From the Editor

Reform of the senior societies

A new effort promises a society for any student who wants to be in one.

Rari Quippe Boni, reads the motto on one of the fireplaces in the Skull and Bones tomb, according to some 1876 invaders: the good are indeed few. Of all the striking details in our “Origins of the Tomb” article this issue by Dave Richards ’67, ’72JD, this was the one I found most striking. Rari Quippe Boni is an exceptionally self-satisfied piece of interior decoration.

I was blissfully uninterested in senior societies as an undergrad—probably more so than anyone in Yale College could be today. As Mark Alden Branch ’86 reported in “Open Secrets” (July/August 2014), in recent years the campus has seen an efflorescence of societies. The standard 7 have grown to some 40, and roughly half the seniors belong to a society—leaving the other half lacking for company during the traditional Thursday and Sunday society meetings.

The society system now “dominates the entire social scene,” says Daniel Avraham ’15, former president of the Yale College Council. Its influence beyond the campus is also growing. Recently, Avraham was giving a campus tour. “A visiting high school junior asked me how students get into senior societies,” he wrote in an open letter on April 7. “With a worried demeanor, he then asked, ‘What happens if you don’t get into one?’ The kid hadn’t even gotten into Yale, and here he was already worrying four years in advance about senior societies.”

Avraham decided to dedicate his last days at Yale to senior society reform. Since so many students want the society experience—“a unique setting where you can form intimate friendships with people you never would have met otherwise,” he says—he determined to set up a rational, fair system to extend that experience to everyone who wants it. (Rationality and fairness are not hallmarks of the existing arrangement, in which candidate juniors may or may not go through an intense personal interview before some 15 seniors—who may or may not be sober—answering random but difficult questions: what object would you be in a museum? What is your deepest secret?)

Avraham invited interested juniors to sign up online; 166 did so. Then he sent them forms asking about the kind of society they wanted: For instance, did they want the traditional “bio” experience, in which every member has an evening to deliver an intimate autobiographical presentation? Or did they want a society more oriented toward, say, debate? The 166 were also asked about their interests and backgrounds—the better to sort them into diverse groups in which they will meet those interesting people they’d never otherwise have met.

When I spoke with Avraham in late April, 112 juniors remained in the pool; some had dropped out when they realized how much commitment a society requires. He hoped to form seven to ten societies, and he and several volunteers had the infrastructure ready: donors had funded “awesome initiation night[s],” and alumni had agreed to serve as mentors to the groups. (He is also setting up a student organization that will continue the process for next year’s juniors.)

These brand-new societies will lack some advantages, Avraham conceded in his letter. They won’t have the prestige and imposing facilities of the seven long-standing societies, or the traditions and alumni body that even the more-recent ones enjoy. But, he pointed out, “the core experience” of a society “remains the emotional connections they form with other seniors in their society. There is absolutely no reason that the core of the society experience can’t be extended to any interested Yalie.”

The comment period has expired.