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Expensive cars. Concealed scandals. Murder.
If you've seen the movie The Skulls, these are probably the things that come to mind when you think of the so-called "secret societies" at some Ivy League schools.
But for Penn's non-Greek social societies -- Theos, the Owl Society and the Tabard Society -- things work a little differently.
These organizations, unlike traditional "secret societies" that boast century-old traditions, are social groups comprised of Penn students formed in the late 1980s and the 1990s -- in some cases following clashes with the University and its Greek system.
Still, although these groups may lack the mysterious allure and long history of the Skulls, they have recently been surrounded by a controversy all their own.
At a February University Council meeting, members of all three groups came under attack when InterFraternity Council President Conor Daly spoke out against what he referred to as "pseudo-Greek organizations," calling their practices both "negative and illegal."
Because these groups are not affiliated with either a national organization or with the IFC or the Panhellenic Council -- the umbrella organizations for Penn's Greek community -- the University has virtually no control over their actions.
And according to Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs Director Scott Reikofski, this lack of regulation raises some serious problems.
"I'm not necessarily out to violate students' right to freedom of assembly," Reikofski said. Instead, he wants to "limit the negative effects that these groups have on the recognized fraternities and sororities."
Daly has described the practices of Theos and the Owl Society as "borderline fraud."
"They're posing as fraternities," Daly said, claiming that freshmen have trouble differentiating between Greek and non-Greek organizations. "It's hard to make that distinction."
He said that members of Theos -- which was founded by brothers of the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity -- continue to call themselves members of "SAMmy" and misrepresent themselves to freshmen during what he called their "dirty rush" process.
He added that for freshmen who decide on a non-Greek organization, "the hinging point for them [is] the 'no rules'."
But people who have had experience with the groups beg to differ.
Theos was originally organized by former members of the SAM fraternity, which was shut down by the University in 2000.
The chapter was put on a two-year probation after two incidents occurred in the spring of 1999 -- one of which involved vandalism at a New Jersey bowling alley where the fraternity had been hosting a rush event.
On Jan. 21, 2000 -- during the probation period -- members violated mandated dry rush procedures, and the chapter was suspended for at least one year.
According to a statement released by OFSA at the time of the suspension, the chapter was prohibited from "holding meetings or participating in, hosting or sponsoring campus functions, using the name of Sigma Alpha Mu, the Greek letters, nicknames or other insignia."
Members were given until the end of December 2000 to meet University-set guidelines, which included becoming permanently dry and fulfilling a community service requirement, in order to re-colonize. At that point, former SAM President Jared Hendricks said that the fraternity had decided not to petition for re-colonization. Members were forced to leave their house at 3817 Walnut Street at the end of the spring 2001 semester.
At this point, former SAM members began meeting underground and adopted the name "Theos." According to a Penn student who participated in the Theos rush process, their current home is an off-campus house at 311 41st Street.
Reikofski said that were SAM to receive a new charter, "those men involved in the renegade underground group now would not be allowed to be involved in that."
Members of Theos declined to make any comments about their organization.
Although Daly claimed that Penn's "pseudo-Greek organizations"-- specifically Theos -- misrepresent themselves, the Penn freshman who participated in the Theos rush process, and agreed to speak under the condition of anonymity, said members of the organization did not affiliate themselves with the Greek system.
"They never once said that they were Greek. They never once said that they were SAMmy," he said. "They never ever said that they were an IFC fraternity. During their rush process, they never used the word 'fraternity'. They never once said that they were part of the school," he said.
The freshman added that the Theos rush process included open houses and "hanging out with the guys," and that Theos members described themselves as "just a group of guys who lived together" and did not pressure rushees to pledge.
He said that members briefly explained the group's origin to rushees, saying that there had been "problems... just with different regulations."
The Owl Society grew out of the former membership of the Psi Upsilon fraternity, which is housed in the Castle on 36th Street and Locust Walk.
The chapter was indefinitely suspended by the national office and lost its charter in the summer of 1990 after the January kidnapping of a member of rival fraternity Delta Psi, also known as St. Anthony's Hall. Psi U members reportedly handcuffed the rival brother to a pole while yelling racial slurs at him for over two hours. According to a report released by the Judicial Inquiry Office following the incident, the College student was very seriously injured and even at risk for death at one point.
The University concluded the fraternity was responsible for the kidnapping, which prompted Psi U to file charges against the University. But state courts ruled that Penn had the right to punish members by revoking their charter and forcing them to move out of the Castle. Former members of Psi U were removed from their residence at the Castle. After the fraternity lost its charter, several former members formed an underground organization called the "Owl Society."
Psi U began an attempt at re-recognition in the fall of 1993, but in April 1994, both the Greek Alumni Council and the IFC reportedly refused to grant provisional recognition status to the fraternity. Psi U's national headquarters said that Owl members would not be allowed to rejoin the new chapter if it was given permission to re-colonize. The chapter finally received the necessary permission from the University in October 1995, but it was prohibited from offering bids to Owls members.
