Order and chaos: Exploring the controversy surrounding a not-so-secret society

By Kaitlin Williams, Deputy Magazine Editor
Published April 5, 2012

For decades, the University’s secret society Michigamua held its weekly meetings on the seventh floor of the Michigan Union.

Do you think societies like Order of Angell should exist at the University?

Choices







In Feb. 2000 University student Joe Reilly and other representatives of the Students of Color Coalition opened the door to their meeting grounds. What they saw shocked and disgusted them, Reilly said in an interview yesterday.

The room was adorned like a Native American wigwam. Lining the walls were pictures of former Michigamua members clasping tribal artifacts. Plaques displayed pictures of members with nicknames such as “Great Scalper Yost,” Reilly said.

Reilly and his cohorts occupied the tower for 37 days. In the wake of their protest Michigamua was relocated. Gone was the meeting space of the past 70 years.

Twelve years later you’re tapped to join this organization.

The group’s name is different now and it claims to have moved away from its controversial past. But its proceedings are still veiled in secrecy. This is evident from the tapping alone. There is no application, no cover letter, no interview. Just the tap. The tap, and a great feeling of pride.

Getting tapped is no easy feat. Out of 25,000 nameless and faceless undergraduates at this school, you’re one of 25.

Order of Angell, the organization formerly known as Michigamua, wants you to join their senior society.

You're out with a friend later that day and can barely contain your excitement. I was tapped, you tell her.

Your friend tells you Order is a racist and sexist group. Another friend is happy for you but points out that the group has only recently moved away from a past wrought with mistakes.

Curious about what you might be getting yourself into, you take the Commuter North bus to the Bentley Historical Library to pore over boxes of documents and photos preserving the history of the secret society.

You discover Michigamua was conceived by University President James B. Angell and a group of then-juniors called the Hot Air Club. You discover the traditions of Michigamua in a box that includes pictures and lists of Native American-inspired nicknames like Grunting Moose Davock and Squaw Cheek Curtis. New members used to be publicly initiated on the steps of the Michigan Union during Rope Day — when members and prospects dropped in mock-Native American attire and painted themselves red. You also find a picture of new members passing a “peace pipe.”

This is the hint of the racism that would impel Reilly and the SCC to occupy Michigamua's meeting grounds in 2000.

Still, if you accept, you join a legacy that includes former President Gerald Ford, Heisman winner Tom Harmon and hundreds of other success stories.

If you decline, you recant a history that involves the imitation of Native American culture in racist and insensitive practices, the exclusion of women members until 2000 and an air of secrecy that has never been cleared.

The group’s unofficial mission is to “fight like hell for Michigan.” But with a continued closed-door policy, what does the group actually do?

Addressing and redressing

Michigamua changed its name to Order of Angell in 2006. This change marked a deliberate distancing from a secretive past.

This past included the decades spent on the seventh floor of the Union.

But the Union meetings stopped when Reilly and other members of the Students of Color Coalition occupied the seventh floor of the Union . It was there that they discovered Native American artifacts lying around — an explicit violation of an agreement the group signed in 1989 banning such displays.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Reilly said the SCC’s occupation in Feb. 2000 was a long time coming.

“What we did was a continuation of students before us … who since the 1970s were trying to bring light to the fact that Michigamua was appropriating Native American culture,” Reilly said. “That created a hostile environment for native students on campus, to feel like your culture and your spirituality was part of this hazing ritual. It was being appropriated by a group of non-native students who were very privileged.”

Past Michigamua members made allegations that the artifacts were strategically placed in the meeting space by SCC members. But Reilly said the claims are “ridiculous.”

“Whoever’s alleging that we planted those items is trying to hide the fact that those things were there and that’s part of the history of Michigamua,” he said. “They basically created this pseudo-Indian tribe on this public University campus to promote their kind of elitist view of leadership.”

Leaving the Union after 37 days, the protesters took the artifacts with them.

In the wake of the protest Vice President for Student Affairs E. Royster Harper commissioned a three-person panel to decide the fate of the tower space. The panel recommended abandoning the tower. Today the space is vacant and sealed off to the public.

Michigamua changed its name to Order of Angell. The new namesake was wholly uncontroversial: a tribute to the iconic University president who served from 1871 to 1909.

Now the group meets behind closed doors every Monday at 10 p.m. The location changes almost every week.

Despite the society’s efforts to make reparations to its unsavory history, Reilly still said he didn’t think the organization should have a place on campus.

“I don’t think there’s any way they could make themselves acceptable or appropriate other than say, ‘We’re going to end our organization,’ ” Reilly said.

Speaking to the current University community, Reilly said the administration should take a stance on Order. In 2000, Reilly said they remained neutral, making the issue about the fair allocation of space for student groups rather than about the misuse of Native American culture.

