Former Yale Daily News editor-in-chief Rose Horowitch ’23 wrote a piece in The Atlantic recently about Yale’s societies. I think it’s worth discussing.

I should say at the outset that there are more important issues to reckon with right now than the goings on in societies on an elite college campus. But, for a moment, I want to engage with the piece because it tries to wrestle with a compelling tension that exists at places like Yale.

Horowitch aptly highlights the fact that I have simultaneously called for the abolition of Yale and joined an Ancient Eight society. She implicitly argues that this is a part of a broader trend at elite universities, in which values and actions don’t align, where students argue on behalf of social justice issues and take part in privileges only available to a small percentage of applicants a year. This begs the question: How do you justify joining institutions whose values are in direct conflict with yours? 

For some, joining these institutions means turning away from weakly held values. People can espouse a set of principles and then, given the first opportunity to compromise on those principles for personal gain, bolt. That is what makes the critiques about social justice advocates at elite universities so biting. We express high-minded ideals in conflict with the university, then partake in opulent first year dinners, use university funds to sponsor summer activities and when graduation comes, take the first jobs in finance, tech and consulting we can find. We also join societies. These decisions imply that we do not believe what we say, and despite all of the virtue signaling, we are deeply attached to the comforts and status afforded by being in elite spaces. 

It would be disingenuous for me to deny that part of the allure of Yale, and an Ancient Eight society, is its status. It would be disingenuous for anyone at Yale to deny this –– this is an institution with internationally recognized prestige, prestige which routinely grants us access to networks and opportunities few others get. And we have all opted in. But status and personal gain are not the only reasons people attach themselves to elite institutions, particularly ones in conflict with their values. They are not the primary reasons I decided to attend Yale or join society. 

I still seek an end to the existence of elite, oppressive universities like Yale, and I still seek an expansion in access to higher education that makes any future need for elite universities obsolete. I also seek the end of secret societies which, much like Yale, horde wealth and celebrate exclusion toward no particular end. But I recognize that, for the time being, Yale and secret societies confer power, power which can be used to unravel these institutions. For me, the cost of being in tension with the institutions I am a part of is worth the opportunity to make an even greater impact down the line. This is something I have acknowledged since my first month on this campus.  

I still think conscientious objection is important, and I think it is essential that we strive to align our principles with actions. But this striving must also account for the power ceded through non-participation. Ends and means must be considered. This is not a new idea. 

Wrestling with the rise of the Black Power movement in the United States, Dr. King writes, “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” 

This is not to say power should be sought for power’s sake, or that it is justifiable to join any institution. There are lines that no one should cross when seeking power to create change. There are also acts institutions take that no one should stand for and everyone should speak out about. With this in mind, we should carefully consider the tradeoffs associated with entering elite spaces, and we should recognize that no approach to change is free from negative moral implications, especially in this country. If a person decides to join an institution like Yale or society, they must hold fast to their values and make an effort to reduce the harm those institutions cause. As soon as either of these things start to slip, that person’s place in that institution is no longer justifiable. Myself included.

It bears repeating that this tension, as applied to the decision to join society, does not have much consequence. What social clubs do on Thursdays and Sundays at an Ivy League university is hardly a matter of existential importance. Maybe Horowitch and her editors, in their anxiety about and fascination with what the private school kids are doing, forgot this. Maybe a better article could have wrestled with tradeoffs of institutional affiliation as it applies to more consequential things –– perhaps the ongoing war in Gaza and the relative complicity of government officials in a military campaign that has killed over 20,000 people, most of them women and children. 

But what do I know? I’m just a college student who likes status symbols.

CALEB DUNSON is a former co-opinion editor and current columnist for the News. Originally from Chicago, Caleb is a senior in Saybrook College majoring in Political Science and Economics. His column “What We Owe,” runs monthly and “explores themes of collective responsibility at Yale and beyond.” Contact him at

Caleb Dunson is a former co-opinion editor and current columnist for the News. Originally from Chicago, Caleb is a senior in Saybrook College majoring in Political Science and Economics. His column "What We Owe," runs monthly and "explores themes of collective responsibility at Yale and beyond." Contact him at