There’s a big secret at Wittenberg, and everybody knows it. The secret societies on campus have long been a topic of confusion, contention, and curiosity and have given rise to many rumors among students and faculty.
The presence of secret societies around Wittenberg was especially prevalent last week, due to the occurrence of several initiation ceremonies for the Shifters in public places around campus. An anonymous Wittenberg student observed many of these rituals, documenting the efforts with photos and the Twitter handle @TheShifterWatch.
“I was not the only curious investigator tonight [Wednesday, March 19],” said the student in a report to Wittenberg Police and Security. “Many people left their houses and dorms to see what the yelling was about.”
Throughout the experience, the student reports to have felt threatened and uncomfortable, especially after specific events on the night of March 19.
“I had Shifters trying to incite me to fight and Shifters giving me the finger,” the student said. “A group of three guys got in my face and told me to leave. One grabbed my shirt in his fist and threatened that if he saw me again, he would punch me in the face.”
This particular Shifter was later issued a Dean’s citation.
At the same time, a great deal of curiosity exists around campus as to what Wittenberg’s secret societies mean and do, a speculation which has caused many rumors to circulate around campus.
“In some cases, it is difficult to determine the purpose of our secret societies because they do not register as student organizations or openly share their purpose with the institution,” said Casey Gill, Interim Dean of Students. “This makes it difficult to determine if their activities are aligned with the values of the institution.”
However, Gill insists that the administration supports any group that helps students’ overall development and personal growth. As long as secret societies do not violate the regulations in the Student Code of Conduct and Ethics, they have the right to assemble just like any other group.
“For the most part, secret societies around campus do not pose a problem for the police department,” said Wittenberg Chief of Police Jim Hutchins. “As long as the public ceremonies do not violate any criminal laws or university regulations, they generally do not pose a threat to campus safety.”
Secret societies have been a part of Wittenberg’s culture for a long time, some for close to 100 years, and to the members involved, they are important parts of their Wittenberg experiences.
“To me it’s a social group that I never thought I would even be considered for and it is a weird sort of honor to be in it,” said an anonymous Wizard. “It bonds you in this weird way…It’s nice to get to know more people on campus than I would have before.”
While the founding values of these societies remain secret from the general public, speculation on campus has led to some conjectures. For example, the student who spent last week observing the Shifters stated that much of this society’s philosophy is based off “The Tao of Pooh,” a book written in 1982 by Benjamin Hoff meant to introduce Taoism to Westerners. Dr. Keith Doubt, professor of sociology, states that, whether or not they are aware of it, all secret societies follow a pre-Christian belief system called Gnosticism that focuses on the power of knowledge and truth.
“The chosen presume to have special but un-disclosable knowledge and those who are not chosen live in darkness,” said Doubt. “Since the criteria for the selection of secret society members are opaque, secret societies lower the quality of social life on campus, detracting from the sense of equality, openness, and inclusiveness that is necessary for a healthy liberal arts community.”
Along with this sentiment, there are some students who believe that the initiation ceremonies for some secret societies could be considered hazing. Sleep deprivation, alcohol consumption, and reenactment of potentially frightening scenes can characterize these initiation rituals.
“Part of the reason fraternities and sororities are subject to strict hazing policies is because hazing is contrary to the values our organizations stand for,” said Carol Nickoson, Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life. “Members take oaths to uphold values; other organizations typically do not do this.”
At the same time, these societies intentionally do not label themselves as Wittenberg organizations. While the “secret” aspects of the organizations separate them from the institution, this separation is part of what defines them.
“By being the organization that we are, we understand that we forfeit our voice,” said an anonymous Shifter. “People will always talk. And it’s not our job to stop them or counter them.”
Yet, these organizations continue to recruit new members and members of Wittenberg’s secret societies attest to their love of these groups.
“It’s a lot like being in a sorority and fraternity except that it’s a little more relaxed and that you have a close-knit group of people that enjoy the same things you do,” said an anonymous Bell. “I feel like it’s another family I can go and complain and stress about theatre and they totally get it. I feel like I belong.”