Once a year, Yale’s hush-hush senior societies engage in some cryptic but very public initiation rituals.
Mark Alden Branch ’86 is the executive editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine.
Several young women in Batman costumes offer to help people cross the street. A man dressed as a sumo wrestler—almost naked, in other words—challenges passersby on Elm Street to a wrestling match. Students in Commons break into songs from The Lion King. And on more than one street corner, rows of people are walking single file wearing blindfolds, their hands placed cautiously on the shoulders of those in front of them.
This is no ordinary time. It’s senior-society tap week, a week of eccentric activities culminating in the initiation of new members of Yale’s storied social clubs for undergraduate seniors. They are known to the general public as the “secret societies”—Skull and Bones being, of course, the most famous (and infamous, among conspiracy theorists)—but as varying degrees of secrecy are involved, “senior societies,” the term used on campus, is more accurate.
In days of yore, there were seven senior societies, and their Tap Day was a public spectacle: the junior class assembled in Branford courtyard and waited for representatives of the societies to race around the court, literally tapping the most prominent men in the class for membership. That public ritual was performed for the last time in 1952, but the societies still emerge from their tombs every April to engage in odd public displays with their new members. “If anything weird happens that week, you know it has to do with the societies,” says one senior.
And because of the recent dramatic proliferation of societies, there’s a lot more of the weirdness these days. Where once the tap process might have involved no more than, say, 150 members of the junior class, there are now at least 41* societies, with names ranging from the mysterious (Sphinx) to the tongue-in-cheek (Whiskey and Coke). Most of them tap around 15 members, meaning that nearly half the seniors now belong to one society or another.
It’s nothing new for the campus to sprout a few “underground” societies in addition to the seven older ones. (The seven are Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, Wolf’s Head, Berzelius, Book and Snake, Elihu, and Manuscript—all now referred to as “landed” societies because they have prominent buildings on campus.) But as far as anyone can guess, the explosion of additional societies in recent years is unprecedented. Because the societies mostly function quietly behind the scenes, there is little public discussion about why this has happened. Yalies have always shown a penchant for starting new organizations, though, and for whatever reason, more and more of them have decided that it’s better to start a senior society than to mope about not getting tapped.
Students say that the new societies tend to be more relaxed and casual than the landed ones, which are laden with traditions and have watchful alumni to help preserve those traditions. But despite the opportunity to start from scratch, the new societies are mostly built on the same template as the old: 14 to 16 seniors, chosen with diversity of experience in mind, meet every Thursday and Sunday, deliver lengthy and intimate “biographies” of themselves to their fellow members (these days, a biography might last up to five or six hours and include old home videos and PowerPoint presentations), and engage in debates, dinner, and drinking. And while some of the new societies take pride in their nomadic existence, others have become landed themselves, acquiring houses or apartments to serve as meeting places.
While a certain amount of discretion about society activities is still the norm, membership is an open secret on campus, and students will often talk freely to each other about it. “When someone posts a picture on Facebook with eight guys and eight girls in it, you have a pretty good idea what it is,” says Erica Blonde ’12, who was a member of Double Cuffs, a society founded by members of the Class of 2011. (“We just passed the five-year mark, which some of us believe is the hurdle to be considered a more legitimate society,” she says.)
The process of selecting members has also evolved. Contact with prospective members before Tap Night used to be frowned upon, but societies now have conversations—albeit secretive ones—with candidates. A society council sets the dates for Tap Night and for when prospective members can first be contacted. According to members of a few different societies, the standard process is for a society to draw up an initial list of 40 to 80 people, hold a first round of interviews, and then deliberate to cut the list in half. Second-round interviews might be done with the entire society present, or in a party format with other prospective members. (Students say that at least two societies—Skull and Bones and Scroll and Key—don’t interview candidates.) A week before Tap Night, societies may begin offering membership to candidates. Candidates don’t have to commit until Tap Night itself.
Surprisingly for an activity that involves so much of the student body, the Yale administration doesn’t have much to do with the process. Like fraternities, the societies aren’t regarded as Yale organizations. They don’t register with the administration, as official student organizations do. And the university has no formal contact with them. “I know very little about them,” says John Meeske ’74, who just retired as associate dean of Yale College for student organizations. “I get most of my information from an adult contact who works with them.” Meeske says the administration does use its contacts with the societies to express its concerns that initiations happen “in a healthy way, without breaking Yale rules or Connecticut law.” Those concerns have driven some additions to the undergraduate regulations; Meeske cites a rule against “blindfolding or physically restraining an individual, with or without that person’s consent” as one that was inspired by past society and fraternity practices. (Blindfolds still abound, though, as you can see in the photos accompanying this article.)
A larger number of societies means more people have a chance to participate in a rewarding—some people say even life-changing—experience. Nevertheless, every year, many people get left out.
“I think there is still a lot of anxiety in the junior class,” says a graduating senior who belongs to a non-landed society. “Some people reject the process altogether; others hope for a tap and are disappointed.” That disappointment can be even keener when nearly half of your classmates start disappearing every Thursday and Sunday night.
The untapped life doesn’t have to be grim, though. The late Marina Keegan ’12, a gifted writer whose book of short stories and essays, The Opposite of Loneliness, was published posthumously this spring by Scribner, wrote that she was “pretty bummed” about not getting tapped for a society. “I was worried that I would be missing out on some fundamental Yale experience, that everyone would have new friends, and, worst of all, that I was somehow subpar—that all my friends in societies (all my friends) were somehow more ‘accomplished’ or ‘worth knowing.’ It felt lame,” wrote Keegan in a Yale Daily News op-ed in the spring of her senior year. Keegan went on to describe how, instead, she spent Thursday and Sunday nights in the fall writing the book for a musical and Thursdays in the spring at an internship in New York City. “Every year, there are inevitably people who don’t end up in a society,” she wrote. “And my only message to you is this: I’ve had a fantastic senior year without one. I did things I was proud of, made new relationships I will always treasure, and had a little bit of extra time to do so.”
But many students who did get tapped speak just as glowingly of their experience. Even if they’re sometimes uncomfortable with the system’s selectivity or unimpressed by the rituals and secrecy, they cite the deep and unexpected friendships that come out of the weekly soul-baring and fellowship. “Junior year, during the tap process, I had almost a negative image of societies,” says a graduating senior. “I thought they reinforced existing social hierarchies. But at least half of the people in my society are people I wouldn’t have ever met otherwise. And now, they are some of my closest friends.”
* We reported in our print edition that there were at least 44 societies, but we erroneously double-counted some of them in our initial tally.