Beta

Tapping in

Back in the day, when societies were still secret.

Back in the day, when societies were still secret.

Given societies’ clandestine nature and the especially sensitive timing, survey respondents, junior candidates, and senior participants were all granted anonymity. This reporter, a senior himself, is not affiliated with a society and did not go through the tap process.

The juniors lined up on Old Campus were scared to death. You could even hear them breathing.

A comrade told Dink Stover, then a freshman: “It’s a regular slaughter.” So he was reluctant to watch—but still curious.

Some chapters later, the enterprising protagonist of Stover at Yale awaits his own career-making “tap” for one of Yale’s prestigious societies.

Meanwhile, he frets constantly over his chances at getting picked. His reputation depends on it.

That iconic handbook for attaining Yale glory was published exactly a century ago, and a lot has changed since then. Carriages and valets are nowhere to be found (while women are). Nobody uses “poppycock” anymore. And hipsters have long unseated the prepsters here.

Today’s Yalies read about Stover and his ordeals for laughs more than for guidance. But just like Stover, they might continue to yearn for entry into Yale’s secret societies.

These rarefied institutions meet on Thursdays and Sundays, consist of about 15 seniors, and famously involve “bios,” or detailed confessionals. The nine “landed” societies meet in tombs, windowless and imposing, that are scattered around Yale’s campus but don’t fall under its ownership. These first societies—among them Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, and Wolf’s Head—have churned out influential leaders, and still garner the most recognition.

If anything, societies have lately exploded in their numbers and broadened in their appeal. With actual Tap Night coming in a matter of days, the Herald has attempted to map out the blurry constellation of societies presently active at Yale. Just over a quarter of the student body—1,369 people—responded to an online survey designed to anonymously measure participation in and perceptions of societies.

Of the self-identified seniors who were asked if they belong to a society, 120 of them—50.6 percent—said they do. That figure alone is close to a tenth of the Class of 2012. Considering that a 2000 article in the Atlantic reported that “fewer than a tenth” of Yale’s seniors take part, it appears that the last decade has seen unprecedented growth in the number of secret societies. Several other pieces of evidence point to this same conclusion.

In this article, survey responses from students will be mixed with firsthand accounts of societies that have been invented or resurrected. Many of these societies emerged recently, and only a handful of them can claim any Yale heritage predating the Clinton years. In other words, this is a society culture far more nebulous and pervasive than the one Stover knew. It’s gone mainstream.

So maybe under this fertile arrangement, Stover wouldn’t have to obsess as much over his society prospects. Or, would he have more reason to?

***

Once a member of Scroll and Key, Alexandra Robbins, ES ’98, wrote the aforementioned 2000 tell-all article in the Atlantic. She went on to publish Secrets of the Tomb based on her interviews with about 150 living alumni of Skull and Bones. She denied in an email that the societies come with major perks attached—nothing, she wrote, “beyond the multicourse meals and, in some cases, free beer.”

“The societies,” Robbins also wrote, “are mostly hype, exclusivity, and a dash of entitlement. [Skull and Bones] can be a powerful alumni network for those aiming for certain career paths, but, as one member told me, ‘There is no golden key.’”

Even so, the Herald’s survey found that 73 percent of underclassmen would join a society if tapped, based on what they have seen from the outside. Respondents in this majority thought of societies as “a part of the quintessential Yale experience,” bestowing their members with a sense of accomplishment and the potential for strong camaraderie. “Why not?” and “can’t hurt” appeared as survey responses as well.

A smaller but noticeable contingent felt that societies needlessly promote elitism. Their reasons for not wanting to join were hard to skim over: “Not a wealthy aristocrat.” “Because I’m not a social-climbing tool.” “Self-aggrandizing groups that only serve to divide us.” “Like the rich Old Yale version of any middle-schooler’s treehouse club.” “I’m busy and they’re silly.”

One underclassman spoke to mixed feelings toward societies: “I disparage the idea out loud, but it actually could be fun (and even useful).”

***

Over her five decades working at Yale, Judith Schiff has gotten used to fielding requests about its various societies. These have ranged, she said, from media or academic inquiries to the vigilante calls she often handles. As the University’s chief research archivist (plus an honorary member of Elihu), she deals with the popular allure and intrigue that societies command to this day.

