Inside Berkeley’s not so secret society

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Every other Tuesday, campus administrators, ASUC officials, Daily Cal editors, student athletes and other campus leaders gather in a secret room at Senior Hall, a wooden building nestled behind the faculty club. They file in and take a seat. The Order of the Golden Bear is convening.

Inherent in the Ivy League experience is a gloss of exclusivity — the East Coast giants are known, in fact and fiction, for their secret societies. Berkeley, a West Coast and public school, has never shared that reputation. Yet since 1900, the campus has housed its own version of a secret society in the Order of the Golden Bear, an organization nearly as old as the university itself.

The order is a self-selecting group of student leaders, professors and administrators. It has, over the years, served as a forum for the discussion of the most pressing issues facing Berkeley. These days, the order concerns itself with topics such as the university’s governance structure, sexual assault and the mental health of students.

OGB meetings aren’t open to the public. As far as membership goes, there are no elections or applications. Fellows within the order nominate and vote upon potential members. Often, fellows draw up members from the ranks of their own clubs and organizations.

“We are simply a group that strives to bring about the betterment of the university,” said warden of the order and fourth-year student Derek Schatz. “Our meetings are discussions in which participants become more knowledgeable about various campus-related issues, and better equipped to respond to them.”

Members of the order contend that its secretive character uniquely allows candid discussion among a broad swath of campus representatives. But these curtains of privacy have also led to accusations of elitism.

Caitlin Quinn, ASUC external affairs vice president, called the institution “undemocratic” and “overly self-important.” Most students don’t even know the institution exists, allowing only a seldom few prime access to individuals with major influence on campus affairs.

Impressive and classic leadership positions may be what land individuals a spot in the order, but during meetings, such appellations become irrelevant.

“All titles are left at the door. Meetings have an atmosphere of equality,” Schatz said. “Faculty input is no more important than alumni input is no more important than student input.”

Although the Order is not technically a secret society, it remains extraordinarily private. Only the warden of the order has access to archives from meetings between 1900 to 1966. The group has made attempts at increasing transparency, creating a website including “Chronicler’s Notes.” Since the fall of 2013, this feature has granted the public access to summaries of order discussions. But any and all comments made during meetings remain anonymous.

“Fellows have the freedom to speak frankly because specific details regarding what discussions are held and who said what are confidential,” said Shawn Lewis, former warden of the order and state chairman of the California College Republicans.

Where this frank discussion leads is much less clear. The order has no prescribed authority.

“We aren’t designed to carry out action, or to exact control,” Schatz said. “Participation in the order is completely voluntary. We have no agenda and no official stance on any issue.”

Still, the order exercises some form of influence over the university.

Rishi Ahuja, ASUC student advocate and fellow in the order, has played a crucial role in reforming the university’s handling of sexual assault. According to Ahuja, various suggestions regarding sexual assault policy that he brought up during order meetings were eventually included in recent policy reforms made by the university.

“Order meetings are definitely these special occurrences when all the school’s leaders get together,” Ahuja said. “I do think that the meetings got a lot more campus leaders thinking about the issue of sexual assault. To have the ear of important members of the Berkeley community is an immeasurable resource.”

Even more impressive, the order’s domain isn’t constrained to just campus-level discussions.

In 2013, California State Assembly Speaker John Perez introduced a statewide initiative to increase financial aid to middle class students. Under the act, students attending UC and CSU schools with family incomes of less than $150,000 per year would see their fees slashed by 60 percent.

Before formally introducing the legislation in the state legislature, Perez brought the proposal to the order to discuss potential improvements.
According to former chancellor Robert Birgeneau, this sort of workshopping has recently become a main focus of the order. More than just mystique, the secrecy has allowed the order to exist as a safe place to find solutions to often controversial issues.

“In some ways, the order has become a space to introduce and vet ideas. From there, policy and solutions may grow and come into effect — be it in the ASUC or in the Graduate Student Assembly,” Birgeneau said.