A couple weeks back, the Internet (i.e. IvyGate) blew up a list of this year’s Sachems, to much discussion of how much secrecy exactly is involved and needed. Chief of Staff Writers Julia Goodman tells you why, despite their philanthropy and goodwill, Columbia senior societies neither have nor need full secrecy.
It’s been a few weeks since IvyGate revealed a list of the members of the Sachems. And a lot of people are still wondering what exactly the big deal is about senior societies. Well, for one thing, they’re secret…at least more secret than St. A’s, which isn’t saying much. But unlike St. A’s, or other exclusive “societies” like frats and sororities, most Columbia students don’t hear much about the Sachems and Nacoms. Nacoms traditionally take the secrecy element much more seriously than Sachems, which may be why a member of the Sachems leaked the list of members, but no matching Nacoms list has surfaced.
Ostensibly, the “secrecy” is really just an enhanced version of privacy—the societies want to remain secret so that first-years don’t start campaigning for the position, or so that they know their members are not just joining to put it on their resumes. In fairness, this is a problem that plagues many other positions of power in student groups. But then again, many graduating members do put the affiliation on their resume, and some Sachems, at least, don’t keep things secret once they graduate. So, why all the secrecy for current members? For one thing, it’s cool to be in a secret organization fighting for good! Isn’t that why the X-Men do it?
In all seriousness, though, before 1952, Spec published the list of new members each year. They stopped doing it as a form of protest against the societies, not because the societies themselves insisted on it. That protest seems to have actually increased the societies’ power, though, or at least their mystique to the rest of the student body. The “secrecy” is a way of maintaining a low profile, but if it only serves to make people more curious, then it is not serving its intended purpose. It shouldn’t really matter if the members are secret, as long as they keep a low profile. If the Sachems and Nacoms once accepted a more open way of doing things, why shouldn’t they still?
Perhaps the privacy has helped the groups do more good while on campus, and it can certainly be argued that they’ve done a lot. Though, again, they tend to keep things private, the Nacoms are known to have donated a CAVA ambulance, while the Sachems started a scholarship fund and helped found the Double Discovery Center (a tutoring organization). And, through secrecy, the groups have managed to avoid some of the pitfalls of campaigning that CCSC and ESC have fallen prey to. Then again, that could also be because no one except current members gets to decide the next group, and there are often “lines,” which tend to pass down to the same position, such as whoever is president of a particular student group. Those who are not part of those lines, or don’t catch the eye of the senior societies for other reasons, will never even be in the running.
Part of what makes some uncomfortable with the societies is the idea that they have direct access to the administration and can influence it in ways others don’t. At least from what is public knowledge, it doesn’t seem that they’ve used that power in any negative way. As an old Spec article notes, “although heavy criticism has often been leveled at their methods, their intentions have never been questioned.” Most members have already benefited the campus in some way, so perhaps it’s not all that sinister. The societies do tend to choose members who already have, and likely will continue, to be invested in Columbia. For those who are frustrated about not being tapped, there are always other ways to get involved on campus. And hey, maybe if you do something really good for Columbia, you can join a secret society after all!
The level of secrecy is still troubling, though. Even if the societies feel current members must not reveal themselves in order to preserve the goal of not getting credit for what they accomplish, the general workings of each group does not need to be hidden. In 1954, students voted for the societies to register and submit monthly reports to the Dean, which was never enforced. As with other seemingly exclusive groups, people may have been reacting out of bitterness that they weren’t invited to join. But student discomfort with the secret societies seems to go beyond that. If the purpose is to do good without credit, why not just admit that the “secrecy” has become counterproductive? Everyone already knows the societies exist. These groups should make public their process, even if they keep specific projects and members secret.