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Trasked with secrecy

Should our top administrators be in the business of protecting all-male secret societies?

I emailed Duke’s chief administrative and financial officer, Executive Vice President Tallman Trask, last Thursday at 7:22 p.m.:

“Hi Dr. Trask. I’m writing a column about various secret societies at Duke, and heard that you’re involved with the Trident Society. I was wondering if we could chat about when and how that relationship arose, and also how, in your opinion, the organization affects the broader Duke community? I also have learned about how the society funds various Duke programs, and was wondering how this financial support affects its relationship with the University?”

He responded at 8:45 p.m., copying former Young Trustee Sunny Kantha, Trinity ’09, senior Chris Brown, Young Trustee-elect, and Paul Harraka, Trinity ’12, now a race car driver, to alert them to my inquiry.

“Don’t really know much about them. Sorry.”

Follow-up response, 8:49 p.m.

“The CCs on my previous message were meant to be BCCs. Pls ignore.”


How much can we trust the administration if its second-highest-ranking member felt the need to lie to me?

From what I’ve been able to determine, the Trident Society has existed since at least the early 1930s and has a roster of alumni who are corporate lawyers, hedge-fund managers and business executives.

The Trident Society’s relationship to Duke is symbiotic. Senior Sarah Rogers received a portion of her summer internship funding from the group, via a scholarship from the Sanford School of Public Policy. That money was donated by some of the society’s alumni who were public policy majors. Does this society remain secret because it gives so much money that its activities don’t invite investigation?

If you search for articles about any of these societies in the online archives of this newspaper, you’ll find, interestingly enough, that the only students to ever write about them are women. Perhaps this is a coincidence (there are only a handful of pieces that attempted to explore their histories and composition), and yet the trend makes sense: Exclusion provokes curiosity, and in my case, muckraking.

The only other secret society I’d heard of, until recently, was the Old Trinity Club. They wave their arms around on the quad in black robes and sunglasses. I’d never felt that intrigued by their activities since they’ve desensitized me to their existence (which is rather clever, if you think about it).

The Trident Society is different. They fly under the radar by choice. And they tap men who are bestowed with the Robertson and A.B. Duke scholarships, preside over Duke Student Government, act with Duke University Improv, sing with the Pitchforks and play on the varsity soccer team. While regular student groups must be accompanied up to the top of the Chapel, the Trident Society goes up unaccompanied, for initiation rites, every year. Hillary Martinez, a former Chapel attendant, wrote in an email that this is “unusual, but as they are familiar with safety protocol and have been for years, it didn’t seem like a safety risk.”

From what I can tell, the Trident Society also taps many of the men serving on The Chronicle’s editorial board—perhaps as a way of influencing the body’s endorsement decisions in key student government elections.

To be initiated, prospective members must solve puzzles like the one below:

“Under the Footpaths of Many / Lie the true Feet of Few.

The studs on the 55th door / Are a hint to what to do.

Their number tells you where to start / Use the Book on the right:

29, 7, 29, 51, 22, 88, 28, 24, 21.”

In a flurry of emails, one potential initiate, who remains anonymous, was given a series of tasks. The puzzles got successively trickier to the point that he wasn’t able to solve them and his “journey” came to an end. Though “opportunities in the future to join our ranks” could arise were he to further prove his “merit.” He wasn’t tapped again.

While the so-called “Big Three” societies at Yale—Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, and Wolf’s Head—have been coeducational since 1992, Duke’s still don’t include women. That’s their loss: Students like senior Alex Swain or juniors Katherine Zhang and Stefani Jones are going to do big things one day. They would be candidates for tapping if not for their sex.

The persistent existence of all-male secret societies demonstrates why men feel the need to perpetuate patriarchal structures. Being in a fraternity doesn’t ensure one’s victory in a Duke Student Government election anymore. But being in an all-male society ensures access to alumni on Wall Street and the ears of Duke’s top administrators and Trustees. It’s a group meant at its core to connect powerful and promising men, and to help them advance and succeed.

Secrecy engenders silencing, and silencing necessitates violence. We all should question why top members of Duke’s administration remain supportive of organizations that reflect and reproduce patriarchal social structures.

Why did Trask respond to my email that way? What are they so afraid of us knowing? And is the answer, for demographics that aren’t tapped, to imitate these groups, or to demand answers to these questions?

Samantha Lachman is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Tuesday. Follow her on Twitter @SamLachman.


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