‘The System Breeds Corruption’: Secret Societies’ Influence On UPUA
On August 31, with the sunlight fading behind Mount Nittany, the 17th Assembly of the University Park Undergraduate Association held its first meeting of the school year. President Najee Rodriguez officially resigned in August, during the middle of his term, due to struggles with mental health. Vice President Sydney Gibbard took his place, creating a vacancy in her former position.
After Gibbard and the committee leaders delivered their weekly reports, the assembly moved on to its main business of the day: selecting a new vice president. The steering committee’s nominee was Sarabeth Bowmaster, a senior double majoring in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and philosophy. Bowmaster, a member of the Schreyer Honors College, Paterno Fellows, and Lion Ambassadors, brought an impressive resumé with her.
After listing her qualifications in a brief speech, Bowmaster took questions from the seated representatives. The first representative, Vincent Smedile, asked Bowmaster if she was a current or former member of the secret society Parmi Nous. She confirmed that she was an active member, shocking many of those in the room.
While Bowmaster stood outside, awaiting her fate, the members of the assembly deliberated not only her membership in Parmi Nous, but the influence of secret societies in the student government. A bloc of representatives in the center of the room, all members of the College Republicans, argued that Bowmaster’s ties to Parmi Nous were disqualifying and a blatant conflict of interest. Members of the steering committee, many of whom had endorsed her, angrily responded that her active membership in the Penn State community was a reflection of her character and outweighed any of her outside interests. The debate raged on for well over an hour with many members taking multiple speaking turns.
Ultimately, Bowmaster lost the vote by a tally of 16-12, with four members abstaining, failing to reach the two-thirds majority threshold and throwing the government back into a flux that would last for nearly another month.
Bowmaster’s botched confirmation was just the latest battle between members of the student government and the three well-funded, influential societies that have turned its operations into a real-life “House of Cards.”
A Culture Of Silence
Senior honor societies, also known as HAT societies, have existed at Penn State since the early 1900s. While there were once as many as eight, there are now three: Parmi Nous, Lion’s Paw, and Skull and Bones.
Skull and Bones, inspired in part by the “Skull and Bones Society” at Yale, was founded by 12 men in 1912. Per a copy of the society’s constitution, Skull and Bones members have “broad areas of involvement” and “have given of themselves selflessly in service and leadership.” The full constitution can be read below.
The societies’ operations aren’t completely “secret.” Skull and Bones members have been known to wear a pin at their graduation, and Lion’s Paw buys an ad in The Daily Collegian every year to congratulate its seniors.
In the past, most secret society members in UPUA were affiliated with Skull and Bones. Secret societies’ membership in UPUA fluctuates between as few as a half dozen to as many as 15. Nearly every member, though, has some kind of leadership role in the upper levels of the government.
The UPUA members who have been in Parmi Nous were seemingly chosen because they participated in Penn State’s cultural caucuses. For example, Steven Zhang, a former Speaker of UPUA, was the internal relations director of the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Caucus and also a member of Parmi Nous. Celeste Good, the president of Queer and Trans People of Color (QTPOC) from 2019 to 2022, was a member of both Parmi Nous and Lion’s Paw.
Lion’s Paw is often referred to as the most “exclusive” of the three societies and is composed of mainly student leaders, often including THON, the Interfraternity Council, and the Student Fee Board, which allocates money that is taken from students’ tuition for campus events. According to the society’s website, its initiates are a group of no more than 15 students selected “by a unanimous vote of the previous year’s class.”
Skull and Bones and Parmi Nous have a longstanding feud that has lessened in intensity over the years, but some differences remain. While there is an overlap between the two organizations and Lion’s Paw, there is no crossover between Skull and Bones and Parmi Nous.
The societies are funded by wealthy alumni that have passed through its ranks. New initiates into Lion’s Paw are said to receive scholarships of more than $10,000, complete with access to the society’s affluent alumni network.
Most of Lions Paw’s limited public presence is its philanthropy, which reflects its considerable funding. Lion’s Paw spent $30,000 on the two bronze paws in front of the Palmer Museum of Art. By its own admission, it has purchased Mount Nittany above 1,400 feet.
Former UPUA Vice President Lexy Pathickal said that she couldn’t have ethically accepted an invitation into an elite society but was aware they were well-funded.
“For me personally, as a college student who struggled with finances her entire time in college, that was frustrating,” she said.
“They’re recruiting the rich and powerful of Penn State,” former representative and College Democrats President Jacob Klipstein said. “That creates an alumni base that can keep chipping into the organization and keeps it strapped.”
The societies’ riches come attached with a vow of silence. If members talk about their societies to media outlets, even after they graduate, they are liable to be expelled from their alumni networks.
