Secret Societies, “Private Organizations,” and Why We Should Care

The following opinion piece is written as a guest contribution to the Claremont Independent.

Last month marked two years since my admittance to Claremont McKenna College. I remember the overwhelming sense of accomplishment and anticipation I felt as I signed and returned my acceptance letter. I had joined the ranks of an elite group of extremely talented students and gained access to an incredible alumni network. I had every opportunity in front of me, all thanks to CMC.

Part of my excitement was that all of my future class would begin with a clean slate. The barriers and cliques of high school had been leveled. It didn’t matter whether we were from a private school or public school, AP or IB program, American or international students. We were all CMCers now; individual work ethic and character would define us from that day on.

Of course, I soon found that these feelings, though well-founded in principle, were naïve and incomplete. There are other factors beyond merit that affect achievement. At such a small campus, it soon became clear that “who you know” and reputation is a large advantage when competing within the CMC bubble. I soon learned that a minor degree of cronyism is a fact of life and social outreach is a means to success. While it is not true meritocracy, I like to believe that these opportunities are available to all and correlate with effort.

But my concern is not networking; my concern is its exploitation. Before Spring Break, the ASCMC Elections Committee was forced to ask former ASCMC President and Vice President to remove themselves from deliberation on the new Executive Board appointments and restart the appointment process. While we do not have all the facts, it has come to light that membership in a “private organization” significantly skewed the former officers’ decision-making. Since then, we have had underwhelming journalistic coverage (aside from satire) on the issue. In order for us to avoid a more calamitous ethical issue, I find it necessary to put forth a number of issues raised by this recently uncovered secret society.

My objective in this article is to first reaffirm the foundation of CMC culture and then argue that secret organizations are antithetical to it. Yes, secret societies are self-important and laughable, but they are equally threatening to CMC’s culture and should not be dismissed.

The “Princes” pose a serious problem for the delicate balance of our inclusive philosophy and selective on-campus organizations. It rails against our inclusive culture and delegitimizes campus leadership positions. If students suspect, or have substantial proof that, a group has underhandedly manipulated distributions of power on campus, student media has a responsibility to fully investigate and report on these unacceptable actions. In response, I believe the student body must perpetuate a culture that actively discourages further creation or reconvening of any such secret groups.

While we can reasonably anticipate a certain degree of cronyism in on-campus selection processes, secretive and calculated motives are much different from the advantages of equal opportunity networking. Networking is fair because it is open to everyone—secret societies are neither.

Students apply for the Executive Board because they believe they will be judged on the merits of their applications, their ability to work with fellow students, and possibly by who they know. But, in this case, they cannot reasonably suspect that those reading their applications will have blind allegiances to their competitors based upon subjective membership in a “private organization.” When the Elections Committee calls potential candidates, including myself and other current “members of the corporation”, to tell them what they should and should not run for in order to better maintain footholds for a sputtering old boys’ club, they violate the premises of CMC. When they manufacture an Executive Board based not on merit, or even connectedness, but in accordance with secret frat membership, they pose a greater threat to our social scene than any Friday class or TNC fence.  Moreover, they remove the collaborative attitude of CMC’s culture, breaking down relationships between students and replacing them with undue barriers like those found at other colleges to which I refused to apply. And the threat is not limited to the social scene: the Princes systematically threaten the career opportunities of non-members, putting themselves before others in a predetermined selection process.

Two great ironies of the past few weeks have been that (1) these actions happened at the hands of the ASCMC administration that promised transparency and reform and (2) just days after writing an open letter intended to resurrect the social scene through inclusiveness, the same individuals attempted to preserve the influence of a “private organization” through pervasive measures that are just as much of a threat to CMC culture. We need a critical eye to look past the messaging and into the inconsistencies of CMC politics.

At best, we know that a more extreme form of cronyism took place in the original Executive Board appointment process —a form that violates CMC’s networking-as-usual. At worst, we have found a group that challenges the fabric of CMC, a systematic virus that extends to other prominent groups on campus. In either case, these actions are intolerable. We need publications to start a discussion regarding campus culture and how to reconcile ambition and ethics. The virus must be further investigated by the student press and strongly discouraged by future CMCers.

