Terry Holcombe '64 and Nick von Baillou '64 interviewed on senior societies
Unsealing the Tombs: Society and Its Discontents
Yale Daily News
April 17, 2015
“The boiler room is the best place to hide,” Jack says, laughing. He’s talking about the games of hide-and-seek that he and his fellow senior society members play in their three-story tomb — only, that is, after a multicourse meal complete with rounds of liquor, all free of charge.
For many members of Yale’s landed senior societies, Thursday and Sunday nights unfold in similar fashion. As a member of one of Yale’s oldest and wealthiest societies, Jack enjoys access to a tomb steeped in history. Yale-related paraphernalia — including old books, artifacts and Yale Class Day banners from the 19th century — give its hallowed halls an air of mystique.
There are no dues for membership in Jack’s society: It has its own endowment, which is funded and managed by the society’s alumni. According to Jack, these alumni remain an important part of the experience, even after they graduate. They are often invited back for large dinners in the dining room, which has many tables that accommodate guests returning for reunions or events.
As for the rest of the tomb, Jack describes it as a large, comfortable space with many rooms in which to study, talk, and relax. But he also says it is rife with contradiction. “It’s an intimidating space,” he says. “Not everyone feels comfortable in there, even after being there for a year. It’s an incredible and completely undeserved privilege to be there. No one deserves to be in a space with so many nice things, riddled with privileges, and yet we are.”
Jack’s experience with society is representative of an “old Yale” tradition dating back well into the nineteenth century. But it is also clear that these experiences are far from universal.
For Alex, a current senior, Tap Night last year was just like any other Thursday. While many of his friends spent the evening getting drunk with their new society, he was doing homework and trying to distract himself from the disappointment of not being chosen for membership in any society.
The day before, he had been invited to a last-minute interview. Jumping at the opportunity to make an impression, Alex left his theater rehearsal in the middle to make the meeting. A few hours later, however, he received an email telling him that he would ultimately not be offered a spot.
Looking back after a year, Alex said not being in a senior society hasn’t dramatically affected his social life. An ostensible difference is when many of his friends are busy on Thursday and Sunday nights with society obligations. Many societies meet for over three hours twice a week, a time commitment that rivals that of serious extracurricular obligations. However, Alex is not overly concerned with this change, but spoke rather of the disconnect between him and those of his friends who are members of societies. He observes this division mostly in casual lunchtime conversations.
“When the topic of societies comes up during lunch, my friends have the same experience and language that I don’t share because I am not a part of it,” he said.
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This disparity among Yale seniors is exactly the kind of issue that former Yale College Council president Danny Avraham ’15 is seeking to address. Despite the society system’s reputation as a bastion of exclusivity, Avraham has a more egalitarian vision — he believes that senior societies should be open to anyone.
Avraham says that senior societies as they stand have a negative impact on Yale’s social scene. He became more acutely aware of this during the few weeks leading up to Tap Night, which took place on April 9 this year.
It was only when he was approached by somebody from outside that he decided to formulate this initiative to alter the status quo. When a high-school junior anxiously asked him about the society tap process while he was giving him a campus tour last week, he realized that he wanted to make a change.
The way he tells it, soon after that encounter Avraham developed a proposal for an inclusive society environment on paper. In the proposal sent to the entire undergraduate body by email, Avraham emphasized that the initiative was not, in fact, a hoax.
This is Avraham’s idea: to create as many societies as needed for juniors who want the experience but were not tapped by pre-existing societies. During a recent interview, he spoke of his desire to bring the junior class together.
“All you need is a Google Doc list and an invisible hand,” he said. Despite the simplicity of the idea and his plans to execute it, Avraham said he has done his research by talking to juniors, seniors, and alumni. Through these conversations, he realized that an initiative like this one would address the evolving dynamic of Yale’s social scene.
The shifting landscape to which Avraham refers has to do with the proliferation of senior societies. In recent years, there has been a steep increase in the number of non-landed societies. Currently, there are at least 40 documented societies, which translates to roughly 600 seniors — slightly less than half of the class. While this democratization has allowed more seniors to take part in society life, it also means that those who are not in societies are more greatly affected by this process, according to Avraham.
“Back in the day, when there were only 100 seniors involved in society life, it didn’t dominate the social scene like it does now,” he said. “This really creates an unhealthy stratification of the senior class.”
Avraham has formed a coalition of supporters to carry out the plan. Jessica, a member of a landed senior society, said she supports Avraham’s initiative and that she, along with other seniors, some of whom are in societies, are meeting Friday, April 16 to discuss how to move forward. According to Jessica, “No one really deserves or doesn’t deserve to be a part of a senior society.” She added: “I want to see it implemented in a way that makes juniors feel good, validated, included, and wanted.”
