The Michigan Daily - Thursday, April 11, 1996 - 5A
A look at the University's 'secret' societies
Daily Staff Reporter
or nearly a century, the top
floors of the Michigan
Union have been reserved
for three senior honorary
societies, all of which
slipped into virtual invisibility after
ublic initiation practices came into
estion more than a decade ago.
But a recent series of e-mail criti-
cisms of the groups has prompted
members of the allegedly "secret"
Tower Society to come forward to
counter attacks on their rituals, mem-
bership and their very existence.
W The Tower Society, a pair of senior honorary
organizations that have access to the top floors
of the Michigan Union, has existed in some
form since 1901, when the men's organization
Michigamua was formed.
In his book "The Making of the University
of Michigan: 1817-1992," Howard Peckham
wrote that the group was set up as an honorary
society "for senior men holding leading posi-
tions in athletics, publications, student govern-
ment, the Michigan Union, interfraternity
#uncil, or scholastic societies."
In its days from the beginning of the century
to the mid-1970s, the group used Native Amer-
ican themes and attire as part of their rituals,
extending as far as their name - Michigamua.
In the 1902 Michiganensian, a list of Michiga-
mua members includes "Tall Timber" Barrett,
"Walk in the Water" Brooks and "Young Man
of Many Squaws" Brown.
According to yearbook records of the group,
Native American references continued up until
est 20 years ago. In the late 1950s and '60s,
public initiation ceremonies included such
The 1958 Michiganensian includes pho-
tographs of several Michigamua members in
mock-Native American headdress participat-
ing in initiation ceremonies with neophytes in
public view on the Diag. "Torn kicking and
screaming from the sacred oak, a paleface is
captured and tied with thongs to his new tribe-
mates," the caption reads.
Current members say concerns over tradi-
Wns like these climaxed in the late 1980s,
when several campus groups protested the use
of Native American traditional symbols.
According to an article in the April 12, 1989,
issue of The Michigan Daily, Michigamua
members were seen imitating stereotypical
Native American behavior.
The behavior led to the filing of a charge by
the Minority Affairs Commission of the Michi-
gan Student Assembly against Michigamua for
*olations of a 1973 ruling of the Michigan
Tivil Rights Commission. The Nov. 2, 1989
issue of the Daily reported that Michigamua
"agreed to eliminate all references to Native
American culture from their initiation rituals"
in settling the compromise.
Michigamua, an exclusively male society,
encountered criticism from women's groups in
the early 1980s over charges of sexism. A Title
IX lawsuit against the University was resolved
by the formation of Adara, a women's-only
4oup consisting of 25 members. The two
came collectively known as the Tower Soci-
Along with the Vulcans, an honorary senior
engineering society, the three organizations
form the "tower societies," which meet in the
Michigan Union Tower. Adara and Vulcans
meet on the sixth and fifth floors, respectively.
Michigamua's history is significantly inter-
twined with the formation of the Michigan
Union. Alums of Michigamua were instrumen-
I in organizing the construction of the Union
'd comprised the early leadership of the
Michigan Union board prior to the actual con-
struction of the Union building in 1918.
Recalling Edward Bob "Silver Throat" Park-
er, a member of the 1904 class of Michigamua,
a commemorative program from an alumni
group's 75th reunion states, "The germ of the
idea of the Michigan Union originated with
(Parker), and his ability to influence important
members of the faculty and alumni alike was a
prime factor in the ultimate acceptance of the
project in practical terms. Parker (and other
Michigamua members) were members of the
original Union Committee."
Vice President for University Relations Wal-
ter Harrison said the early ties between
Michigamua and the Union are a major reason
the societies continue to have access to the
space. Comparing Michigamua to institutions
like the Michigan Student Assembly, he indi-
cated "historical reasons why they have the
space they have."
Michigamua members said the arrangements
are based on tradition.
"It's not a lease in the true sense of a (legal
document), but it is more of an agreement
regarding the space," said Michigamua mem-
ber Brian LaLiberte, an LSA senior.