Societies And UPUA
Penn State’s first student-run governing body was the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), founded in 1962. The societies’ presence in USG was significant enough that, in 1988, senators drafted a resolution condemning their activities. By its end, USG faced allegations of financial corruption and voted to merge with the current UPUA in 2006.
The merger did little to stop the societies’ activities in student government. The UPUA presidency has been passed down through friend groups made up of secret society members since as early as the 4th Assembly. According to Chief Justice Andrew Waldman, the head of UPUA’s judicial branch, at least 14 of the assembly’s 17 presidents were members of these societies, with most of them being in Skull and Bones.
The only president on the record as not being in a society was Zach McKay, who served from 2020 to 2021. Current UPUA president Sydney Gibbard is a member of Skull and Bones. Her boyfriend, Bryan Culler, previously led the society as its “Skullmaster” and was also a member of Lion’s Paw.
Gibbard told Onward State in a statement that she “had no comment” before proceeding to make a comment. She didn’t confirm nor deny her membership in the statement but believes that UPUA “has addressed this topic this year in great detail” and that it has “moved forward to focus on our projects and bettering the lives of students on campus.”
Skull and Bones and Parmi Nous have pages on OrgCentral but rarely have a public list of their members or any identifying information. But before the start of the semester, they accidentally left some of their members’ names public. This was how Waldman, almost by chance, discovered that Bowmaster was in Parmi Nous.
Waldman feverishly met with representatives one-on-one before the vote, explaining how confirming new members with outside agendas was a conflict of interest. A representative he spoke with then met with Gibbard and Bowmaster, asking her if she was in Parmi Nous. Bowmaster’s name disappeared from the OrgCentral page soon after.
Waldman thinks that Bowmaster would have been confirmed without his actions.
“UPUA does a bad job of explaining what societies are, and it’s intentional,” Waldman said.
A document Waldman provided to Onward State listed the following current and recent members of Skull and Bones and Parmi Nous:
Confirmed Skull and Bones Members
Samantha Browne: First-Year Council Liaison (Skullmaster), Panhellenic President
Adeline Mishler: UPUA Chair of Student Life, Lion Caucus executive board member, Student Fee Board steering committee
Molly Ligon: THON Public Relations Chair, Blue Band Public Relations Chair
Doug Campbell: Interfraternity Council President
Bryan Culler: Student Trustee
Confirmed Parmi Nous Members
Stephanie Danette Preston (Advisor): Penn State Associate Dean for Graduate Educational Equity & Chief Diversity Officer for Graduate Education
Sarabeth Bowmaster: Lion Ambassadors New Member Education Committee, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Ad-Hoc
William Vincent: THON Special Events Director
Alexander Wind: Co-founder, March For Our Lives
Genesis Severino-Ellis: Penn State NCAAP Chapter President
Michael Olenick: THON Hospitality Director
Taylor Dorsett: President of Lion’s Pantry
Nicholas Centenera: Penn State Filipino Association President
Aryath Narayanamangalam: Presidential Scholar
Samara Rayco: Penn State Filipino Association Director of Internal Affairs
Anton Aluquin: Penn State Presidential Leadership Academy
Tommy Bennett: Penn State Performing Arts Council, Vice President of Community Relations
Breiuana White: Penn State Minority Association of Pre-Health Students Outreach Chair
Lahari Peruri: Co-founder, President of LOTUS
Sarah Russell: THON Committees
Alyssa Stanford: School of Theatre Student Diversity Committee President
The judicial branch keeps a 36-page “bible” on the history of secret societies that it hasn’t shared with the assembly at large. The document’s author, who wishes to remain anonymous and will be referred to as J.D., detailed how secret societies’ influence in the upper reaches of UPUA negatively affected her, other representatives, Greek life, and student media. Notably, J.D. detailed how then-president Katie Jordan, a member of Skull and Bones, refused to let her interview for an open representative seat until steering could convince someone else to apply and feasibly reject her. Onward State received permission to publish a redacted version of the memo, which can be read below.
Recruitment And Hazing
Outside of UPUA, societies have recruited new members by requesting interviews under false pretenses. J.D. said that she was approached by the president of the Blue Band, Doug Uhazie, to interview for the Student Affairs office, even though they had never met before. Shortly into what was an uncomfortable interview, J.D. realized that Uhazie was interviewing her for something else entirely.
J.D. asked other members of the steering committee if they had received a similar email and they all denied it. Later, she discovered that every one of them had been contacted. This caused a falling out between her and her former friends, including future UPUA President Katie Jordan and her own roommate.
Societies recruit from UPUA through First-Year Council, a mentorship program that pairs up new members with older members. According to former representative Noah Robertson, societies “pick” freshmen, with race and gender being a factor. Skull and Bones, historically a majority-white society, tend to favor white men as recruits. While other sources couldn’t confirm this directly, they wouldn’t deny that this was the case. J.D. could only remember one nonwhite person in Skull and Bones during her time in college.