“It’s certainly a topic that everyone is interested in,” Schiff told me in her library office. “I think the societies do enhance Yale’s image as a place of tradition. They contribute to the uniqueness of Yale, shall we say.”

She detailed how even the most venerable of Yale’s societies began as oppositional. The oldest and perhaps most notorious, Skull and Bones, launched in 1832 as “a big joke, a lampoon of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.” The original societies mainly arose from tap-related fallout, when excluded juniors banded together. A trio of the landed societies (Berzelius, Book and Snake, and St. Elmo) grew out of Yale College’s total absorption of the Sheffield Scientific School in the 1920s, which ejected them from their former haunts. For the most part, societies kept their appeal until the “student activism and unrest of the sixties.” As Yale democratized and abandoned its quotas, the societies ultimately followed but at varying speeds.

Retired professor of diplomatic and maritime history Gaddis Smith, PC ’54, GRD ’61, vividly remembers witnessing the last Tap Day his sophomore year. Later destined for Berzelius (just as his father had been) and the chairmanship of the YDN, Smith confirmed in a phone interview that Tap Day received “tremendous attention” in his time. He underscored its highly public feel, as if to evoke Stover.

“The juniors would be assembled, and members of the societies would go up and tap you—sometimes breaking your shoulder, practically!” he said. “It was held in the Branford Courtyard, and each of the societies would borrow a suite on the second floor. When they claimed their 15, they’d slam the window. It was quite a show.”

Members’ identities, he said, were in no way concealed as they are now. And there used to be a clearer sense, according to Schiff, of who would or wouldn’t get tapped. Also because of its more open character during that era, Tap Day drew only those self-confident juniors who assumed they had a realistic shot. Otherwise, amid the crowds, they would be “humiliated.”

Because of a “recession among the societies in the 1970s,” in Smith’s words, even some of the most entrenched ones reportedly discussed shutting down. Their role on campus is no longer questioned as openly. In fact, Smith understands why students might want to form their own societies.

“I haven’t kept track in the last 20 years, so I couldn’t name what they are,” he said. “Maybe it’s just to have close friendships—with luck, for a lifetime.”

Nor has Schiff been able to track, with any precision, the emergence of “underground” societies. The documentation of their hidden goings-on has yet to reach Schiff, who said she’s at a loss for how to “find out much more about them.”

“The societies seem here to stay,” she said. “But most of us see it as such a low percentage of student involvement that they don’t necessarily influence college life that much.”

Yale University does not formally recognize or provide funding to the societies, as much as they are woven into its history.

When he attended Yale, Dean of Undergraduate Organizations John Meeske, JE ’74, was familiar with the societies, but not with what they did or stood for. Come his senior year, Meeske was busy performing as a Whiffenpoof and living off-campus with his eventual wife. He had not been inducted into a society.

“Maybe I was out of it, but [society] wasn’t something that a lot of people were talking or even thinking about,” Meeske said.

Last spring, a wave of religious holidays almost caused tap proceedings to conflict with Bulldog Days, the preview event for high-school students admitted to Yale. As a result, Meeske worked with representatives from the societies to change their joint tap date. He was surprised by “how willing they were to identify and involve themselves.”

It turns out the societies arrive at collective decisions through a Society Council. Its current leader, Jonny Dach, JE ’08, LAW ’13, was a member of Book and Snake. He wrote in an email that the societies “broaden their students and benefit the University” by virtue of introducing and bonding differently-situated seniors to one another.

Although Dach would not comment on the entry qualifications or internal governance of the Council, he provided a list of its constituent societies as of last year. Thirty-four signed a rule declaration that runs in the YDN around every tap season. That number is an all-time record, to Dach’s knowledge, but he added that he isn’t sure if it will stay that high.

Up to his dealings with the Society Council, Meeske had not thought much about the growth of societies in his role as liaison to registered student organizations. Virtually all of their members are older than 21, and whatever festivities they throw are self-contained. Plus he acknowledged that any hazing that societies might commit—particularly blindfolding—is limited to Tap Night by most accounts.

