It is difficult to know exactly how to respond to the email sent by Danny Avraham ’15 to the undergraduate student body yesterday. The particulars of the plan are still vague and it is very much an open question how the student body will respond, whether people will participate and whether these groups will have staying power beyond the first few months.
What is particularly fascinating is how it is simultaneously revolutionary and conservative. Never before, to my knowledge, has such a public program taken place with regard to senior societies at Yale. In many ways it represents a potential transformation of the institution. Some form of the society experience may soon be perceived as the right of every undergraduate. It also represents an institutionalization of these groups to a previously unheard-of extent. Apparently new societies will be created and sustained as long as there is significant enough demand in the junior class, with a whole network of seniors, alums, donors and, inevitably, the administration in some way having a hand.
At the same time, this is also a very conservative approach. Avraham has simply put the normal process of society creation into overdrive. Considering the explosion of societies that has taken place over the past decade, so that now almost half of the junior class is tapped every year, this seems like the natural continuation of the trend. Clearly, there is a substantial demand within the student body for the experiences a society can offer, and these new organizations may be able to help satisfy that demand. It also does not, at first glance, represent a meaningful threat to the current system. As has been noted, new societies are created and disappear all the time. Certain groups will always carry a particular cachet due to their history, resources or presence on campus. This is not so much an attempt to rework societies in their totality as an attempt to extend the existing structure to include the entirety of the class.
That said, it is important to consider some of the possible unintended consequences of this change. Not as insurmountable roadblocks, but things to keep in mind if we, as a community, go forward with this plan. The first point is of harassment and hazing in the tap process and safety in the subsequent year. Hopefully, these guaranteed societies will make people feel safe in refusing to participate in activities they find degrading. At the same time, the more people involved in tap night, the more potential there is for someone or some group to go too far and for something tragic to happen. Furthermore, as more people become involved in societies, the significance they hold in social lives will increase proportionally. It is critical that we maintain and develop safe, respectful environments. We, as a community, must regulate ourselves. The tap process and societies should be a fun, exciting experience, not a source of distress or danger.
This leads to a second concern. As it stands now, the societies are allowed an incredible amount of freedom. They are largely unregulated and free to pursue their business as they deem appropriate. It is this freedom that makes the society experience such a special one. The ability to develop and craft a group’s identity, to be beholden to no one but the other members of your group, to encourage freedom of expression and openness through privacy are all unique privileges that should be protected. The more we formalize this process, the more it is centralized and put in the control of a governing body, the more potential there is for it to be controlled and regulated from above. In seeking to make the society experience available to all seniors, we must be careful not to sow the seeds of its destruction.
Ultimately, I have no idea if this effort will be successful. In order to craft a successful society experience, people must be willing to dedicate a significant amount of time to bonding and developing with a group of relative strangers. Groups lacking institutional memory and support may have difficulty creating the buy-in necessary for that experience. At the same time, there is clearly widespread demand and, when successful, the experience can be a deeply transformative and meaningful one. There are perhaps other ways to deal with the feelings of exclusion and frustration inherent to the current society process. However, no other changes have been forthcoming and, if we take Avraham at his word, this approach seems to have attracted the support and money of alumni. It is certainly worth a try. So if you are a junior, are interested in the society experience and have not already been tapped, I would encourage you to sign up and give it an honest effort. It will take work and effort and eat up your free time, but if you succeed you might make Yale a better place.
Isa Qasim is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org