In 1996, University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, in an odd gesture to the now-departed class of 2000, donated a bronze hippopotamus to GW. Not long after this gift Trachtenberg admittedly bought after a “liquid lunch,” he began the Order of the Hippo, a secret society that has done little to benefit the University community and has become downright silly.
The society, which is “secret” only in the loosest interpretation of the word, is supposedly GW’s answer to the fabled Skull and Bones group at Yale University or other similar shadowy organizations reputed to exist on the campuses of prestigious institutions. Many speculate that the order is another effort to increase GW’s prestige without actually measurably improving the University. Whatever the purpose of the group, it is obvious to those who are aware of its existence that it is ineffectual, benign – basically harmless.
The group meets once a year to admit new members, typically in the University Club, which is itself another posh addition to a university that has recently seen its ranking plummet into U.S. News’s dreaded “second tier.” Other than this one membership meeting, the order seems to do no community service. It puts on no University-wide events. In fact, apparently all it does is perpetuate itself with a handshake and a couple of drinks at the U-Club bar.
The last thing GW needs is to become the running joke of higher education. Having students, faculty and administrators playing at organizing a secret society seems ridiculous. The time and energy wasted by GW and student leaders involved in the Order of the Hippo would be much better spent improving the academic reputation of the institution through research, improving class sizes, building GW’s lackluster endowment and other initiatives.
The Order of the Hippo presents itself as nothing more than a self-congratulatory polishing of the University’s gold-plated image. Do not become distracted by the trappings of prestige. Better the position of graduates entering courtrooms, boardrooms and operating rooms of the nation, and the prestige and respect those dabbling in secret societies so obviously crave will come.