Secret societies exist on many prestigious college campuses. While most enlist a secret membership and do things in the name of their organizations to improve their communities, GW’s secret society, the Order of the Hippo, is anything but typical.
Established in 1997 by University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and a group of students, the Order of the Hippo’s mission is to have a good time, support fellowship, make GW a better university and generally behave in slightly frivolous ways, Trachtenberg said.
Although the group’s membership is supposed to be kept in secret, the Order started with high-profile students, said Order member Lynn Shipway, who served as assistant to GW Vice President Walter Bortz, both no longer employed by the University.
New members are nominated by members of the Order and voted in by the entire group, which includes about 100 members of undergraduates, GW staff members and professors. According to Shipway the Order extends invitations to new members in the middle of the spring semester. Selected students and staff members receive an invitation to meet somewhere in the city for an untold reason. New recruits are led to a meeting area, usually in the “Hippo Room” of the University Club, where initiates receive a hippo pin.
“There is no specific ritual,” Shipway said. “Each year the introduction (of new members) changes.”
The Order takes its oath from the plaque on the hippo statue in the center of campus, Shipway said. It reads, “Art for wisdom. Science for joy. Politics for beauty. And a hippo for hope.”
Both men and women are allowed in the order according to Tractenberg. There are no membership dues, and each member pays their own way at functions, Shipway said.
Lacking specific rituals, there are only a few indications of the group’s existence. Each member has a pin in the shape of a hippo, said Order member Carrie Potter, a 1999 GW alumnae and former SA president. Society members even carry their own currency – a hippo coin the size of about two quarters inscribed with “Order of the Hippo” and a picture of GW’s unofficial mascot, the hippo, Potter said.
Although Potter is unsure if the tradition continues, she said when she was active in the Order members flashed their coins at each other when they passed on the street. According to tradition a member caught without their coin owed the passing member a drink.
Shipway said graduating Order members used to wear hippo medallions to Commencement. Seniors were supposed to pass the medals on to younger members each year, but Shipway said she is unsure if they still exist.
The University mace is the official symbol of the Order of the Hippo, Shipway said. University Marshal Jill Kasle carries the elaborate baton adorned with a hippo during many campus processionals, including Convocation and Commencement. No other Order members were able to confirm the group uses the mace.
Senior Joe Bondi heads the Order, according to Order member Leah Rosen, associate director of communication for Student Academic and Support services. Bondi declined to comment on his status within the Order, only offering that he is a member of the group’s class of 1999.
Trachtenberg said he belongs to several secret societies, which gave him the idea to create one at GW. Other university secret societies include Medfac at Harvard University, which was banned by the university, according to Harvard’s student newspaper The Crimson. Georgetown University hosts a secret society named the Stewards and Emory University has several societies including DVS, Paladin and DUCEMUS.
Yale University holds some of the most prominent secret societies, including Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, and Snake and Book. According to The Yale Herald the movie The Skulls (Universal Studios) released last year is a spin off of the secret societies on Yale’s campus. Some societies own tombs – buildings on campus with no windows – members can access for meetings, but rarely are people seen entering or exiting, according to The Yale Herald.
Most university secret society memberships are limited to seniors, and juniors are “tapped” to join in the spring. An official night called “tap night” takes place when new members find out they are chosen. Members of societies go around campus in cloaks rounding recruits and making them perform certain activities to prove their worth, according to The Yale Herald.
The Order of the Hippo is little like its Ivy League counterparts, Potter said.
“GW is not known for a lot of legacies,” Potter said. “(This is) Trachtenberg’s attempt to create a legacy and gain recognition like the well-known elite schools that have secret societies.”
According to several members, the group is purely social in nature. The Order meets as a whole once a year to initiate new members. After that everyone goes in separate directions, Shipway said. Members gather intermittently, but with different individuals each time.
“(The Order is) more of a social group than driven by a common goal that everybody shares other than the care for GW,” Shipway said.
Potter said she receives e-mails from the Order occasionally but she is too busy to pay much attention to them, which is a problem that resonates over from her days as an undergraduate in the Order.
“The hard thing is that the (members of the Order) are people involved on campus,” Potter said. “The Order didn’t do significant things, but members of Hippo would encourage more action from students from other organizations they were in.”
With no ritual, rule book, emblem, secret grip, branding, pools of money or elite connections for life, GW’s secret society is hardly shrouded in secrecy.
“The biggest secret (of the Order) is that the organization doesn’t do anything,” Shipway said.