GW’s most public “secret” society is marking its 10th anniversary this spring, according to University documents, but the founder of the Order of the Hippo – University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg – is still mum about the organization’s existence.
Administrators, faculty and student leaders founded the group in April 1997 as a “service organization” which meets at least two times a year for an annual dinner and the George Washington Birthday Bonfire, said senior Justin Neidig, who said he is “closely associated” with the Order.
This year’s bonfire, which will take place Thursday night in University Yard, was advertised in The Hatchet earlier this week. The advertisement read “President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and the Order of the Hippo invite you to George Washington’s Birthday Bonfire.”
Several documents (click here or here to view) regarding the Order’s first three years were uncovered in the University Archives. Among these documents was a speech entitled, “Shattering Some Myths, Grounding a New Tradition,” which Trachtenberg gave during the Order’s inaugural meeting. The speech outlined the Order’s purpose almost 10 years ago.
“In short, a school as large and as influential as GW is subject to a singular temptation,” said Trachtenberg in the speech. “It’s the temptation to imagine that everything has been taken care of, that all outstanding questions have been answered and that the University knows exactly what it is doing and how to go about doing it. What I propose … is that (the Order) take the form of a deliberately critical honors society, dedicated to spotting the missing pieces of the University portfolio.”
In an interview with The Hatchet, Trachtenberg said the documents, including a certificate of his membership with his signature on it, are false.
“The world is full of spurious documents,” Trachtenberg said. “People use pen machines these days. There can be forged documents.”
Despite Trachtenberg’s denial of the Order, Neidig said it is a philanthropic organization at its core.
For example, he said the organization is responsible for such projects as installing a telescope on the 1957 E Street terrace and displaying art in the classrooms. In addition, the members are active promoters of student and University functions.
“The Order is designed to benefit the University through different ways,” Neidig said. “We do a significant service project each year.”
When it was founded, GW administrators, staff and students were among its members, according to University documents. The founding members included Senior Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services Robert Chernak, Vice President for Communications Michael Freedman, Facilities Planning Director Michelle Honey, Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz, University Art Galleries Director Lenore Miller, Lisner Auditorium Director Rosanna Ruscetti and 14 student organization leaders, according to the documents.
When asked about the Order Chernak said, “Hippos do not share society secrets.”
During his speech at the founding meeting, Trachtenberg said that members of the Order should “only let a dozen or so members of the junior class become aware that they will be members of it in their senior year.”
In 2005, several of the Order’s members were revealed when Student Judicial Services charged 12 members for violations in the Student Code of Conduct for participating in hazing and underage drinking after several members of the administration-sponsored “secret” society were seen on campus with blindfolds on their eyes and mud or face paint on their bodies. The Code of Conduct defines hazing as “Any action taken or situation created intentionally, with or without consent, whether on or off campus, to produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment or ridicule.”
At that time, The Hatchet reported that the Order included several students with Student Association ties including seniors Jeff Goodman, Joint Elections Committee inspector, and Josh Lasky, current SA executive vice president.
However, little else is known regarding the current class of the Order.
“Membership is secret,” Neidig said. “(However) no individual is entitled to membership based upon arbitrary titles or campus involvement.”
Neidig refused to comment on the initiation of new members, but insisted that any initiation is “done in accordance (with) University guidelines” and occurs during the spring.
In 2005, The Hatchet reported that new members received an invitation to come to a meeting on the second floor of the School of Media and Public Affairs building in April, which was followed by a reception at the University Club. At the Order’s suspected meeting that year, Trachtenberg, Freedman, Goodman, Lasky and Neidig were all seen in formal attire, but denied the event was related to the organization.
Besides the University Archives documents and a University e-mail account, firstname.lastname@example.org, which is linked to the group, there is little evidence of the Order’s existence.
To close his 1997 speech, Trachtenberg offered guiding advice to the inaugural class and hope for the organization’s continued existence, secret or not.
“Let the Order of the Hippo serve as a booster-rocket for its continued glorious ascent,” Trachtenberg said. “Even as the Hippo’s snout points heavenward with such verve and good will, so let the Order help GW to reach its own destine point amid the constellations.”