Posted on January 12, 2024

Skull and Bones and Equity and Inclusion

Rose Horowitch, The Atlantic, January 11, 2024

One evening in 2019, in a windowless building known as the “tomb” in the center of Yale’s campus, the members of Skull and Bones snapped. There they were, having been granted membership to the most elite secret society at one of the most elite universities in the world—part of a rare group that for generations included individuals from the most powerful families on the planet. Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Buckleys have all been in Skull and Bones. Three Bonesmen would go on to become president of the United States. Their traditions (including oaths of secrecy upon admission) and antics (stealing the gravestone of Yale’s founder), and the rumors about them (that the Bones tomb contains several human skulls), are legendary—and an intense source of campus gossip.

But there in the tomb, surrounded by oil portraits of former Bonesmen—all white, all chosen by the society’s alumni board—the current members felt overcome not by the achievements of those who had come before them, or by the possibilities that lay ahead, but instead by the organization’s long history of exclusion. So the students did what they felt had to be done: They pulled the portraits down, and replaced them with homemade signs criticizing the secret society’s record of keeping people of color out of its ranks. “Portraits is a relatively straightforward and easy ask,” one member who participated in the redecoration told me. “The way a space looks can have a large impact on a person’s psyche.”

This was not the only act of Skull and Bones rebellion in 2019. During an all-expenses-paid trip to meet with George W. Bush in Texas that year, one or more members confronted the ex-president—who wrote in his 1999 autobiography, “I joined Skull and Bones, a secret society, so secret I can’t say anything more”—and criticized him for leading America into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to several people familiar with the trip. More recently, young graduates of Berzelius, another of the “Ancient Eight,” Yale’s most elite societies, pressed to change the name of the society’s nonprofit legal entity from the Colony Foundation, on the grounds that it evoked slavery and colonialism. Students in Elihu, a society named for Elihu Yale, also tried to rechristen the organization over its namesake’s ties to the slave trade.


{snip} In the 1960s, secret societies were criticized for elitism and discrimination. They faced pressure to disband. Instead, they adapted. Skull and Bones admitted its first Black member in 1965, and in 1975 tapped the head of Yale’s recently founded gay-student organization. The pattern repeated two decades later, as the societies feared they were becoming irrelevant by clinging to their all-male identity. In 1991, the Bonesmen tapped their first Boneswomen. {snip}

Today, many of the societies continue to resist students’ most progressive demands. When the Bones class of 2019 took down the portraits, some of their predecessors were aghast. It was “bad manners,” a former member of the Bones alumni board who graduated from Yale in the 1960s told me. {snip} Given that the society’s former members were overwhelmingly white, he argued, it didn’t make sense to criticize Skull and Bones for accurately portraying its own legacy. “Their historical protest was silly,” he said. Still, the Bones board tried to appease students by putting up photographs of nonwhite alumni alongside the portraits. This year, the former board member told me, the board will unveil the society’s first portrait of a Black alumnus. Similarly, Berzelius agreed to rename the Colony Foundation. Elihu, however, is keeping its name.

Reports of alumni-student schisms within Yale’s secret societies are nearly as old as the societies themselves. Every decade or so, especially when a member of the Bush family runs for president (George H. W. Bush was also a member), opinion writers argue that left-wing students have trampled the values that sustained societies. That makes it easy to miss a much more significant shift within these groups. Picture a member of Skull and Bones, or any of the other Ancient Eight secret societies, and you’ll probably conjure a preppy white guy who summers on the Cape. In fact, in recent years, the demographics of Yale’s most elite organizations have been utterly transformed. In 2020, Skull and Bones had its first entirely nonwhite class. {snip} Many of the societies now have only one or two students each year who aren’t from historically marginalized groups.

Today, the idea of Skull and Bones selecting someone whose dad was a Republican president seems inconceivable. The so-called tap lines—the tradition guaranteeing that the football captain and the student-body president would end up in Bones—are long gone, and few descendants of alumni members get in. Instead, the secret societies affirmatively select for students who are the first in their family to attend college, who come from a low-income background, or who are part of a minority group. This has created something of a diversity arms race. “People are, intentionally or not, thinking, ‘Does this cohort have too many white people?’” said Ale Canales, a member of the Berzelius class of 2020. “It’s definitely an undercurrent.”

{snip} A history of progressive activism is an asset among secret-society hopefuls. One of the leaders of Yale’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter joined Scroll and Key, one of the oldest secret societies, last year. The Bones class of 2021 had “people from all kinds of backgrounds,” one member of the class told me—but no conservatives. {snip}

In short, Yale’s secret societies are now filled with students who, as a matter of political conviction, consider wealth and privilege indefensible—but who, as members of Yale’s most elite clubs, enjoy enormous advantages. Skull and Bones pairs students with alumni mentors in the field they hope to enter. It has an endowment of $17 million. Bones members spend a week in late summer getting to know one another at the group’s private island on the St. Lawrence River. Dinners at the Ancient Eight societies are prepared by private chefs.

In 2021, Caleb Dunson, then a Yale sophomore, published an op-ed in the school newspaper with the title “Abolish Yale.” In the essay, he described his discomfort attending an opulent holiday feast for students while homeless people suffered in the cold nearby. The school operates “under the assumption that only a small group of remarkable people can push humanity forward,” wrote Dunson, who is Black. “It started off excluding women and people of color from its student body and now parades them around for diversity photos and social justice brownie points.” Even if the university made marginal changes—which Dunson argued it had been reluctant to do—its nature would remain the same. “Since we can’t change Yale, we have to tear it down,” he wrote.

Today, Dunson is a member of one of the Ancient Eight societies. {snip}

The most common argument current and recent members give for preserving the societies is that, by opening them up to groups that have previously been excluded, they can help diversify the elite. Ale Canales recalls being tapped by a senior who wanted to “keep the Latino line going.” Once inside, Canales focused on a different diversity metric. “I chose three trans people,” Canales told me. “That was my specific goal.”