To the Editor,
I am writing to express my concern about secret societies at Wittenberg. My hope is that such societies will become public and, thus, accountable. Currently, such groups receive the tacit approval and protection of cautious and even frightened university community members at every level. Since this is a reflection on secret societies, there is naturally much information that is veiled from me. Here is what I know:
Students are afraid.
I have been present at the CDR where members of a secret society bullied and cowed others standing in the lunch lines—jostling, cutting in line and behaving in strange and threatening ways—and I was shocked that not one student challenged this behavior. Instead, they looked unhappy and frightened, and yielded to the crowd who harassed them. When in disbelief I asked one of the students about this, she told me that these were members of a secret society (and identifiable, given their “secret” emblem), and that these bullying events happen with some regularity: this was not a one-time event.
Students are convinced that secret society members receive preferential treatment from administration and faculty members of secret societies.
I have heard from a range of people not in secret societies that those faculty and administrators who are members give preferential treatment, including better grades, internship and job opportunities, and warmer connections with student members. If true, this certainly goes against every value that Wittenberg proclaims. However, it is the very secrecy of these groups that creates a toxic atmosphere, whether or not the claims are justified, precisely because these groups have no public face and no accountability.
Faculty, alums, staff and administration collaboratively engage in exclusionary and alienating behaviors toward students.
At a convocation for entering students some years ago, the Alumni Council president included in her remarks that one of the best things about Wittenberg was being tapped by a secret society. I wrote her a personal letter suggesting that this is hardly an example that makes students feel like a part of a greater whole—in fact, quite the opposite—it sets up a competition and anxiety about who is in and who is out, and the consequences of being out. I did not receive a response.
I have been dismayed to see faculty colleagues wearing the signs of their membership to such societies at Commencement—at the very time when we are all dressed in academic garb precisely to proclaim our unity in the intellectual enterprise. I can only wonder at the experience for students at Commencement, when, on a day that should be the crowning glory of Wittenberg unity for all students, they see a professor from their department wearing signs of secret membership that has excluded and apparently disadvantaged them for four years.
The cost of alienation at Wittenberg.
Constant concerns at Wittenberg include the difficulty of improving retention, garnering a healthy percentage of alumni to become donors, and above all, nurturing a deep commitment to the educational mission of the university. It is hardly surprising that students would leave a school where their perception is that they are disadvantaged and disregarded, especially when the whole university seems complicit. It is hardly surprising that many alums would feel bitter about the Wittenberg experience if they had this perception during their time at Wittenberg. The most difficult piece of this for me, however, is the knowledge that faculty colleagues are willing to compromise the trust that all students should have in them.
As I wrote this letter, I sometimes felt that I had been transported into a different historical moment and place where the secrets of a few are guarded by the majority who timidly accept their exclusion and disadvantage. Those I talked to warned me not to write this letter and actually sign my name. Even the article to which I am responding was published anonymously. What are we teaching our students, and what kind of community have we created here? When there is an unseen, unacknowledged, pervasive group of people who wield disproportionate influence because they have no external identity or accountability, then there is damage being done through fear, anxiety, uncertainty and alienation.