To begin this discussion, the student body needs the complete story. Through investigation, we must find the extent of the damage and set a standard so that future campus leaders act in accordance with the opportunities guaranteed by our acceptance letters. While we move on from the transgressions of the past, we must not forget CMC’s inclusive foundation and protect against the actions and groups that threaten it.

24 thoughts on “Secret Societies, “Private Organizations,” and Why We Should Care”

  1. Can I ask a question? Is there ANY hard evidence whatsoever that this group exists? I mean call me skeptical, but I thought that the point was Miles Lifson investigated it and couldn’t find any evidence. Actually, Lifson was pretty clear about that in his email. (I’m pretty sure Princes and Thieves is the title of an Aladdin movie….?)
    Why did the Independent publish a piece calling for a media investigation? Is it incapable of doing the investigation itself? Seems to me that this letter is just some self-serving fear mongering. Props to the new Forum editor and the Portside editor for not publishing rumors. Bad journalistic form.

    1. Ask anyone on the Elections Committee. This article was a guest opinion by a member of ASCMC, not a CI journalist. The Forum, an exclusively CMC publication, refuses to cover the story.

      1. And the Forum actively censored comments on the pertinent article… It seems difficult to do much journalistic investigation on a secret society, seeing as the point of secrecy is that none of the members talk about it to outside individuals…

    2. Hi all,

      This is Miles Lifson. I’ve already talked to Ian privately, but I just wanted to comment and provide some context to the article as well explain what precisely I believe we know and do not know about the situation.

      At a school like CMC, students know each other and invariably there are connections between applicants and members of the Elections Committee. The way the Elections Committee addresses these conflicts is by requiring members of the Elections Committee to disclose any connections they may have with an applicant, and recuse themselves from any deliberations where either the member or others on the Elections Committee believe the connection is of such a nature that it:
      a) impairs the ability of the connected individual to make a fair judgment or

      b) would lead a reasonable observer to have concern that the connection would impair the ability the connected individual to judge impartially

      That system gets complicated when you bring in the possibility of a secret society. By definition, the public and myself don’t know who is a member or what precisely the nature of the connection is. I have heard all the same (sometimes contradictory) rumors you have, but I am held to a certain standard of proof and cannot simply declare that there was an undisclosed conflict of interest without hard evidence. I don’t believe I have credible information to make a finding of fact regarding who is, is not, or was a member of a secret organization, what that connection means, or even to definitively say a secret organization exists. I don’t think I’ll ever have this information, and I’m not even sure what form proof sufficient for me to make a finding of fact would take. If the rumors I’ve heard are accurate, I would likely conclude shared membership in that secret society on behalf of applicants and Elections Committee members to constitute a conflict of interest. However, I cannot make that assumption, and so the committee acted cautiously based on what we did know.

      What is certain is that no Elections Committee member disclosed a connection with any of the applicants based on shared membership in a secret society during the deliberations, and that the members in question were unwilling to publicly address the matter of membership in a secret society and confirm or deny their membership. Without the members of the committee in question willing to address the topic openly, I felt the proper course of action was for them to recuse themselves from the process. This is the same procedure as would have occurred if such a connection was disclosed to the committee and the committee believed it to be of such a nature as to either impair the ability of the members to judge impartially, or to create the perception of such.

      All this being said, I want to emphasis that there is a huge difference between a conflict of interest, and actual corruption or undue influence within the elections process. A conflict of interest means that there is a potential cause that might lead someone to act based on concerns other their fiduciary duty to ASCMC and actually corruption would be if the person acted based on personal or other interests instead of the interests of ASCMC. ASCMC, like many organizations, attempts to regulate conflicts of interest rather than actual practice because of the difficulty in distinguishing between a decision made properly in spite of the existence of a conflict of interest and a decision made because of that conflict of interest. In this article I believe Ian goes further than the facts permit by assuming actual corruption occurred. It is his right to make whatever speculations he wishes, but I want to be clear that they are his and not clear matters of fact.

      I want to end this post by encouraging anyone with questions about the situation to contact me. I am happy to attempt to answer any questions as best as I can. I’ve already talked to both the Forum and Portside in response to their requests. I was not contacted by the CI prior to the publication of this article, but I am happy to talk to them as well. I think that transparency and responsiveness are both incredibly important values for a student government, and I’ll be working to reaffirm them going forward. Specifically, I’ll be working to draft new and comprehensive procedures regarding conflicts of interest for Board, Senate, and the Elections Committee.