Today, both Psi U and the Owl Society have an active membership. Psi U returned to the Castle in 1998, and members of the Owls Society now occupy an off-campus house on 40th and Pine streets.
Members of the Owl Society declined to provide any information about their organization.
Greeks have said that the lack of University control over these groups could lead to high-risk situations and dangerous rush procedures. But according to a Penn student who initially participated in the Owls fall rush process, the society's events -- much like the IFC's -- included informal parties and did not involve "dirty rush."
The Owls members "don't suck you in" and encouraged freshmen to participate in the IFC's rush process as well, the student said.
He explained that last fall, the organization invited approximately 200 freshmen to a rush party. The group of potential members was narrowed down through a selection process of about six parties, with nearly half of the rushees cut with each event, and a fifteen-person group finally chosen.
Although Owls members did not reveal any information about their organization -- including its history or policies -- to freshmen during the initial rush events, the student said they did not claim Greek letters or represent themselves as a Greek organization.
"We knew that they weren't a fraternity... that was clear," the student said.
He added that in his opinion, those freshmen who initially chose to participate in the Owls' rush process were not attracted to the organization for any specific reason -- including a lack of University regulation.
The Tabard Society has been active for over a decade and certainly has a visible presence on Penn's campus.
Throughout the spring semester, Tabard pledges can be spotted toting their distinct lunchboxes and donning a variety of attire from feather boas to "Fembot" costumes, a practice that Reikofksi described last month as "openly and blatantly hazing."
In 1992, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that the organization was established in 1987 as an alternative to Panhel chapters. The group's founding membership included approximately a dozen freshmen and sophomores and had increased to 40 students by 1992.
Current Tabard members declined to provide any information about their organization or its rush process.
In 1992, then Tabard President Lauren London said that the organization held an open on-campus information session and open house in the fall. Members also hosted parties and other open events throughout the semester.
London said that formal rush occurred in early January and was structured so that women could simultaneously participate in Panhel's formal recruitment process, with bids being distributed and induction ceremonies taking place later in the year.
While Daly is adamant about abolishing Theos and the Owl Society, attempting to eliminate the Tabard Society is not on Panhel's agenda for this year, according to President Alison Ng.
Ng declined to comment on the remarks that Daly made at the University Council meeting last month, saying only that she supports his leadership. But following Daly's remarks, she said that "Tabard never purports to say that they're a Greek-letter organization."
Although Ng said that "there's always some overlap" between women who choose to rush both Panhel's chapters and the Tabard Society, Panhel Vice President of Recruitment Anu Singla said that it is "difficult to speculate" as to the specific number of girls who do so.
"We have no idea how many girls go to Tabard," Singla said. "I couldn't tell you what they're about, what they stand for."
While Penn may not be the only campus where non-Greek social societies coexist with recognized fraternities and sororities, some universities don't experience any conflicts between these groups and Greek chapters.
At the University of Virginia, the Greek system includes 32 fraternities and 16 sororities. Non-Greek social organizations -- including the Seven Society, the Z Society, and the IMP Society -- are an integral part of the school's history and tradition.
"It definitely is something that the University embraces," Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life Aaron Laushway said. "They are dedicated to fostering the principles of student self-governance here at the University."
However, he said, the societies are "not in an official relationship with the University" and have "this quasi-secretive mysterious thing around" them.
"There's not any hostility between the secret societies and the Greek system," UVA InterFraternity Council Vice President of Administration Austin Schell said. "It's not that kind of environment."
At UVA students can become members of both a secret society and a Greek chapter, which eliminates the need to compete for members.
The Seven Society is an extremely secret honorary organization whose members are revealed only after their death, Laushway said. Students are generally "tapped" during their third year at UVA and become full members during their fourth year there.
The Z Society and the IMP Society are both "ring societies." Membership in the IMPs is not kept secret and members openly participate in on-campus marches. Members of the Z Society, however, remain secret until graduation day, when they wear rings that mark them as members of the organization.
And the recruitment process for these groups does not interfere with the Greek system's formal rush, Schell added.
"Just because of the nature of the societies the recruitment isn't active... it's not visible," he said. "You really can't... compete against a ghost."
Although these societies do not have houses on campus, Laushway said their names are written on several university buildings across campus, reflecting the important role they have played in UVA's history.
"The University is proud of the secret societies," Schell said, noting that the groups represent some of the school's biggest donors.
Penn has attempted to initiate a mutual discussion with these social groups in the past, according to Reikofski.
"We've tried a lot of different approaches, anything from talking to them as individual students to appealing to any national organizations they may be affiliated with," Reikofski said.
This summer, the IFC and Panhel will send out informational mailings to incoming freshmen detailing the Greek system and addressing the presence of the non-Greek social societies. Daly is optimistic about what he hopes will be a successful campaign against them.
"We have to get them on the ground floor," Daly said. "Give it four years time.... The situation is going to be drastically different... there's no question in my mind that we can beat this."Comments powered by Disqus
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