Yale's secret societies are no longer part of mainstream Once prestigious organizations are now seen as exclusive and elitist.

April 19, 1991|By N.Y. Times News Service

Professor Gaddis Smith, Yale '54 and a member of the history department since 1961, recalled Tap Day as it used to be. "Up until the middle of the 1950s," he said, "all juniors who had aspirations to join a secret society gathered like cattle in a college courtyard. At the stroke of 5, all the seniors would rush out and literally tap people for their societies, almost breaking their shoulders.

"There were students who felt that life was over if they didn't get accepted into a society."

The world has changed, and so has Yale.

Most undergraduates these days come from public school, not prep. J. Press stands alone as the last gentlemen's clothier on York Street. The Old Heidelberg is being replaced by a Thai restaurant. And Yale, of course, has been coed for 21 years.

So when tap day arrived last weekend and student members of the oldest and most prestigious society, Skull and Bones, incurred the wrath of alumni by tapping women for the first time, support was strong on campus.

But the larger question, it seemed, was whether secret societies have any place at all at modern Yale.

"Being a part of Bones is often an embarrassment, a source of ridicule and occasionally a good way to lose a friend," senior Bonesmen wrote in a letter to alumni, who include President Bush, telling of their decision to admit women.

"Very rarely is the Bones still seen as an honor, and never is it seen to represent the mainstream of Yale."

To many undergraduates, the dozen or so secret societies and their few hundred members out of a senior class of 1,350, represent the frank elitism of a bygone era. Many students would rather volunteer at a soup kitchen. Juniors tapped for membership are inevitably flattered, but often reluctant to perpetuate the tradition.

"Basically, it comes down to whether you'd rather be one of the excluded, or one who excludes," said Steven Ury, a junior who turned down an invitation to join Scroll and Key.

Instead of attracting "the best and the brightest," Skull and Bones has gained a reputation for being "flagrantly discriminatory and bigoted," class of '91 members wrote in explaining why they tapped women in defiance of the club's directors.

The response: the directors changed the locks on the 159-year-old society's crypt on High Street, nullified the selection of new members and shut the club for the coming year. Plans for beyond that are unclear secretary of the parent organization, the Russell Trust Association. The crypt was locked, he said, to "prevent or discourage unauthorized efforts to change the society's traditions."

But even as students are repelled by the exclusivity of secret societies, each new class is drawn by their mystery and myths.

Senior Bonesmen unabashedly spread rumors that the club is the largest landowner in Connecticut. There is the rumor that members must tithe to the organization after graduation, and in return are guaranteed high incomes.

There is the talk about what lies inside the Skull and Bones tomb, said to hold the skulls of Martin Van Buren and Pancho Villa.

"Arbitrary elitism always has its comical elements, but it still maintains its allure," said Thomas Geier, a senior and former editor in chief of the Yale Daily News.

What goes on inside is also jealously guarded.

Members of Skull and Bones are sworn to secrecy -- a tradition that has also crumbled in the current debate. But even those who have revealed themselves admit only that they, like members of most of Yale's secret societies, devote hours each week to autobiographical revelations designed to promote introspection and intimacy.

Though the traditions remain unchanged, the composition of the secret societies has evolved.

Many now make a point of selecting students from a range of backgrounds. Admitting women remains an issue only at Bones and Wolf's Head.

Diversity has become its own struggle; some students turn down invitations because they feel they are being tapped to fill a quota.

"Secret societies have a base of privilege for members, including a neat building, decent food and a network of alumni. Why should some people get it and not others?" said Jonathan Zittrain, a member of Manuscript.

"I don't sense that Bones' decision to go coed is a great victory for feminists or women," said Geier. "I don't see what is gained by having a club that discriminates against all Yale students, instead of just Yale men."

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