Have the Culture Wars Come to Skull and Bones?

It could be of the moment, or it could speak to something perennial

Yale University campus
Even secret societies have generational conflicts.
Kathryn Donohue Photography/Getty Images

We’re currently living through a moment in time when things that had previously not been partisan issues — from offshore wind farms to drinking Bud Light — become culture war flashpoints and grounds for partisan discord. There are a few reasons for this, from the way political opponents can be Very Online to the way social media can incentivize getting into fights with total strangers.

Combine that state of affairs with the current political discourse surrounding the Ivy League and you have one of the more surreal situations imaginable: an ideological conflict brewing between current members and alumni of Skull and Bones. Yes, that Skull and Bones — the secret society that’s abounded with influential alumni, including multiple future Presidents.

Writing at Air Mail, William D. Cohan explored the existence of a rift between current Skull & Bones members and some of the alumni who spent time in the secret society decades ago. Skull and Bones has been getting more diverse over the years — and that’s a result of decisions made by outgoing members, who select the incoming members.

Cohan cites sources who have told him that Andrew Klabler, the current head of the board of trustees of the Russell Trust Association — which owns the building in which Skull and Bones is headquartered — is seeking, in Cohan’s words, “to temper the diversity initiative, if just a little.” That said, David Alan Richards — another Skull and Bones alumnus who has written a history of the organization told Cohan that this wasn’t the case at all. It’s not the usual intrigue that surrounds secret societies, but it’s intrigue nonetheless.

Some of this feels less like a reflection of circa-now political tension and more a perennial generational conflict. As Cohan pointed out, when Skull and Bones began admitting women, a group of alumni that included William F. Buckley sought to block their admittance. Is this latest clash a sign of 2020s politics echoing through the halls of the Ivy League — or is it the latest manifestation of something more perennial? Only the secret societies know for sure.

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