Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Thesis


Educational Studies

First Advisor

Julie Rotholz


Secret societies on college campuses have enjoyed prestige and influence since the founding of Phi Beta Kappa in 1776. Some, like Skull and Bones at Yale University, appear to do their members a great service by connecting them to a network of successful alumni. Others, like the Machine at the University of Alabama, have been accused of crime and discrimination. This study serves to examine what impact these groups have on their members and the surrounding community. It also explores the concept of formalized secrecy within the democratic realm of higher education. This is achieved through historical study of three groups, Skull and Bones, the Machine, and a third unnamed secret society active on a public, doctoral-level research institution in the South. Interviews with members of this Third Society and individuals who were tapped and elected not to join the society are reported upon to provide first hand experiences. The data are analyzed using the sociological lens provided by grandfather of secrecy literature, Georg Simmel, as well as the student development theories penned by Clark, Trow, and Perry. Interviews found that individuals’ reasons for either joining or not joining the secret society cannot be explained by difference in college student subculture or moral development. Criteria for evaluating the risk of secret societies are presented, as well as a discussion about the values defining the democratic values of higher education and their alignment or non-alignment with the secret society system.


© 2015, Mackenzie Crane