“[Few] incidents have been related to senior societies over the years,” Meeske said.

Still, he thinks it would make sense for Yale to keep a running tab on societies. “We’d like to know what percentage of the student body is involved. We don’t have that information, and I think it’s appropriate that we should,” he said.

Now confronted with their rising popularity, Meeske ventures that societies perhaps fulfill in their members a need for autonomy and maturity. He also empathizes with the juniors left out of them, who could end up “feeling like outcasts.”

“I hope that isn’t case, and if it is, maybe we as an administration need to think about whether something needs to be done to address that.”

***

Nearly 63 percent of the juniors surveyed by the Herald said they are in the midst of being considered for societies. Similar to the private firms that recruit at Yale, societies put juniors through multiple rounds of interviews. Or contrived mixers. Or nothing at all before Tap Night. These various screening methods apparently help with creating an ideal patchwork of personalities.

Relatively few juniors described themselves as indifferent to the whole process. One dismissed it as a “popularity contest” instead of a fair referendum. Another wrote, stoically: “I wouldn’t say it’s made me feel any particular way—just another thing to fit into my schedule.”

A considerable amount of juniors answered in positive terms. They professed liking the introspection the process demands from them and half-wishing they hadn’t “[met] so many great seniors only months before they graduate.” One of the juniors expressed feeling “glad to be reminded of the importance of meeting new people.”

Glowing adjectives made it into the survey responses, sometimes all by themselves. These included: “flattered,” “special,” “wanted,” “comfortable,” and “important.”

One junior who spoke with the Herald on the condition of anonymity described his four interviews as “pretty relaxed.” He had taken a gap year abroad and said he was likely friends with the seniors who had nominated him. Particularly as a “super senior,” he views society as a meaningful way for him to connect with younger people he hadn’t met before.

However fun or revelatory society itself may be, many of the juniors surveyed said the tap process has already made them feel considerably worse about themselves. Their responses included unpleasant words like: “stressed,” “confused,” “phony,” “inadequate,” “gross,” “woozy,” “paranoid,” and “judged.”

Negative reactions to the tap process largely boiled down to this single answer: “The entire junior class seems to be in a constant state of anxiety.” Various respondents confessed to having their egos damaged; feeling undervalued; and resenting themselves, as one junior wrote, for “valuing the social recognition of a tap.” On a less dramatic note—unrelated to self-doubt—another junior complained that “some people need to think of more interesting costumes.”

A few juniors took issue with their powerlessness to opt out of being evaluated. One wrote that it’s like being “forced against my will to compete against my friends in an unnecessary and pretentious system,” while another depicted it as “an application process I never signed up for…[which] is silly and self-congratulatory.” More than one junior interviewed anonymously for this article got into the “pressure cooker setting” of having some suitemates not receive any letters under their doors. Other juniors were incredulous that so many of their classmates “feel the need to talk all about their ‘secret’ society interviews”—even in the company of those who never had any.

On a bigger level, this upset group of juniors wished the tap process would be more balanced and transparent. One stood out for wishing, instead, that Yale abolished societies altogether:

“Speaking as a generally confident and accomplished person, this whole process has surprisingly and dismayingly made me question my own values. Honestly, if I could make a 100-million [dollar] donation to Yale on the provision that secret societies were eliminated, I would—and I think Yale would be better for it.”

***

Rather than actually protest the existence of societies, snubbed juniors sometimes take it upon themselves to create their own. Most begin as casual and premised on existing friendships. However, these knockoff societies are just beginning to tap into another “secret” wielded by their landed predecessors: staying power.

In 1956, shortly after Tap Day phased into Tap Night, Thornton Marshall, SM ’57, was a disgruntled junior. Both Wolf’s Head and Skull and Bones, considered some of the uppermost societies, had sought his roommate. But no hooded figures arrived to whisk Marshall away, he said.

“All that time, I was sitting in my room—mouth open—and nobody came to knock for me,” he explained. Stunned but unfazed, Marshall went up to a mirror and simulated “tapping” himself. “I decided, screw it, I’ll dress up like those secret society guys, and go around campus tapping other people.”