In addition to current seniors, Danny Avraham has gotten alumni on board with his initiative, as well as private donors who are invested in expanding the society experience by funding the creation of new societies. Two Yale graduates, Nicolaus von Baillou ’64 and Terry Holcombe ’64 see the proposal as an opportunity to revive Ring and Candle, a now-defunct senior society that they had been a part of during their time as students.
Despite the society’s dormancy for over 40 years, the two want to start Ring and Candle back up at Yale. Holcombe said he has reached out to Avraham to discuss the possibility of re-establishing Ring and Candle on campus, and that the two will likely be collaborating to bring the idea to fruition.
So far, 161 students have shown interest in Avraham’s initiative and will go through several steps before being placed into a new society next week. They have already filled out a preliminary preference form and will hand in a personal information form today, according to a timeline Avraham sent out to interested students. The questions on the forms ask about the number of gatherings the individual is willing to commit to per week, as well as the society activities he or she wants to partake in. Their placement will be largely based on these preferences.
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Since Avraham’s email was sent out to Yale students, his initiative has generated much debate on campus. The plan to reform a system synonymous with Yale elitism has raised up a number of concerns, including the potential artificiality and unknown lifespan of these proposed new societies.
While some students interviewed believe that Avraham’s plan will alleviate the harmful exclusivity of senior societies, others have said the institutionalization of societies will not be as effective as Avraham believes.
A senior currently in an all-women’s society explained that, during the tap process, members discussed what kind of “vibe” the society wanted to give off through their recruitment of junior candidates. Given that established societies engage in time-consuming yet personal interviews with each candidate, and often spend hours debating the composition of the upcoming tap class, Avraham’s plan to assign candidates based on such basic preferences seems almost formulaic.
Avraham is unfazed by these worries about homogenization. “Some [current] societies think that they have their unique culture,” said Avraham. “But I am very skeptical about that.” He said the unpredictable nature of the tap process, which he labeled “an industry,” means societies often end up with an essentially random assortment of members.
Grace Brody ’16 disagreed with Avraham’s notion that societies at Yale are largely undifferentiated from one another. “The societies that exist started with a specific vision,” she said. She added that the new societies will likely have a generic feel to them, if only because they were created through institutional reforms rather than the more natural process by which most others were formed.
The stark contrast in method raises an unanswered question: whether artificial placement can replicate the organic nature of interviews and discussions to create a “real” senior society.
Sarah, who graduated last year, has doubts about the plan. She believes Avraham’s system intends to institutionalize moments that simply cannot be reproduced from outside of the society system.
Sarah originally found her society to be alienating, but ultimately it became a source of community and trust. While she felt out of place for the first few meetings with her society — she was abroad when she was tapped and never really cared about the process beforehand — eventually she came around to the idea.
“I never thought that I would be considered eligible for my society,” she said, “because of my race, class, social status, and the things I was interested in, which was nothing super mainstream on campus.”
Sarah knew her society’s tomb had not been built with her in mind, and she was very frank with her fellow members about feeling uncomfortable. Aside from Sarah, there was only one other student of color in her class, a black male. At first she didn’t want to open up to the largely white and seemingly homogenous group of typical Yale students who were with her in the tomb.
“I was very on guard during the first meetings — waiting for a moment to be offended, waiting for a moment that would make me feel different.”
While Sarah felt out of place as a black female pursuing a creative career, her friend and fellow society member Ben felt out of place being on campus at all, since he had worked off campus for most of his time at Yale.
The feeling of vulnerability, they say, is what brought the members of the society together. “It was during the bios that I had that turning point when I realized this space was for me,” Sarah said.
Sarah and Ben said they couldn’t speak about those specific moments of transformation and feelings of togetherness. But Ben emphasized that, without the security of the tomb and the assurance that nothing leaves its walls, this sense of friendship and self-realization would not have been possible.
“The most meaningful and exciting things are these little interactions, organic moments of friendship that happen within society,” Sarah said. “They can happen outside too, but those can’t be institutionalized. Those things happen in the privacy of personal relationships.”
Ben similarly worries that Avraham’s initiative can’t replicate the atmosphere of existing societies, because it places emphasis in the wrong places. Rather than answering the need for community and friendship, the initiative reinforces the notion that societies are a necessary indicator of a successful and meaningful Yale experience.
“This push is a sentiment that comes up every single year. What we found most meaningful is hard to institutionalize,” Ben said. “I worry that the initiative panders to the idea that this is a capstone.”