The University Board of Regents officially
gave the space to the honorary societies in the
early 1930s, according to Bentley Library
records. Initially, the rooms were subject to a
$5-per-month lease, and were given over to the
group after the rooms were furnished.
The Tower Society
Members of the Tower Society say their
group focuses on bringing student leaders
together to solve campus problems.
"A lot of what we do is supporting other peo-
ple's leadership efforts. ... In a lot of senses
we are a support network," said Adara mem-
ber Suzanne Sarafa, an Engineering senior.
The group also engages in community ser-
vice activities, members said. Earlier this year,
Tower Society members spent time at Mott
Children's Hospital visiting sick children. The
group will also be co-sponsoring the Champi-
on Challenge Course on Saturday, an
"Olympic-style" competition giving people the
chance to compete for prizes. In the past, the
Tower Society sponsored activities such as
Spring Thaw, a concert in the Diag that raised
money for local charities.
Tower Society members said the exposure
to other successful student leaders motivates
them to work harder in their own fields.
"What's humbling is that you get into the
Tower Society and you realize how far you
have to go. It makes you feel humbled. I had
no idea how much more I could do.... It chal-
lenges you to redouble your effort," said
Michigamua alum Joe Devyak.
"It's just a great network," said Adara alum
Laura Kootsillas. "The more you get into it, the
more you get out of it."
In addition to emphasizing the society's role
as an honor for seniors with exceptional lead-
ership, members referred to the group as hum-
ble and committed to serving the University.
"I don't see any negatives with being asso-
ciated with great leaders who are committed to
serving the University, who are committed to
serving with humility, who have a great sense
of the Michigan tradition and have a sincere
sense of leadership," said LSA senior Matt
Hyde, a Michigamua member.
LSA senior Andre Hewitt agreed. "I only
see (membership in the Tower Society) as a
great opportunity to learn to deal with chal-
lenges from a humble stance or position
where your only desire is centered on
commitment to the University," Hewitt
The Tower Society has recently
been forced back into the spotlight
by a pair of e-mail messages circu-
lated in late March and early April.
The messages accused the group
of racism and sexism, and were
critical of "secret" organizations.
The first message, sent by
LSA senior Abe Bates on March
26, accused the groups of being
"replete with different forms of
racism, sexism, and elitism."
Sent to University officials and a
group titled thousand-of-stu-
email@example.com, the message
also demanded an end to the
Society's use of the Union.
"The fact that the secret societies
essentially own the tower of the
Michigan Union, our student union,
one of the most prominent symbols
overlooking our campus, is a
tragedy that demands that students
know about and act against their
presence,"the message stated.
In an e-mail addressed to several Tower
Society members, Campus Information Center
Manager Beth Adler explained the responses
that were being given to typical student ques-
tions regarding the societies. According to the
message, CIC members respond that three
senior leadership honor societies are based in
the tower, keys are set aside for the organiza-
tion, and a door to the tower is locked "because
the Tower is not set up to be a high-traffic
In response to the message, several students
began asking University officials about the
societies. A group of students sent a second e-
mail April 1, with the letter originating from
LSA junior Lee Addimando. The e-mail
included spliced quotes from University offi-
cials to support claims that the University has
knowledge of secret societies - an idea the
group said violated the ideals of a public insti-
In the e-mail, Addimando and the groups
said Harrison welcomes debate on the feasibil-
ity of such "secret societies" under University
values. Harrison confirmed that the quotes
were accurate, but said they may have been
taken out of context.
Tower Society members said the characteri-
zation of the group as "secret" in the e-mail
messages is misleading.
"First of all, we are not a secret organization.
The Tower Society itself is a private organiza-
tion. ... One of the principle characteristics of
the Tower Society is humility," Sarafa said.
The theme of modesty over ego-boost-
ing was echoed by several other
members. "(The Tower Society) is '
not for self-promotion. It's about
leadership, humility, character and
service for the University of Michi-
gan," Hyde said.
