It was midnight and I was perched on the rooftop of Dahlgren Chapel, peeking through the opening in the bell tower. No sacrilege intended — it was simply the spot that offered the best vantage point over a part of the covert procession of initiates to the Second Society of Stewards that I knew throughbackchannels would be taking place that evening. When seven sophomores were guided through Healy into Dahlgren Quad, I knew something was wrong. Though I was able to snap photos of these recruits in order to ascertain their identities in the days to come, I had it on good authority that the Seconds were inducting 15 this time around. Perhaps my reputation as the reigning Steward Hunter had spooked them into splitting the procession into two so that, wherever I was, I would only be able to identify half of their new members. Unfortunately for them, I also knew their alternate route and had planted listening devices and some of my own people along the way. This time, there was nowhere for them to hide.
While this may sound like a scene from “The Da Vinci Code,” it was actually just a scene from my junior year on the Hilltop. A mix of circumstance and conviction had led me to the role of antagonist to Georgetown’s two secret societies, the Second Society of Stewards — the Seconds, for short — and the Third Society of Stewards, better known as the Thirds. With the perspective afforded by being an alumnus, I can safely say that it was an incredibly nerdy and weird pursuit, as are many activities in college. But it was also intensely fun. My intelligence-gathering even gave me the ammunition to defeat some ill-advised, Steward-backed initiatives while steering my own projects through to success.
For the record, the Stewards are not evil. I have friends who are Stewards. They are a group of students who generally exhibit strong dedication to Georgetown during their tenure of study as well as after they graduate. I should also point out that my opposition does not stem from some Zuckerberg-esque jealousy over not being asked to join their ranks; they did ask and I turned them down. My anti-Steward stance has always come from my objection to their secretive nature. Secrecy — especially on an institutionalized level — is not ethically neutral. It robs people affected by the institutions exercising it of the chance to truly understand the forces at work around them.
Of course, I don’t want to overstate the influence of the Stewards; they pale gravely in comparison to secret societies at other universities. However, it does merit noting that, in the context of leadership over influential campus bodies, the Stewards are not merely a “private association” in the way a secretive club of Ultimate Frisbee players would be; it is a fundamental goal of the Stewards to shape the university in their image. This can and has led to attempts to delegitimize and de-fund particular student groups and to mold the worldview of the university. Student leaders ought to disclose their involvement in any such organization, public or private, at the outset of a campaign for the benefit of the fellow students they seek to serve.
There is a reason for people’s innate suspicion of secret societies: The only logical reason to bother with the hassle of keeping things secret is if there is something to hide. However, I imagine it is a less rational impulse that drives the Stewards — the idea that secrecy is sexy and cool. As immaturely innocent as this latter rationale may be, the smokescreens are the same and the negative consequences are every bit as palpable. It’s the same reason that most people want to know who donates to politicians’ campaigns — transparency is essential to trust, and voluntary associations are a better indicator of intentions than words are. I would have no problem with either group of Stewards doing exactly what they do now if they did so publicly. Any organization that cannot survive the light of day should not survive at all.
At a school as political as Georgetown — our university offers the best experiential education in politics anywhere — covert plots for power and influence will never disappear. But I do want to point out a couple of things. First, to any student considering an invitation from the Stewards: Keep in mind that your ability to achieve everything you want on the Hilltop does not hinge on your belonging to a secret society, and reflect on whether your motivations for considering membership arise from noble impulses. Second, for those seeking some adrenaline and intrigue: Instead of joining the Stewards, do what I did. Become a Steward Hunter. I can assure you that being a maverick spy offers far more excitement than Stewardship does, and you get to be the good guy, too.
Drew Rau graduated from the College in 2006.