  2. These are compelling arguments, but couldn’t the same arguments be made against the RDS program? Keep in mind that RDS scholars (1) get their own career resource center people dedicated to them, (and these resources aren’t allowed to help the “regular” students and (2) they have the weight of $200M+ behind them? If ever there was such a blatant disregard for creating an inclusive campus, it is the RDS program… not some “private organization” (if one really exists).

  3. I can understand a secret society at a school like Harvard or Yale, but one at CMC??? Hahaha what a joke… It’s only cool to be in a secre society if people have actually heard of the school you go to. A secret spciety at a school 99% of America hasn’t heard of… That’s just dumb.

  4. PPE, the major of this author, exhibits all of the qualities of this lame secret society without the courtesy of keeping its rejections secret. Instead, it kind of prides itself on rejecting qualified students and showering slightly more qualified students like Ian with money, free food, and exclusive access to professors.

    Let’s also talk about what the PPE program does to the inclusivity of our campus.

    1. True, and also true of RDS, SIF, SOURCE, the Rose, and any other remotely prestigious body on this campus. The difference is that these organizations offer open application to everyone, and don’t silently pull the people they want. They also don’t make PHONE CALLS telling people to apply or not apply for certain positions. This Forum article agrees: CMC itself is an exclusive institution that rejects qualified students, but none of the above institutions are secret or plot to place certain individuals in places of power based on pure cronyism.

      Furthermore, each of the above institutions brings notoriety, prestige, and money to the school itself and in doing so increases the value of everyone’s degrees. Secret organizations only help the people inside them.

  5. The academic programs RDS and PPE are competitive. Competition is good and an important aspect of CMC and leadership development.

    The athletic programs also foster competition, leadership and importantly comraderie. They are not secret but rather the accomplishments of these individuals and teams are a source of school pride and identity. I try to attend all of the CMS / PP basketball games!

    A secret society does none of that for the culture of Claremont McKenna.

    Truly, Carol Hartman ’86
    CMCAA President

    1. Carol,

      Have you considered reaching out to the Princes? If I were you, I would embrace the private organization and ask for donations. If you actually believe in inclusiveness, shouldn’t you seek to include them? As a future alum, I’d be disappointed if my CMCAA president *did not* work very hard to include every alumni group – even if it was some silly secret society.

      1. CMCAA welcomes all alumni! I strongly suspect that there are MOP members participating in Forum for the Future, in Chapters and on the Board. And if I were to make a WELL educated guess, they are fantastic contributors of their time, money and enthusiasm. The transparency is an important issue, however. (you could even call my guess “informed”)

        It is extremely important that any group of loyal supporters feel that their alumni experience is a “win-win” for CMC.

        I am fully committed to making sure all stakeholders are embraced. It would be good to know who they are….

  6. RDS does nothing of benefit for the school overall. It keeps the kids who already have a smug outlook on everything convinced they are better than the rest of the students. It gives incentives to students who take certain courses, and gives unfair advantages to the students it accepts. We go to a school with 300 kids in each grade, no program should be that exclusive.

    RDS is CMC’s business school, students do well but usually miss the whole point of a liberal arts education.

  7. Who cares??? I’m sorry, but I am secure enough with my academic success, social standing, and on-campus accomplishments not to worry about whether I “am” a Prince or a Thief or a member of RDS or PPE. I have done pretty well and had professional and athletic success without some big and mighty ancient Princes working to reallocate ASCMC funds away from my favorite parties or appoint their ****-buddy over me on an “executive board.” You’re wasting your time as a fellow student and my time as a reader by giving a **** about what this “private organization,” if it even exists beyond a homoish relationship between the ASCMC Pres & VP, is doing or is called or whatever.

    Stop giving more attention to these people and do what a real CMCer would do and go out and run a campaign against them or join their club and become the President and laugh in their face. Good luck telling a job interviewer you weren’t the President of your favorite club because the Princes of Thieves conspired against you. Newsflash – NO ONE cares in the real world, and neither should you. You demanding more attention go to these people only feeds their ego and comes off as seriously insecure.

  8. Caroline Nyce traded her journalistic integrity so that she could be inducted into the society.

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