Sophia Charan ’16, who chose not to join a senior society, believes that by expanding the influence of societies Avraham is actually achieving the opposite of what he set out to do. She said that opening the society system up to everyone sends the message that every junior “should be in a society, when in fact I think lots of people might benefit from not feeling obligated to be in one.”
Will Adams ’15, a senior not in a society, said he has mixed feelings about Avraham’s proposal. While he might have joined this initiative this time last year when he was not tapped, he believes that he would not make the same decision now. “Being in my place now,” he said, “after a year as a senior not being in society, I’m not entirely comfortable with the implication of Danny’s statement: that being a part of a senior society is integral to your social life.” He added that his social life has not changed too drastically since then.
Aaron Gertler ’15, another senior not in society, said he was largely indifferent about the tap process, although at one point, he thought he might be tapped. However, he said that having a group of friends in different class years has made social life just as fulfilling for him.
Others raised concerns about the longevity of these future “artificially created” societies.
Avraham himself admits some uncertainty: The new societies may not last longer than a year or be involved in next year’s Tap Night. Jessica, who is working with Avraham, said she is unworried about the longevity of the newly formed societies. If the society dissolves, then people will be withdrawing in order to return to their pre-existing friendships, and no harm will have been done.
The natural formation and attrition of societies has generally not been recorded, meaning that historical data about Yale’s society landscape is incomplete. There are no records of non-landed societies at Sterling Memorial Library, but a copy of Yale’s Extracurricular & Social Organizations 1780–1960 listed senior societies active at the time of its publication in 1961. Of the 14 listed, seven are now apparently defunct.
Ring and Candle is among the defunct. Von Baillou said he does not know the exact point at which his own society, Ring and Candle, was disbanded. After tapping the subsequent class, he said that he and his fellow society members became largely uninvolved with the organization. “We didn’t keep a close watch on what was going on, and in fact, weren’t invited to do so by the subsequent class,” he said. “We kept our hands off, and regretted it.”
Despite receiving a basic outline of the programs and traditions, the newly tapped class of Ring and Candle members were left to their own devices. Once they succeeded the outgoing class, they chose what they would do as a group during their weekly meetings.
Besides the loss of internal structure, Ring and Candle’s landed property was also sold and the alumni do not know what has happened to it.
According to Michael, a current senior in a landed society, the loss of a physical space could dilute alumni’s connection to their societies.
“The physical spaces lend to the longevity of the organization,” he said. “They keep alumni wanting to come back. It’s no longer superficial — the memories, the nostalgia, the friendships. We develop memories around it and attach meaning to it.”
Of course, none of these new societies will have definite spaces.
“Unfortunately that is part of the buy-in, those superficial things — the history, tomb, and mystery,” Michael said. “Those are the things that bring people in to make the necessary sacrifices — time and other organizations. Without the status, history, and property, I think that it becomes more difficult … to make the same kind of commitment.”
Samantha, who is a member of a non-landed society, has made some of her closest friends at Yale within her society. Samantha’s society may not have a physical building in which to meet, but she believes the friendships she shares with fellow members are just as valuable as those developed within the walls of a tomb.
Karolina Ksiazek ’15, a senior in a non-landed all-female society, believes that most non-landed societies are able to mold themselves how they like because they are not bound to a particular space and tradition. “Maybe for the ones with a strict tradition of how they’re run and lots of alumni involvement, the culture is more stable. But for most of them, I think it’s mostly a group of friends, and so the people who are in the group create the culture.”
According to von Baillou, it is imperative that a senior society have its own distinct traditions and culture: “It has to find a purpose, otherwise it will just blow away like dust in the wind.”
Students in societies generally agreed that some degree of autonomy is necessary for the group to shape an experience tailored to that year’s dynamic. But too much autonomy can cause a society to become too unstructured, and eventually, to collapse.
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Regardless of the feasibility of Avraham’s proposal, the fact that more than ten percent of the junior class has responded favorably to the initiative in just a week shows that society culture remains a contentious issue on campus. As Avraham has said, donors have signed on to the plan, not only in a financial capacity but also as mentors. Alumni are willing to commit to a plan that tackles longstanding social issues which have not yet been resolved.
Despite these efforts, some of the people we interviewed suggested that this initiative is doomed to fail because of the inherent nature of society experience. One senior who is not in a society said exclusivity is one of the big attractions of society. People feel special because they are vetted, chosen, and tapped by seniors.
But a senior member of a landed society was cautiously optimistic.
“I’m acutely aware that the tap process can be difficult,” he said. “It was for me. If I had found the experience was just about elevating some and diminishing others, I wouldn’t support [societies]. I’m open to a new way.”