April 19, 2018

DANBERG BIGGS | Secret Societies Shouldn’t Be Secret

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Just visually, secret societies at Cornell are a bit jarring. One meets at the top of a stone tower, while another claims an Egyptian style tomb sitting above a gorge. At least two encourage their members to buy and wear hundred dollar rings. I think there are robes involved, and maybe some shouting, but I honestly can’t be sure.

They feel like a bit of a vestigial structure, an echo of the kind of University that Cornell used to be. In most other ways the modern campus has moved beyond hoods and towers and secret rituals. And yet, these peculiar groups still occupy a vocal and fascinating corner of the University. There are two broad goals that these groups set out to accomplish, at least as far as I can tell. First, they act as an honor society for campus leaders; and second, they work to facilitate collaborative service across campus. Both seem like worthwhile functions. Yet due to their insistence on secrecy and prestige, these groups fail to perform these functions as effectively as they could.

To be clear from the outset, secret societies probably do a reasonable amount of good. Over the last few weeks, as I’ve tried to learn more about these strange clubs, I’ve been offered several assurances that they do a ton of valuable work. So the case I want to make is not that these groups do active harm, nor do I believe that their members hold anything but admirable goals. In fact, they are often populated by some of the more thoughtful and dedicated members of our community. However, there are important ways in which these societies embody the some of the worst tendencies, and biggest blind spots, of our best intentions.

Secrecy presents its biggest obstacle when it comes to their service mission. Here I want to start with the basic claim that for an organization to be truly collaborative, it must be visible and inclusive. While these groups tout their ability to bring student leaders together, the service community that they create is both insular and incomplete. If the goal is to include a diversity of perspectives, and provide student organizations with a space to work together, this goal is only hindered by the exclusionary nature of these organizations. Only groups whose leaders were deemed valuable enough to be included are allowed to participate in these collaborative spaces. This kind of gatekeeping both worsens the quality of service and excludes entire populations of students.

Surely, an organization that truly aims to bring students together would at least make an effort to advertise itself to as many people as possible. There is a tremendous amount of energy and interest on this campus, and by building a wall around ‘the ones who matter most,’ these groups limit their capacity to do good work.

The second, potentially more concerning, feature of these groups is that absolute lack of accountability that they have. This is often sold as a positive, that these groups engage in purely altruistic behavior for which they receive no credit. Given that membership roles are published in the paper and members wear big rings, this claim about ‘pure altruism’ is a little silly. But the more critical point is that these groups sometimes engage in terribly important work, and an inability to hold them accountable presents serious risks. Any group can make mistakes making it imperative that we be able to interrogate the choices that organizers make. Moreover, service at its best often demands a discursive process of public criticism and discussion.

In their role as an honor society, these societies also leave a lot to be desired. Rather than soliciting applications, prospective students are chosen for consideration by current members. No matter what criteria is used, this type of process inevitably relies upon existing social networks and subjective perceptions of value to select who is worthy. There are numerous positions on campus that are known to get a person into a secret society. For example, the leading editors of the Daily Sun are regularly asked to join Quill and Dagger. Similarly, leaders of Student Assembly, IFC, Panhellenic Council and MGLC often receive invitations to join one group or another. While some Greek leaders may be exceptional, and the work this newspaper does is often superb, there is nothing about leading the student assembly, Greek system or the campus paper that should automatically convey greater value than every other act of leadership and service that happens on campus.

To be clear, I don’t have any knowledge of the actual selection process. But by hypothesis, a process of nomination from active members must inevitably be biased towards reproducing sameness, at least in some submerged way. This process contributes to an opaque and intentionally hidden power structure that almost exclusively benefits those who are already in the know. If we are interested in these groups being our student body’s Great Honors, we should want their process to be transparent and accessible. Of course, bias is inherent to any selection process, but this is not a reason to take steps to limit its effects. These groups could publish criteria and actively solicit applications in order to at least remove the first barrier to entry.

The truth is, secret societies are limited by a totally understandable tendency. Folks around here work incredibly hard, and many members of secret society give big parts of themselves to a thankless community around them. It must feel like a relief to finally receive some affirmation that yes, your work is worthwhile and important. I really can’t tell you for certain that I would not have joined one of these groups if I were asked.

You’re welcome to take this for hypocrisy. It probably is. But there is a constant tension between the desire to do good and to feel good, and in this case the feel good seems to be winning. If secret societies want to honor community-oriented students, they should have an open application process. If they want to promote collaborative service, they should let everybody join. This isn’t meant to be a condemnation. It’s just a call for good people to be a bit better.