A Tradition in Distress
With the 120-year-old secret honors society considering dissolution, current members and alumni give a glimpse into the debate surrounding Deru’s purpose at Northwestern
May 28, 2015
When Heather Menefee joined a secret honors organization, she went in with no intention of keeping her membership private.
So on March 6, the Weinberg senior posted a public Facebook status detailing her experience in Deru, a secret honors society composed of 22 members of Northwestern’s senior class.
The post listed three changes Menefee said the group agreed to make in meetings: making the collection of Deru documents in the University Archives public, forgoing honors for seniors and connecting with students rather than administrators. So far, none of the agreements have come to complete fruition.
Deru aims to provide a space for student leaders across campus to talk about different issues affecting their student organizations and to communicate with administrators. During Winter Quarter, members raised concerns about that purpose, as well as the group’s lack of transparency and representation of the NU community. These meetings in the winter prompted Menefee to publicly voice her complaints about the group, including suggesting Deru be dissolved.
None of the students who spoke with The Daily for this article said they had any knowledge of plans to recruit the next class, even as Spring Quarter winds down. Several members of the group denied requests for comment. There has been no discussion among all 22 members about recruitment. Members say if recruitment is happening, it is in a much different way than in year’s past.
An 120-year-old tradition
Founded in 1896, Deru is on its 119th class. Because the group has entirely new membership each year, each class is open to interpret its own mission.
“You’re basically just put into the organization, told you can do with it as you wish, whether it’s end it or change the way you go about whatever,” said Liliana Bonilla, a current Deru member and Weinberg senior. “Everything was in our hands.”
It began as a men’s honors society and since then has admitted women and cycled through phases of being public and private, most recently returning to secrecy around 2000.
The group functions without much of a hierarchy: There’s generally a facilitator or two who run the meetings and a president and treasurer who are given those titles mainly for the purpose of accessing a Student Organization Finance Office account.
In conversations with The Daily, alumni pointed to successful campuswide events hosted in part by Deru as signs of its benefits — anything from major donations to new campus buildings, to a forum on race organized after a blackface incident in 2009.
Sofia Sami (Weinberg ‘14), a member of Deru’s 118th class, said the group is indicative of larger campus issues. She said Deru’s foundation on white male privilege is problematic, and the group serves as a window into the issues caused by the University’s white, male origins.
“At any point when Deru is looked at, Deru shouldn’t be considered in any way shape or form an isolated example,” Sami said. “Because it’s so old, 120 years now, and because it literally lives on tradition, it’s like a preserved relic of Northwestern’s past that doesn’t have marketing schemes built on top of it.”
A year in review
After a year of negative experiences leading the group as a facilitator, Sami and the rest of her class began recruiting the next Deru class. Instead of using her energy to find a way to change the group that year, Sami instead advocated for rising seniors who could work to drastically transform the group into a more accessible space.
But during recruitment, Sami said she found herself frustrated with conversations that were going on with other Deru members. She recounted one late night conversation in which a Latino member of the group was asked to pick the best candidate out of three Latino students.
“I was like, that was A-B-C racism right there,” she said. “That happened over and over again: ‘Well this person who protests and this person who protests seems like the same person.’ I’m like, ‘Oh that’s fascinating, all of these 18 white students in the group, they all seem like the same person too. Should we kick them all out?’”
Menefee said members of the 118th Deru class prepped her for the recruitment interviews. She was inducted in Spring Quarter 2014 with the standard kidnapping ritual that ended at Ryan Field. During one of the ceremonies, she said the members carrying out the induction read from the founding myth, which she said she found problematic. The myth behind Deru, according to documents obtained by The Daily, is that a wise man named Ceridwen came to the United States from Britain thousands of years ago and settled under an oak tree. The legend speaks of “aborigines” or “simple natives” who “greeted (Ceridwen) as a god.”
“The first meeting we had last spring was a joint meeting between our class and last year’s class,” Menefee said. “At that meeting, I just talked for like 10 minutes about all the problems I saw with the group and just said, ‘I don’t think it should exist.’”
Coming back to campus in the fall, Andrew Green (SESP ‘15) said he grappled with his feelings toward Deru. As a member of the Wildcat Welcome board of directors, he invited staff from the Office of New Student and Family Programs to Deru’s Homecoming reception. The staff later playfully questioned him about his involvement in Deru and “reframed” the way he saw it.
“Then what brought me back was our retreat in the fall, when we all were really open about the fact that we didn’t want this group to do a lot,” he said. “We wanted to use it as a space to bounce off ideas but then ultimately work through existing groups or avenues so that if we produced anything or anything came out of it, it would be public, open to criticism and accessible to other students.”