Just like that, Marshall had launched what would evolve into Mace and Chain—the last of the societies to obtain a tomb, just a few years ago. The society flickered out twice, first in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and again closer to its founding, when it reportedly ran out of money. In 1993, Mace and Chain returned, eventually becoming the latest landed society in 2001.

Marshall’s goal with Mace and Chain had been to devise a more representative and engaged community, one that accepted students of all persuasions, introduced a rotating leadership, and brought in professors to “talk about the issues in the outside world.”

“I thought it would be wonderful at Mace and Chain to have a tremendous potpourri of people, all together in a small group, where they could do a lot of good together,” Marshall said. “You could say it started out because of my feelings of bitterness, but it became something I’d want a society to be.”

All these years later, Marshall avoids meddling too much with Mace and Chain, citing its “very dynamic bylaws” that allow for yearly reinvention. He did mention, however, that the alumni as a whole treat current members to “extravagant activities” such as a Christmas dinner at the Yale Club of New York, paid-for theater tickets, and gourmet food they bring in for “one fabulous night.” In return, Mace and Chain beneficiaries must promise to take advantage of Yale’s cultural resources, like the Beinecke collections, before they lose access to them for good.

Taking initiative as Marshall had, Justin Chukumba, SY ’10, was partly responsible for bringing back one society that had gone defunct.

According to Chukumba, one of its alumni found out it had vanished some 20 years prior, so he put a classified in the YDN asking for interested juniors to repopulate it. It so happened that Chukumba, not having been tapped the conventional way, had already committed to a group of juniors who intended to make a society for themselves.

“We have old roots but a new vibe,” Chukumba said, referring to his society (which he preferred to leave nameless). “We had some legitimacy, an alumni base, and with that all the perks—financial and emotional support.”

Double Cuffs, a society cobbled from scratch two years ago, had a different sort of advantage going for it. According to one of its founders, who insisted on anonymity, Double Cuffs has managed to secure an off-campus house for each of its iterations so far. Other new societies, like Chukumba’s, by his account, generally face the biweekly challenge of finding somewhere to meet in private.

“Until you have a solid endowment,” this original Double Cuffs member said, “you need someone who will offer a space.”

The other advantage to a “start-up” society like Double Cuffs, he said, is its relative mellowness. The leading principle is not to enable future networking but to spend time together flexibly and for its own sake.

“In our case, we didn’t force each other to meet up together. We were friends anyway, and that made us different from a society formed in a less authentic context,” he said. “We realized that Yale is a very fast-moving place where you don’t really have the opportunity to get to know the same people very well.”

***

Now that Double Cuffs has decided on an open-ended legacy for itself, while sticking to its premium on real intimacy, it may consider legal as well as ritualistic institutionalization.

That was the clever route taken, decades ago, by each of the landed societies. They have registered with the IRS under “public charity” status. As 501(c)(3) organizations, their filing documents are a matter of public record. All but two of the landed societies (Elihu and St. Elmo) are incorporated under the distinct names of their respective alumni groups, such as the Phelps Association or the Colony Foundation. Not only are the societies exempted from federal income tax, their alumni donors are entitled to charitable deductions.

In their 2010 Forms 990, legal custodians of the landed societies reported assets ranging from 96,090 dollars (St. Elmo) to 8,331,405 dollars (Kingsley Trust Association). Last year alone, revenue for the Stone Trust Association totaled 886,147 dollars. Three societies saw their expenses overtake their revenue, and at least three societies included a current Yale professor or administrator among their highest-ranking officers and board members.

Professor John Simon, LAW ’53, who has taught “Education and the Law” as well as “Nonprofit Institutions” at Yale Law School, explained the two possible methods for an organization like secret societies to become a public charity. First, they can pass a “public support” test, which essentially requires that at least one-third of their receipts come from small donors and no more than one-third come from investment income. Or, they can prove their own support of an existing public charity—e.g., Yale University.

“Because the technical requirements are not that difficult to meet, I can see these societies qualifying,” Simons said.