Reilly said the SCC’s occupy movement was motivated by influencing future generations.

“It wasn’t about our own self-interest,” he said. “It was about, 'how do we create a more inclusive and a more supportive and a more truly diverse University with our time here, with our privilege and position as students.'”

Tapped, you're not it

LSA junior Alex Kulick, lead team member of Students Organizing Against Prisons, an organization committed to abolishing the prison industrial complex, was tapped to join Order a few weeks ago.

Within 24 hours he decided not to accept.

He said while he respects the work Order has done, he declined membership.

Kulick said he’s uncomfortable with the secrecy of the organization. For Kulick, the secrecy of Order seems to contradict the openness of his own group, which is all about transparency. SOAP meets with focus groups. They talk to Latino and African American students. Their works requires accountability — something Kulick said Order’s secrecy prevents it from doing.

Out of about 5,700 rising seniors, roughly 25 members become a part of the group.

Yet Order’s members are not a representative sample of the general student body. Up until the 1940s, only white men were allowed. It wasn’t until 2000 that women were admitted.

Men still outnumber women. Since 2009, the makeup of the group has been 41.57 percent female and 58.43 percent male, a Michigan Daily analysis found.

And despite Order’s efforts to strike a balance among membership organizations, athletes still dominate. Between 2009 and 2012, an average of 36 percent of Order’s members were athletes, compared to the society’s makeup of 13-percent artists, 9-percent representatives of multiethnic/political groups, 10-percent members of professional organizations and 32-percent came members of service groups, the Daily analysis found.

Kulick pointed to factors like these as a reason he doubts Order’s ability to represent the student body as a whole.

Kulick added that he lauds Order’s move toward diversity but said the group has been slow on the uptake.

“Order has been making some small, incremental changes over the years, but those changes need to be sort of larger and more reconciliatory,” Kulick said.

SOAP has strong relationships with other groups — the Black Student Union and the Native American Student Association among them — that openly disagree with Order’s policies and history.

Last May, Order member and LSA senior Chatoris Jones was asked to step down from his leadership positions in the Black Student Union and Intellectual Minds Making a Difference for accepting a tap from Order. Though Jones said he remains friends with the BSU members, he is no longer permitted to represent the organization as he did previously.

In a May 2011 Daily article, BSU spokeswoman Samantha Martin said Jones was asked to step down as treasurer of the group because his actions violated BSU’s constitution.

“As an organization, we don’t support any affiliation with the Order,” Martin said in the article. “Therefore, any members associated with Order cannot be part of BSU.”

Kulick said this alliance with dissenting student groups presented a conflict of interest, as he hopes to keep working with those groups and continuing SOAP’s mission the best he can. Being in Order would’ve conflicted with the collaborative nature of his group’s work, he said.

While he added that he sees the value in having a senior society of student leaders come together to work toward communal betterment, he doesn’t see Order as filling that role.

Conflict of interest

According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, reporters should "avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived." The Michigan Daily models its bylaws after the SPJ.

LSA senior Stephanie Steinberg, editor in chief of the Daily from Winter semester 2011 through Fall semester 2011, joined Order last April. She said the relationships she forged with other student leaders ensured she was in the know, but that these relationships did not compromise the Daily's coverage.

According to Steinberg, the first Daily staffer to join Michigamua was Advertising Manager A.J. Jordan in 1930, and 49 Order members have been Daily staff members since.

Steinberg said though there was a large gap in membership until recent years, it’s not unprecedented for Daily staffers to join the organization.

Over the past six years, four out of the six editor in chief's accepted the tap.

Steinberg said she doesn't consider her involvement a conflict of interest. She added that she never edited a story involving another Order member. When presented with an article that mentioned a fellow Order member, she would pass it on to her managing editor, LSA senior Nick Spar, to edit.

In 2006, Michigan Daily Editor in Chief Donn Fresard accepted the tap from Order, prompting Managing Editor Ashley Dinges to step down. According to a July 2006 Daily article, Dinges said Fresard’s involvement was a conflict of interest.

"I am very sad to leave the Daily, which has been my second home since I came to the University," Dinges said in the article. "But the main reason I work at this paper is my love of journalism and I am not willing to compromise my journalistic integrity or my ethical beliefs."

Dinges declined to comment on the issue, writing in an e-mail that she didn’t feel comfortable commenting on an issue from the past. Fressard couldn’t be reached for comment.

After the April article that announced Steinberg among the 2012 members of Order, 61 Daily articles naming Order members ran during the remainder of Steinberg's tenure.

Fifty-three of those articles ran in the arts and sports sections — which Spar read.

Of the remaining eight articles, Steinberg said she didn't read any of them. However, on only one these eight articles is appended a note that says Steinberg didn't edit the article due to her membership in Order.

When contacted about these articles, Spar said Steinberg was "judicious" in her handling of all articles concerning Order members.

“Even if I had edited it, I never would’ve skewed a story so that someone appeared in more favorable light,” Steinberg said. “I would like to think that my journalistic ethics and integrity would’ve never been compromised.”

However, countless other articles from each section of the newspaper mention the organizations Order members participate in and contribute to at the University.

Communication Studies lecturer Anthony Collings — who has worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, Newsweek and CNN — explained how he understands the SPJ’s definition of a conflict of interest.

“My understanding is that it means anything that would lower the public’s trust in the journalist because of the perception that the journalist is not totally independent,” Collings said.

He added that a Daily staffer’s involvement with Order could affect the reporter-reader relationship because many continue to harbor bad feelings toward the organization for its past.

“You’ll have to decide whether being a part of an organization that might be in the news could lead to a perceived conflict of interest,” Collings said.

Yet, Steinberg said Order membership is beneficial for Daily staff because they gain access to information they wouldn’t have had otherwise. She cited former Assistant Attorney General Andrew Shirvell’s personal attack on Chris Armstrong, the former president of the Michigan Student Assembly, as an example of such information. Armstrong and former Daily Editor in Chief Jacob Smilovitz were both in Order together.

The potential conflicts of interest stem beyond journalism, as LSA senior Brendan Campbell, vice president of Central Student Government, said he worries students won’t feel comfortable approaching a governing body that works with a closed-door organization like Order.

“If a student government is to truly be an inclusive and representative voice of students on campus, then I think it’s wrong for its leaders to be part of such a divisive and problematic organization,” Campbell said.

Campbell is the former chair of the University's chapter of College Democrats, and the group has a policy that forbids members from joining Order.

Campbell added that Order is a “uniquely damaging organization” whose time on campus has run out.

History is history

Public Policy senior Vidhi Bamzai, Order's unofficial spokesperson, said that as a woman with a social justice background, she can’t deny Order’s incurred civil rights violations in the past.

Bamzai is the former chair of the South Asian Awareness Network, a social justice organization at the University. She said her involvement with SAAN led to her getting tapped by Order last year.

Bamzai said Order operates with members at equal standing and releases its member list every April to remain transparent.

She added that Order is trying to move beyond its contentious past.

“But that’s exactly what it is — it’s history,” Bamzai said. “The organization that Order of Angell is today is not the organization that it was ... five years ago — and that’s the beauty of the 100-percent turnover.”

Bamzai said having a new class of members each year fosters constant change. This year’s class organized a scholarship for student leaders and held an event called Leaders for Life — created for 90 up-and-coming sophomores and juniors.

Bamzai established a formal relationship between SAAN and the Muslim Students Association, which she hopes will continue after she graduates. She added that honorary members like James Toy — the founder of the Spectrum Center and an Order member since 2000 — help Order take a step back and realize what’s best for campus.

In 1999, Toy was approached by then-member Cory Fryling — the first openly gay member of Michigamua — who petitioned him to join the organization. Fryling was a member of the Queer Unity Project and thought Toy would bring a valuable perspective to the organization.

Fryling brought a big folder of historical information to allay Toy’s skepticism about joining the group.

“I was dubious about joining because, having been here on campus since the 1960s, I was aware of Michigamua reputation and the concerns that many members of the University had about the group,” Toy said.

Toy said he ultimately joined because he was concerned about ethos, and he figured he could inspire more change by getting inside of the organization rather than banging on it from the outside.

He said he lobbies the group for greater diversity.

“The more diverse a group is in its membership, the better decisions it will make,” Toy said.

While the group defers to the phrase “humility in secrecy,” Toy said he thinks modesty is a better explanation for why the contents of their Monday night meetings are kept hush-hush.

Fryling said, from his vantage point in California, where he now lives, the core purpose of the organization hasn't changed much, although it's gained women and new perspective. He added that persuading Toy to join the group was his biggest accomplishment.

“He’s the most profound legacy I've left behind,” Fryling said. “He’s been integrally involved, while I’ve been congenitally involved at points.”

Fryling said he challenges Order dissenters to keep an open mind and do the research for themselves.

Your call

You can make the trek to the Bentley on North Campus. You can visit Order’s Wikipedia page. You can gossip with friends.

If you were to search “Order of Angell” and “Michigamua” on the Daily’s website or in its bound volumes, you’d see that the society stirs up a lot of ink. The Daily publishes the list of new members each April and it will again next week.

But you won't know what they do until you accept the tap.

Magazine Editor Dylan Cinti contributed to this report.