Every year, around 15 junior students are chosen by each of Yale’s secret societies to become members. After an arduous yet largely arbitrary selection process, around half of the junior class joins a society. For all of senior year, these students will meet twice a week to debate, hang out and become friends. For most of the societies, meetings are conducted in whatever space is available — dorm rooms, restaurants or off-campus apartments.
Yet around a dozen of the secret societies offer a little something extra. For this handful of societies — “landed” societies — meetings are conducted in some of the most conspicuous buildings on campus — windowless marble and stone “tombs,” replete with priceless artwork and personal chefs. Students tapped by many of these landed societies are given exclusive access to powerful alumni networks, tombs larger than entire Yale classroom buildings and endowments worth millions of dollars. These students will enjoy spring break trips to exotic locations with their fellow society members and catered cocktail parties with the American elite.
Societies have been part of Yale’s social fabric for almost two centuries, and I do not mean to suggest that the landed societies should discontinue their (actually admirable) traditions of building diverse camaraderie, entering into intellectual debates or fostering connections with alumni. My question is: Do you really need to do it in a palace? The tradition of landed senior societies must be re-evaluated in terms of today’s context of socioeconomic inequality and privilege. We must ask whether landed secret societies are an outdated vestige of the elitist aristocracy that founded Yale.
Every week, I am stopped at least once by someone on the street asking for money. Every day, 625 people in New Haven face the reality of homelessness, 138 of them children. The harsh difficulties of urban life are not relegated to some faraway Moonlight-esque neighborhood in Miami or the Bronx; they are present here in New Haven. Mothers who can’t find their way out of crack cocaine addiction. Young men who are arrested and locked up for selling narcotics. Men and women with mental illness and trauma who are unable to find the resources for treatment.
In light of these two wildly different landscapes, which exist mere miles from each other, I offer what one could call a modest proposal: What if the landed societies gave over their tombs to become homeless shelters and community centers, and used their endowments to fund social services for the disadvantaged populations of New Haven?
The endowments of just three of the “Ancient Eight” societies alone — Book and Snake, Wolf’s Head and Scroll and Key — together total over $22 million. That could certainly fund the ongoing salaries of multiple mental health professionals, drug addiction specialists and caregivers for children. What if the students who are selected for these societies used the time they would have spent bonding with each other over cocktails and private dinners to volunteer at these community centers?
Perhaps Skull and Bones could be the new location of the Emergency Shelter Management Services. This essential neighborhood service, after being notified of having to leave its building to make way for public housing two years ago, was recently denied its request to move to another location by the Board of Zoning Appeals. Or maybe Wolf’s Head could donate a portion of its endowment towards the Escape, a drop-in center and shelter for homeless and at-risk New Haven teens, which has struggled to officially open its doors over the past year due to lack of funding.
This critical reevaluation must come from within the societies themselves. The members hold the sole decision-making power for their organizations — which is why societies have historically been so averse to change. After being handed the keys to the castle, why would you change anything?
Lillian Childress is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .