Societies find their secret niche

This week, they are hard to ignore. Cloaked figures huddle at the doors of Au Bon Pain; blindfolded juniors hunch in the drizzly Swing Space courtyard; a boy stands with a megaphone on Broadway and tells a girl across the street to “Swing on that pole. Come on. You’re not gonna get in like that.” The madness is everywhere: It is secret society tap week at Yale, and tonight is tap night.

Among the elite organizations that populate Princeton, Harvard and Yale, Yale’s secret societies are perhaps the best known. With movies like “The Skulls,” bestsellers like “Secrets of the Tomb,” and alums including the current president of the United States, secret societies are part of a national myth of Ivy League elitism. But compared to Princeton’s eating clubs and Harvard’s final clubs, students and administrators say Yale’s secret societies actually play a much smaller role in life at the University. Though the societies may be hard to ignore during tap week, they maintain a relatively low profile otherwise.

Kate Gasner ’09 said she had no idea prior to this week that secret society tapping was such a spectacle. She said she has been surprised by the prevalence of inductees on campus.

“I thought it was all supposed to be secret, so I’m sort of perplexed,” she said. “But it seems like a good excuse to have fun.”

Yale’s tradition of secret societies began in 1832, when seniors Alphonso Taft, Class of 1833, and William Huntington Russell, Class of 1833, founded the Order of Skull and Bones. Scroll and Key, which is still considered by many Yale students to be the next most illustrious society, was founded in opposition to its predecessor in 1841. At least seven other societies — Berzelius, Book and Snake, Elihu, St. Elmo, Wolf’s Head, Mace and Chain, and Manuscript — were founded at Yale in the 19th century. Today, the “tomb societies” — so called because they are housed in windowless “tombs” that dot campus — are complimented by an unknown number of newer and less-formal societies, such as Fork and Knife or D.S.G., or “Drunk Senior Girls.”

While a few societies have both junior and senior members, the majority of societies tap students at the end of their junior year and admit them as full members as seniors. Each tomb society admits approximately 15 students per year, so at any one time, only a small percentage of Yalies are full members of the major societies.

Like administrators at Princeton and Harvard, Yale administrators said these private clubs have no official relationship to the University. Yale President Richard Levin said he does not think societies play a large role in the experience of most Yale students.

“My impression is that some societies have a major impact on the individuals who are members,” Levin said. “They do not appear to have much impact on the wider Yale community.”

The impact of secret societies on Yale, Levin said, is more similar to that of final clubs on Harvard than eating clubs on Princeton. More than 75 percent of Princeton upperclassmen are members of eating clubs, and because the clubs act as dining halls and study spaces, not just social spaces, they play a much larger part in students’ daily lives. Both eating clubs and final clubs admit students in their sophomore year, giving them a longer-term presence in students’ lives than secret societies.

At Yale, the tap process varies from society to society. Some societies, such as Skull and Bones, use a “direct tap” process, in which students are simply identified for membership through extracurricular position or reputation. Other societies tap many students and narrow the group to a final selection of members through an interview process. Tapped juniors have been interviewing for societies since before spring break. Students said the issue of whether or not a student is interviewing can sometimes be touchy.

“One of my roommates this year wasn’t tapped, so I could see how it could have been awkward,” one tapped junior who wished to remain anonymous said. “I know a lot of people who were disappointed that they didn’t get tapped, so of course we don’t talk about it around them.”

But some students who are not tapped say such sensitivity is unnecessary. Adam Clark-Joseph ’07 said that while he was “unfortunately” not tapped for a society, he sees societies as a generally positive thing.

“I think in general they give people a good chance to get to know people they don’t normally interact with,” he said. “Honestly, I think that the selection process is too arbitrary to be elitist.”

While some Yalies said they are not concerned by the elitism of secret societies, others think that they get too much attention.

Once students are tapped, they often have to go through a series of initiation events. Like the tap process, the society initiations vary according to the particular groups. Some societies require new members to dress up in costumes such as army outfits, g-strings, or lab goggles; others assign members to sing songs in dining halls, on the streets, or during lecture. Some fledgling society members have to go as far as handing out cookies in front of Toad’s Place. In bikinis.

One student who went through the process said he agreed the tap process is a good time, despite the embarrassment.

“I really liked it,” he said. “It’s a little bit similar to pledging a fraternity, except without all the bad stuff.”

While the initiation process is quite public, the actual activities of the societies live up to their reputation of secrecy. Most senior members said their societies meet every Thursday and Sunday. One member said the most important thing societies do is allow students to get to know each other.

“You sit down for like four or five hours and everyone talks about their life,” he said.

But while some societies spend most of their time sharing the intimate details of their lives, others get together for more recreational purposes. Members of some of the non-tomb societies said the main purpose of their organization is often to get students together to drink. But while the increasingly casual air of the society scene has led to the involvement of more Yale students, the introduction of new societies has sapped some of the system’s traditional elitism, one society member said.

“As far as the elite part goes, one of the sort of tragedies is that there are so many new societies that have devalued what it is means to be in a society,” he said.

Although secret societies do not play as large role in students’ daily lives as Princeton’s eating clubs or students’ social lives as Harvard’s final clubs, they require a strict commitment of time in students’ senior years. Some Yalies are unwilling to make society a priority in their already busy final semesters.

Katerina Apostolides ’06 said she was tapped by an all-girls society last year but decided not to join because she would have had to miss her Thursday night Yale Political Union meetings.

“They seemed like a really cool group of girls and I instinctively wanted to get to know them better,” she said. “But the trade-off wouldn’t have been worth it for me.”

Unlike eating clubs or final clubs, secret societies generally do not throw regular parties that are attended by anyone but members or select guests. Some societies, though, occasionally open their doors to non-members for annual events such as a Halloween party at St. Elmo’s and infrequent gatherings at Manuscript’s house on Elm Street.

Kasdin Miller ’07 said she appreciates the fact that societies do not play a large role in the social life at Yale.

“The Yale system works well,” Miller, secretary of the Yale College Council, said. “At Princeton, your eating club sort of defines your social circle because you start it so early, whereas here [the secret societies] supplement your social life.”

Since society membership is often based less on social networks than membership in eating or final clubs, the groups of seniors who end up in a society together may not have known each other in their previous years at Yale. Many members said the best part about being in a society was getting to know people they otherwise may not have met.

“The point of society is that you have tap coming from all over different areas of Yale,” one member said. “[Societies] bring together a lot of different people.”

The mysteries of the secret societies’ “tombs” (shown here:  Book and Snake) will be disclosed to newly initiated juniors after the chosen few are tapped tonight.
nathan laughton
The mysteries of the secret societies’ “tombs” (shown here: Book and Snake) will be disclosed to newly initiated juniors after the chosen few are tapped tonight.

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