Contrary to popular belief, GW does not have a secret society.
Rather, it has an administration-sponsored society – the Order of the Hippo – that does not make great efforts to keep its meetings and rituals a secret.
The society’s open secrecy only fed the curiosity and contempt of a handful of students who staked out an Order of the Hippo initiation ceremony Friday night at the Media and Public Affairs building. They criticized University officials – who are whimsically non-committal even about the group’s existence – for playing favorites with the select group of students chosen as members.
“I don’t really think that students realize that the thousands of the dollars they give to this university are going to sponsor events of an elite class of students,” former Student Association presidential candidate Ben Traverse said.
The networking organization counts scores of alumni, students and staff among its members. Most of the current and former students affiliated with the Order of the Hippo have ties to the SA.
The society only shows its face occasionally on campus, mostly to engage in philanthropic acts and sponsor the yearly celebration of George Washington’s birthday in University Yard. What other functions it serves, if any, remain a mystery.
So Friday’s gathering on the second floor of the MPA building – followed by a reception at the University Club – was mysterious for what order members weren’t saying: namely, what they were doing.
Students also raised questions about the intentions of the order after some of its apparent participants were seen Thursday night walking around campus blindfolded and with painted faces. Several of the organization’s members who were seen at the SMPA building Friday declined to talk about Thursday night’s events.
University Marshal Jill Kasle, who denied the existence of the group, said if it were real, it would be “dedicated to the well-being of GW and the people who live, work, eat and sleep here.”
She said the order would undertake a charity project on a yearly basis – if it did exist. The group may have donated artwork to be put in classrooms and a telescope for the 1957 E St. rooftop terrace.
“If it did exist I may act as an advisor to the group,” Kasle said.
Trachtenberg also did not acknowledge the organization’s existence.
“I’ve never heard of it,” Trachtenberg said as he walked out of the Order of the Hippo event at about 10 p.m. Friday. “As far as I know a hippo is one of those beasts in the jungle. They swim around.”
Traverse, who is making a documentary on the Order of the Hippo, was one of several students who turned Friday’s gathering into a circus of suspicion.
From a white Dodge Caravan, the students video-recorded a congregation of apparent Order of the Hippo members outside the MPA building. Before entering the lobby of the building, about 15 students in black-tie attire gathered for a photo in front of the bronze hippopotamus statue across from the MPA building. It’s unknown how many of the students – among them former SA Executive Vice President Eric Daleo and outgoing Marvin Center Governing Board chair Chrissy Trotta – belong to the Order of the Hippo.
University Police officers were dispatched to the MPA building to ask Traverse and SA Senate chief of staff Asher Corson to stop recording. Traverse and Corson said they were on public property and continued taping.
A number of other universities have similar secret societies, most notably Skull and Bones at Yale University. Traverse said the distinction between the Order of the Hippo and other secret organizations is that universities do not usually sponsor such groups.
“I think it is unethical for the president of the University to be partaking in a secret society that selects members based on who is special and more deserving of inclusion,” Traverse said.
Other students said they were not upset by the order’s existence.
“I have no problem with it,” outgoing SA President Omar Woodard said. “It’s an organization of student leaders and administrators that come together to share a discourse on a wide variety of topics, to my knowledge.”
Woodard acknowledged that several members of his cabinet and some of his friends are in the Order of the Hippo but would not disclose names.
Several students at Friday’s gathering were seen on campus Thursday night being led around University Yard in blindfolds. The participants, some of whom had their faces painted, were also spotted making speeches in front of the hippo statue.
Woodard added, “I respect the organization, their rituals, and I really don’t care, so long as students aren’t getting hurt.”
-Michael Barnett, Erin Shea and Kyle Spector contributed to this report.