“This was especially bad when they didn’t even have a Justice and Equity Committee in UPUA,” Robertson said. “They manufactured relationships with the incoming cohort. There’s this pressure to get involved after some time…you don’t want to ruin your relationships with these people.”
“The institution that builds Skull and Bones is inherently biased against people of color,” Klipstein said.
During future Skullmaster Bryan Culler’s freshman year in 2018, the majority of the committee members were in Skull and Bones. He was formally “tapped,” or discreetly selected to join, during his junior year in 2020.
Culler was nominated to be a Freshman Council Director himself in an assembly meeting in April of 2021. Culler was also serving as the Student Trustee at the time and voted on university-related financial decisions on behalf of the entire student body.
When representative Robertson asked Culler if he was a member of Skull and Bones, Culler refused to answer the question directly. Representative Annmarie Rounds-Sorensen then pressed Culler to confirm or deny his membership, adding that previous UPUA presidents have lied about their affiliations, but he once again did not give a substantive answer.
Like Bowmaster, Culler’s nomination was voted down by the assembly. Nonetheless, this year’s Skullmaster, Samantha Browne, is currently the executive co-director of the First-Year Council.
“If you ask me about any interaction I’ve ever had with Bryan Culler, it’s rather pleasant, but the system [he] is a part of breeds corruption,” Klipstein said. “And if you ‘kinda like’ people in a system that breeds corruption, it begs you to look the other way when push comes to shove.”
Robertson resigned from his position last semester because of the “draining” influence of the societies on UPUA’s culture.
“There are lots of rumors that spread through the UPUA network, and that ruins relationships,” he said.
J.D. said her time in college was ruined by former friends who “decided that secret societies were more important than other people.”
Members of societies vote together on UPUA legislation, often unanimously, coming to agreements before debates even take place.
“You’re censoring yourself and your opinion, which I think is a disservice to the assembly. It’s a huge conflict of interest,” Robertson said.
McKay doesn’t believe that being in a society should be disqualifying for student government but questioned the ethics of their lack of transparency.
“That Parmi Nous, Skull and Bones, or Lion’s Paw exist shouldn’t necessarily be the issue,” McKay said. “The harsh reality is that they have existed for much longer than UPUA. The issue is that elected representatives of the student body are not speaking honestly about their involvement.”
According to former representatives, new recruits go through an initiation process that includes hazing, ranging from emotional to physical abuse. These kinds of activities continued even after the hazing death of Timothy Piazza in 2017. Lion’s Paw members have sat in a circle as members from the previous year degraded them until they cried. Skull and Bones members have dressed up as fictional characters and gone into the asbestos-ridden steam tunnels beneath campus. In another ritual, new recruits hiked Mt. Nittany after midnight, barefoot in the snow, before they were blindfolded and told to find their way back to campus.
“It’s important to know that the person you’re electing is staying up until four or five in the morning, hiking Mt. Nittany in freezing temperatures, and is expected to lead the general assembly meeting or speak to Anderson Cooper on CNN the next day,” McKay said. “You’re electing that person to represent you. If you aren’t fully aware of the situation, maybe they aren’t the best person for the job.”
Penn State’s leadership is aware of the activities of the societies. Lion’s Paw has paid a flat fee of $1,000 to rent out room 419 of Old Main, known as “The Lair,” for decades. And according to “PSU Steam,” a group that documented the steam tunnels in the early 2000s, anyone who enters would be arrested for trespassing unless they had express permission from the university itself.
Per OrgCentral, Parmi Nous’ co-advisor, Stephanie Danette Preston, is the Penn State Associate Dean for Graduate Educational Equity. President Eric Barron, who retired in May, was an honorary member of Lion’s Paw and displayed pictures of several classes of Skull and Bones members. In August, Lion’s Paw welcomed the current president, Neeli Bendapudi, with banners around campus.
“University administrators certainly know that these groups exist,” Robertson said. “It would be shocking if someone didn’t know about hazing in Lion’s Paw. I do think that they’re liable.”
Waldman said that Penn State is, at the bare minimum, “complicit in knowing the history of the organizations.”
“I do think that it’s a problem,” he added.
According to McKay, societies are not normal student organizations, and, in the case of Lion’s Paw, is not registered as a university organization at all. It would be difficult for Penn State to hold them accountable for their activities, such as putting them on probation should it need to.
“Let’s say that Lion’s Paw were to haze an individual, [and] the university needs to take action,” he said. “Are they taking action on a student club, like a fraternity? Would they suspend it? No. The university has no authority to intervene on it as an organization because it does not exist.”
When asked for comment, the university acknowledged the existence of the three societies and said that any hazing allegations made in the past weren’t substantiated.