Members say the idea of
"sacrecy" is a response to
the lack of self-
w o u ld
f o r ;
everyone to know. I bet I could find a student on
this campus that doesn't know we have a foot-
ball team. That has nothing to do with us trying
to keep people from knowing," Devyak said.
Devyak also said the group has none of the
stereotypical trademarks of other secret soci-
eties. "There's no handshake, there's no ID,
there's nothing like that," Devyak said.
Bates said the widespread lack of campus
knowledge is due to efforts to keep the group
secret. Claiming he received 450 replies to his
initial message, he said, "Overwhelmingly,
people were shocked. No one knows about
these secret societies.... no one knows for sure
that these secret societies exist."
Members of the Tower Society identified
Associate Dean of Students Frank Cianciola as
the group's adviser, but numerous attempts to
reach him were unsuccessful.
The Vulcans, which still meet in the Union's
tower as a senior engineering honorary soci-
ety, would not comment on its group. Several
students known to be members of the Vulcans
refused to answer questions about the group,
which has existed since 1905, citing the
Charges of racism
Addimando's e-mail message also repeated
Bates's complaints that the Tower Societies
were behaving in a manner discriminatory'
toward Native Americans. Quoting an anony-
mous source, the message claimed that
Michigamua's seventh-floor meeting place
was still "decorated with stereotypical
white male ideas of what Native
Tower Society members contested the accu-
sation of racism. LaLiberte said the messages
unfairly slandered members of both organiza-
"Their sense was that the words conveyed in
the message were so opposite the truth that
they couldn't believe it. ... They felt just used,
exploited," LaLiberte said. "(Tower Society
members) are the captains of organizations,
some of which fight racism.... (This incident)
has caused irreparable harm to their reputa-
But some members of the group said they
have not achieved complete diversity.
"Basically, the diversity is a good thing, but
it is also a drawback, since for the women of
color, a lot of their issues weren't dealt with
because there's so few of us," said LSA senior
Neera Parikh, an Adara member.
Harrison said the group had improved its
record when compared to past actions.
"Michigamua was no doubt racist or sexist
in the past, and l'm sure, its own members
would admit to that," Harrison said. Currently,
he continued, the Tower Society..is "probably
more representative than the rest of campus."
Some members of the Tower Society admit-
ted the group had questionable traditions, but
that steps had been taken to end those prob-
lems. "All that Native American Indian behav-
ior that we displayed no longer exists. ... We
made mistakes in the past, but we no longer,
make those mistakes," Devyak said.
Each year the Tower Society undergoes a
process of "tapping" new members from the
"(The selection process) is tapping into dif-
ferent University communities to find people
who have shown exemplary leadership. ... It
taps into a lot of different communities. We
L do an extensive selection process," Parikh
American culture is."
Societies leave a trail of tradition, dot campus with obscure symbols
By Josh White
Daily News Editor
Some traditions die hard.
As honorary societies have existed
Once the' turn of the century at the Uni-
versity, so have their
over time and
attempting to carry
the messages of past
members far into the r
considered offensive material stolen
from Native American rites. One of
the traditions carried out in the 1950s
was covering new members in red
paint as they picked tribe members
from the land of
'i according to
LaLiberte, a member of Michigamua.
"He talked about what the traditions
used to be and how it is possible to
preserve tradition without abusing
LaLiberte said the ceremony, at
about duisk Tuesday, was out in the
open and very public. He said new
members poured cups of water on the
tree and then covered its base in brick
dust, so as to "maintain the tradition of
painting the tree."
dents have been
members of the
senior engineer- >W>
bell to an anvil
statue just inside
the West Engi-
neering Arch. An
remains where the
anvil used to stand.
A 1955 Michi-
shows newly initi-
<: climbing through
ternity Triangle, but no members of
the fraternity's national office could be
reached for comment.
Adorning one roller skate, tAi neo-
phytes would block up the West Engi-
neering Arch and then scrub it clean,
from the center of the arch to the cen-
ter of the Diag. A gold verson of the
society's symbol, a Star of David with
crossed hammers, remains embedded
in the center of the archway.