet new people and expose themselves to different schools of thought while sororities gave way to homogeneity. Sororities highlighted social, cultural and scholastic advantages inherent to their organizations.
Rush was shortered to only one week in 1961 when the Panhellenic Association decided to institute open houses during the end of first semester. Familiarizing freshman with the houses ahead of time made less rushing time necessary.
In the ’60s, rush was divided into “periods.” First period at each chapter was a coffee hour, second period was an informal party and third period was a dessert party.
Of the girls signed up for rush, each house could invite back 185 freshman and an unlimited number of upperclassmen for the first period after the open houses. The second period cut down the number of visitors to 100 freshman and 16 upperclassmen and final periods were limited to 50 freshman and 8 upperclassmen. Each sorority could accept a maximum of 22 girls.
A minimum GPA was imposed in the early 1960s, a move met with criticism as students felt that the University should not be imposing restrictions on student activities on the basis of grades.
Other issues facing the female greek scene were those of racism. In 1966, two black girls entered the Greek system.
That year, three sororities had to leave the Hill because of allegations of discriminatory national charters.
A concerted effort to fight “dirty rushing” was also in play. Starting a year earlier in 1965, a rule imposing a moratorium between upperclassmen and freshman girls during the period of recruitment was instituted. Punishment for violation of this rule ranged from prohibiting the transgressor from participating in the next round of rush, to a forced one-week hiatus from pledging activities.
Today, the campaign against dirty rushing takes the form of a warning against mention of the three Bs during the rounds of rush: boys, booze and bids.
Illegal rush discussions can force girls to be expelled from rush entirely.
Formal sorority recruitment is now divided into “rounds.” Potential new members visit every sorority on Cornell’s campus on the first day of rush and engage in brief introductory discussions for the 30 minutes that rushees are at each house.
During the second round, each potential new member is given house tours, the quality of each sorority’s living situation is a big consideration for most as nearly every chapter at Cornell has a mandatory one-year live-in policy.
The third round is intended to indicate each chapter’s sense of humor through a choreographed and rehearsed skit. The final round is an hour of casual conversation with a sister whom each rushee had met earlier in the week.
As the week progresses, each woman makes decisions about which houses she’d like to continue rushing, while the members of the houses decide which women they’d like to see again.
Through the rounds, the rushees narrow their lists down, as do the houses. Rounds also get progressively more formal as the week goes on.
Though undeniably arduous, most sorority sisters will attest to the fact that the process is well worth it: “I grew up in Ithaca and I used to laugh at the girls as they went through rush. Then I became one of them, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made at Cornell,” said Ariel Katz ’07.