After 104 years, Michigamua is no more. The controversial group announced last week that it has chosen to retire its name, which is perhaps the last continuing vestige of the group’s racist past. The group also made public a list of its members for the two most recent classes, although it now appears that list was incomplete. These reforms by a long-secretive group are welcome, but they cannot instantly grant the group legitimacy on campus. The secret society known until now as Michigamua must more fully acknowledge the harm it has caused and become more transparent as it seeks to move past its painful legacy on campus.
In a public statement last week, Michigamua members announced that they had voted to retire the name “Michigamua” and will choose a new name. They also released a membership list of the “prides” of 2006 and 2007, a seemingly profound move toward shedding the secrecy that has limited the credibility of previous reforms. However, the membership list released last week turned out to be incomplete, indicating that the group lacks as yet a strong institutional commitment to transparency.
The reforms announced last week are remarkable in that they originated within the secret society. Previous changes – such as the decision in 1973 to move the racist “Rope Day” ceremony away from public view – were only taken in response to outside pressure. Many observers never expected the group to change its name, noting that it reserved the right to keep its name “for now and forever” in the group’s infamous 1989 agreement to end its racist practices. Hopefully, last week’s reforms indicate that the current members are more committed to the group’s stated purpose of serving the University than they are to defending an indefensible past.
In its few public communications, however, the group has been less than apologetic about the pain its presence on campus has inflicted, especially on Native American students. With prominent members in the current class including Michigan Student Assembly President Nicole Stallings, the group has an obligation to the student body to acknowledge the harm of its past racist practices that rendered the group so controversial in recent years.
Going through the Student Organization and Recognition process will be an important, but not final, step for the group to become accepted on campus. While some critics argue that the University should never again associate itself with the group, registration through the SORE process would force the group to abide by the University’s non-discrimination policy. Making its selection process and its practices public – as well as the names of any honorary Michigamua members among the University administration and faculty – may eliminate some of the romanticism of secrecy, but it will also make it easier for students to view the organization as legitimate.
Whatever its new name, the group must work to become more transparent and accountable. With complete turnover of the current membership every year, the group is ultimately what its incoming class makes it. Though the idea of an elite society at a public institution like the University is itself disconcerting, a reformed, transparent version of Michigamua may some day be viewed as a beneficial force on campus. The group, however, has earned the ill will that it currently faces, and it will need to build a positive, public record to earn the campus’s trust.