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A Shifty Look At Secret Societies

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.

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  • hurts your credibility from paragraph 1 says:

    @hurts your credibility from paragraph 1

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous i don’t and never did care about these groups

  • hurts your credibility from paragraph 1 says:

    @hurts your credibility from paragraph 1 lion posted the nacom names

    1. Regina George says:

      @Regina George Gretchen, stop trying to make lion happen! It’s not going to happen!

  • Depressed UWriting instructor says:

    @Depressed UWriting instructor Very nice effort! A-! Next time, try bolding your thesis statement!

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous I find it disheartening and disappointing the 2014 lists include names of so-called activists and those who have claimed to be all about social justice… willing affiliation with such a structure that promotes and reinforces elitism seems counter to what they say they are about.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous I agree…

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous several issues with this piece, but i’ll list the main ones i have.
    1. a sachem did not leak the list; it was very clearly derived from the photos that bwog posted. this is part of the reason why ivygate presented the list as being 14/15 sachems, when there is no 15th sachem.
    2. coming off of that, the nacoms are not necessarily more secretive. their website is just less publicized and better secured, which is why their membership was posted in bwog comments (and later, the lion). you’re making a faulty comparison based on limited information and dated wikicu/nytimes/spec articles
    3. societies do not have direct access to the administration by virtue of being in societies. individual members (like the presidents of student council and other orgs, as you mentioned) have access by virtue of their individual positions.

    people who are actually in these societies can probably make more directed critiques, but these are just mine. overall, shoddily researched and jumps to conclusions. blatant clickbaiting by virtue of saying “lol socieities are secret”

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Many good points. Actually there is no 15/15 sachem though. That person quit in protest

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous re point 3. it’s chicken/egg. They do need access to become society members, but they get more once they are in.

  • soooo says:

    @soooo If we know who is in these groups, why do we not reach out to them and ask these questions? Has anybody done that yet? It seems like we keep making a bunch of assumptions about what these groups do / have done, despite having the means to at least try to get confirmation.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous that would be journalism

  • Seas says:

    @Seas Are these seniors senior underground?

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous no

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous who is senior underground?

        1. Alum says:

          @Alum For years it was Sachems

        2. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous the 2014 presidents

  • anon says:

    @anon “That protest seems to have actually increased the societies’ power, though, or at least their mystique to the rest of the student body”

    Yeah, no. Most people I knew genuinely didn’t know anything about their existence until Bwog published it. I’m pretty certain that widespread knowledge about the secret societies would just spur on an unhealthy competitive frenzy of people purposely sucking up to Nacoms/Sachems in order to get in and obsessing over the selection.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous i think the people who have a chance to get in learn about it before tapping

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Cava could use a new ambulance if the Nacoms or Sachems are buying

  • Tod Howard Hawks says:

    @Tod Howard Hawks I am Tod Howard Hawks, Columbia College, Class of 1966.

    I was tapped in the spring of my junior year by both Nacoms and Sachems. I chose Nacoms. Over the decades, I have read occasional reports about initiation ceremonies of Nacoms (e.g. candles, snakes, etc.) Not the case. I was chosen to be Head of Freshman Week (now NSOP) toward the end of my junior year, which, I believe, is why I was tapped. I wore the Nacoms ring, but at first I felt self-conscious in so doing.

    Our periodic meetings, which always included a member of the Administration who himself had been a member of Nacoms, were fruitful. We took up issues concerning the well being of the College and how we, as a group, might find ways to ameliorate these concerns. That’s what we did. Nothing clandestine or surreptitious.

    In 1989, when I traveled to Russia under the aegis of the late Columbia Professor Kenneth Koch, a poet known round the world, I met a beautiful young woman to whom I was strongly attracted and gave her my Nacoms ring.

    The biggest honor I received while at the College was being elected one of 15 Class Marshals (now called Senior Marshals) by my 700 classmates to lead our Commencement procession.

    I have been a poet and a human-rights activist my entire adult life.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Fuck off you boomer

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