By the end of Winter Quarter, conversation surfaced in Deru about what to do for next year. Menefee started attending meetings and reaching out to other students in the group to discuss dissolution. She said the group agreed on the three changes she later publicized in her Facebook status. But once she posted her status, she was removed from group communication and couldn’t follow up on the decisions.
After members notified alumni that the class of 119 was considering dismantling the group, Menefee and Green said alumni contacted them and encouraged them to change their minds.
“I got a lot of Facebook messages from people I’d hardly ever spoken to trying to shame me out of it, which was funny,” Menefee said. “I got a couple messages from people I haven’t spoken to saying, ‘Good for you, the more I thought about it the worse this group actually is. But I wouldn’t say that publicly.’”
Green said members of this year’s class received a compiled PDF of letters from different alumni. Of those letters, he said only one supported dissolution.
Michael Gebhardt (Weinberg ‘11) said he was shocked to hear that the class of 119 was so interested in ending the group. To him, he said, there’s little downside to having the group.
“Every year when a new class comes together there’s so much potential,” he said.
Gebhardt said some years don’t amount to much, but others are defined by fundraising or forums that affect the whole campus.
‘Guest in that space’
For members of the group, particularly students of color, Deru can seem like a space in which they feel the need to pass along their position to people of similar backgrounds or their voices won’t be represented, Bonilla said. Although many members said spots are not designated for specific student groups, Deru does try to draw from the major leaders on campus, which tend to be from similar groups year to year.
Bonilla, a former president of Alianza, the Hispanic and Latino student alliance, said she never felt that attached to the group, and her experience on campus in a marginalized community has been much different than that of other Deru members.
As a facilitator, Sami said she was once referred to as “diversity girl” by a member, resulting in laughter from others. Sami said other members of the group didn’t take seriously her attempts to find a positive use for the resources and access the group has.
“To be honest, I felt like a guest in that space,” Sami said. “Despite the amount of time and effort that I put into it, I always felt like an annoyance. … I never left those meetings happy ever and very frequently felt like I was the sole person in that room that wanted to justify (what) we were given.”
Presence on campus
One of Deru’s main functions as a group is to connect administrators with student leaders, said Ron Braeutigam, the associate provost for undergraduate education and an adviser to Deru. He does meet with students in Deru, but he said those meetings are generally because of students’ other leadership positions on campus. He said he doesn’t have a roster of Deru members year to year and is not involved with the group’s internal discussions.
“They perform a very valuable function,” he said. “But I feel the same way about (Associated Student Government). Because I work with so many student groups, I would hate to see any group that’s very active in helping to build community and communicating what’s going on across campus go away.”
Throughout his six years at NU, University President Morton Schapiro said he could only recount two times he met with members from the group: once at the Hilton Garden Inn and once at the Celtic Knot.
“I’m sure I know a lot of the members, and I’m sure they’re trying hard to make our great university even better,” he told The Daily. “But I remember I was asked … would I do a dinner for them, and I said, ‘With all due respect, no.’ I just don’t do secret societies, and I’ve never been into that.”
This year, Deru received $4,500 from the Office of the Provost, said Green, who serves as the group’s treasurer. Green said the group spent more than half of the budget on the Homecoming reception for faculty, administration, Deru members and alumni. Green said this was the only money that’s been spent out of this year’s budget.
Green, who was involved with student group funding as part of ASG, said no group gets funding in the same way Deru does. He said all ASG-funded groups have to itemize their budgets with what they plan to spend the money on speakers, marketing and other costs. Outside of ASG funding, student groups can request funds from a number of offices around campus on a project-by-project basis.
“For Deru, we received our money from the provost, to my understanding, far easier than student organizations receive their money,” he said. “We simply told them the total amount of money we wanted and what things it would go towards … and then we were granted that money.”
Every year, students have the chance to learn which members were in Deru when the group is recognized at the University honors ceremony in June. Menefee, Green, Bonilla and other members of this year’s class said they will opt out of receiving honors through their membership in the group.
“I don’t want honors from this,” Green said. “It’s not honorable.”
Bonilla said she was invited to the honors ceremony but is following up to see if it is related to Deru.
“Yes we’ve contributed to campus but because we want to, not because we need to be recognized by (honors),” she said.
In April, Deru launched a project called Purple Pipelines to try to garner topics for discussion during the group’s recruitment process. Any student could drop a piece of paper in one of the purple pipes across campus with a proposed topic. But, Bonilla and Menefee said the campaign didn’t get much feedback.
With several members still in the dark about recruitment, it’s possible there will not be a 120th class. If there is, the recruitment process will have left a number of members out.
“It’s not something I felt like was worthwhile for me overall,” Bonilla said. “I met great people on campus and I’m glad I met them. … But the way I see it now is that the idealized purpose of the organization is very contradictory to how the process has been going about.”