Much like coed fraternities, senior societies are exclusive clubs with members who pay dues. Many — such as Friars, Sphinx, Hexagon, Oracle and Mortar Board — choose members based on a tapping system, in which current members choose undergraduates who then are in the running for membership. Although these societies are recognized as “Honor Societies” on the Office of Student Activities website and are advertised under the guise of leadership, service and academic excellence, it is not hard to see how a tapping system can easily become a popularity contest.
“People don’t really join Hexagon for the intellectual companionship, involvement with the admissions process or even for the well-designed sweatshirts,” Engineering junior Adam Libert, a Hexagon member, wrote in an email. “People join Hexagon because it is an active social club.” While Hexagon members participate in Engineering admissions and recruitment, their membership also includes bi-monthly events ranging from happy hours to barbecues to brewery tours, according to Libert.
According to Wharton senior and Friars member Stephanie Wheeler, “Friars was started as a way to combat the cliquey culture of Penn.” By bringing together students who might never have met otherwise, Friars combats the Penn tendency to hang out exclusively within certain communities, Wheeler wrote in an email. But how does creating another clique combat the “cliquey nature” of Penn?
Oracle targets a more specific audience, recognizing students of Asian Pacific descent who have been leaders and achievers in the Penn community. But still, Oracle membership is not open to all applicants. According to its website, current Oracle members invite specific juniors to an informal smoker, after which they may apply for membership.
Why the exclusivity? Is it naive to think applications should be open to every student — not just those who have been tapped?
My aim is not to abolish senior societies or their social aspects. All focus on bringing together community leaders and scholars. All provide an extraordinary networking opportunity — both on campus and through extensive alumni networks. But using a tapping system undermines the legitimacy of the societies themselves.
Senior societies with tapping systems bear an uncanny resemblance to off-campus fraternities and sororities at Penn. Select groups admitting limited numbers of students. Admitting students who essentially “rush” at invite-only smokers and meet-and-greets. Admitting students who are initiated into exclusive membership. We already have this. Why continue to add tiers to the social order? Why continue to organize ourselves into smaller and more exclusive clubs and cliques?
Not all senior societies seem to be social constructs. Onyx recognizes individuals who have contributed to the African diaspora at Penn and offers a written application to all interested students. Tau Beta Pi members must be Engineering undergraduates with a GPA ranking in the top 1/8 of the junior class (or 1/5 of the senior class).
But for those societies in which membership contains an element of social elitism and exclusivity — is this really necessary? And is it really fair?
Emily Orrson is a College sophomore from Baltimore, Md. Her email address is orrson@theDP.com. The Half of It appears every other Wednesday.