“Skull and Bones and Parmi Nous have been the subject of many media articles in the past and are not “secret,” as they also are recognized student organizations that are listed on the student organization web site: https://orgcentral.psu.edu/organizations,” a Penn State spokesperson wrote. “Lion’s Paw Senior Society is an unrecognized student organization established in 1908 and focused on connecting student leaders across Penn State to build relationships and to serve the University community. There are some members of past and present administration who are honorary members of one or more of these societies.”
“There was an allegation in 2017 related to Skull and Bones that was investigated by the Office of Student Conduct, and a second anonymously filed complaint with the Office of Ethics and Compliance in fall 2021, related to the same organization,” the statement continued. “In both complaints, after investigation, the allegations of hazing were not substantiated. If anyone has information related to hazing in any organization, they are urged to come forward to report it via the Penn State Hotline or Student Affairs. Any registered student organization or Penn State student that commits hazing is subject to disciplinary action through the Office of Student Accountability and Conflict Response.”
The statement concluded by mentioning Pennsylvania’s anti-hazing law, saying that “only substantiated reports of hazing are included in the University’s anti-hazing report online,” which follows the law.
Threats And Intimidation
In 2020, former Speaker of the Assembly Tom Sarabok retired from his position, claiming that he was intimidated by Skull and Bones throughout his time in UPUA. In a letter posted to Twitter, Sarabok claimed that he was confronted by a Skull and Bones alum after he supported legislation to create permanent voting seats for the Black, Latino, and APIDA Caucuses.
“If you truly stand up for what you believe, if you dare have strong values, or if you disagree with someone in power, you will be blacklisted and silenced,” Sarabok said. “If they knock on your door and offer you power, friendships with athletes… I implore you to say no.”
J.D.’s memo makes the case that secret society members in the steering committee have violated UPUA’s policies on harassment and retaliation. She has also claimed that former president Terry Ford attempted to dissolve the assembly entirely, suggesting that the president could handpick members of the student government instead of holding elections.
Waldman tried to keep his efforts to stop Bowmaster’s confirmation under wraps, remarking that he knew “what happens if societies learn that you’re challenging them.”
“Once somebody talked, it was easy to see the machine of UPUA subject their influence,” Waldman said. “Whether or not that was people from the executive branch calling representatives, asking them directly how they’re going to vote, trying to squash rumors of Sarabeth being in a secret society, or whether that’s every single chair in UPUA giving a speech making remarks of anger towards the assembly.”
Members of UPUA disagree about how much influence the societies have in the assembly. McKay called the societies “just another social club,” but conceded that not having to take the societies’ input “made my job easier.”
“I could rely on my instincts and my cabinet’s instincts when responding to an issue, rather than…another voice in your ear, perhaps offering you opinions that the student body did not elect to hear,” he said.
Pathickal, McKay’s vice president, thought the societies rarely used their power in UPUA but often felt like she was “out of the loop” during debates over legislation.
“You could clearly see a divide in the assembly,” she added.
Klipstein believes that the societies are a “drinking club that pulls the strings” behind UPUA.
“They exist as a group of students that protect the administration from the tough questions. They make students distrust the system in the same way that special interest groups do in politics,” Klipstein said.
“UPUA makes you feel really powerful,” J.D. said. “Everyone in UPUA wants to be in Skull and Bones because [they] want to be president, [they] want to be the chair of a committee, they want to feel that power for themselves.”
The university cracked down on fraternities’ hazing following the death of Tim Piazza in 2017. The Timothy J. Piazza Antihazing Law, passed in 2018, requires the university to “maintain a report of all violations of the institution’s antihazing policy.” The law applies not only to fraternities and sororities but to any “association whose members are primarily students or alumni of the organization.”
While Penn State regularly updates its report with offenses from fraternities and other organizations, including the Winter Guard and Altoona Baseball team, there are no entries addressing Skull and Bones, Parmi Nous, or Lion’s Paw.
It’s not clear why societies that donate to good causes and claim they work in the interest of the university feel the need to remain a secret.
As students have come and gone at Penn State, these secret societies have endured, silently dictating their college experiences with little outside input. Societies have weakened UPUA’s democratic process, replacing open deliberation with backroom deals and intimidation. They have also corroded friendships and spoiled relationships, all to protect a “secret” that has little reason to be one.
While there is no concrete evidence that Penn State has violated a law or addressed any offenses that may have been committed, the university hasn’t made a discernible effort to hold these organizations publicly accountable.
This preferential treatment calls into question whether “We Are” refers to every student on campus or just a small group of the wealthy and powerful.
If you are a current or former member of a secret society or have an experience with a secret society, please email your stories to [email protected].
Former members of Onward State’s staff were members of secret societies, including former managing editor Kevin Horne, who was a member of Skull and Bones. Horne, who is currently the point of contact for the Skull and Bones Alumni Interest Group, declined a request for comment.
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