Ostensible connections do exist between these societies and the funding of certain Yale-administered awards. These might include the Kingsley Trust Association’s summer fellowships for undergraduates; the prize for the best senior essay in humanities, which shares its name with the Wrexham Foundation; and the Arthur Greer Memorial Prize given for junior faculty research, underwritten by the Stone Trust Corporation. One society’s related association argues in its Form 990 that it makes a collection of “historical furnishings, books, and artworks” available to museum curators from Yale and elsewhere.

In declaring its reason for public charity status, the typical landed society checks off that it “normally derives a substantial part of its support…from the general public.” But one society, associated with RTA, Inc., chooses to go with the second test outlined by Simon, that they ultimately benefit Yale University by helping to “educate” a select few of its students. This particular society describes itself as offering “structured programs of intellectual inquiry, sensitivity training, and personal development… Recent topics have included homeland security, corporate governance, and US international relations.”

Enrollment in this course, it would seem, is capped at 15 a year. Prerequisites unknown.

***

Whether in a society or not, seniors contacted by the Herald uniformly said they were happy with their “decisions.”

All but 16 of the 94 senior respondents to the survey echoed the desire to meet a new group of interesting people they wouldn’t have met otherwise. One noted that by senior year, “The social scene has kind of ossified.” Another senior wrote contentedly about “finding a unity amongst people of all walks of life, learning to coexist with different opinions and beliefs.” Society, for most of these seniors who have gone through it, amounted to a “safe space” for them to challenge and appreciate each other.

A recent graduate, who requested anonymity, wrote in an email about his refreshing time in one of the less orthodox societies, Cup and Crown: “I worried that I had allowed my personal group of friends and accumulation of new experiences to plateau… Commitment to the society concept was rooted in community to one another.”

Speaking from her experience this year in a landed society, a senior wrote to me that she “absolutely loved” it, that it let her “experience different parts of Yale through the people in it.” She foresees some of them becoming lifelong friends.

A senior whose society goes back at least 30 years, but is not technically landed, said that the experience has made him more sensitive to others’ flaws and struggles. “[Society] has reminded me that everyone is fighting personal demons… I can’t just drop a huge bomb on my acquaintances about, like, what happened in my childhood.”

Almost all senior survey-takers not in societies reported that they haven’t cared since Tap Night, or thought about what they have been missing. They appreciated not having to pay dues, not straying from their original friends, and, most of all, “not having the huge time commitment.”

One unaffiliated senior, who requested that her name not be used, posed the following thought experiment to me: “If it really was about the ‘experience,’ and not the prestige, how many juniors would enter themselves into a random lottery for societies?”

Thanks to so-called “tap lines,” many athletic teams and prominent campus organizations used to function as automatic pipelines into the societies. In the Class of 2012, however, the former leader of the Yale Political Union (YPU), Yale College Democrats (Dems), and Yale Debate Association (YDA) either chose against the society process or never made it in.

A former president of the YPU, Chris Pagliarella, BK ’12, quipped that the most society has affected him personally is when the occasional Thursday meeting is rescheduled. After graduation, he will work at Bridgewater Associates.

The Dems’ ex-president, Marina Keegan, SY ’12, recently wrote a YDN op-ed about her productive reaction to non-membership. Disappointed at first, she used the time she would have devoted to society by writing and staging a full-length play, Independents. She’s now holding down an internship with The Paris Review. On Thursdays.

“The most important thing to do—on both ends—is to keep society in perspective. It doesn’t mean you’re any less ‘successful’ or ‘worth getting to know’ just because you’re not in a society—and I think it’s important for everyone to keep that in mind,” Keegan said.

The YDA’s ex-president, Kate Falkenstien, SY ’12, said she felt “group pressure” to go ahead with society. Ultimately, because of the tradeoffs involved, Falkenstien decided to take herself out of the process. She wanted to spend her final year with the friends she already had, before she goes off to Stanford (most likely) for law school.

“People shouldn’t feel like it’s the only thing that could be fun their senior year,” Falkenstien said. “I felt like I was more concerned with being chosen than with actually participating in society.”

  • Benji

    Ben, great article. I wish you’d talked a little more about some of the alcohol use associated with societies. Meeske’s quote suggests that societies are generally safe. But what about the Pundits party last year? What does that say about the society culture? The whole tap process makes people willing to do anything—including putting their lives at risk.