The office of English professor Cynthia Richards was broken into the night of April 24. Richards found her door open on the morning of April 25. Two paper clips, common symbols of the secret society the Shifters, were left on her desk, and the papers outside her office expressing her disapproval of secret societies had been removed. Richards’ office door was re-cored and equipped with a door code lock the next week, and the small sign saying “I am not a member of a secret society” has been replaced on her bulletin board.
“That sign is removed routinely from my bulletin board, and I have a set of other signs so that when someone takes it down, I put another one up,” Richards said. “I don’t report it to HR every time because it’s so common that it happens.”
The sign is also present on the bulletin boards of several of Richards’ colleagues in the English department, those who hold similar positions to Richards regarding secret societies.
Among those colleagues is English professor Kate Polak, whose office door was found open a week later, on the morning of May 2, by a student. No paper clips were found in her office, however.
Richards frequently speaks out against secret societies and the effects she believes their exclusivity and secrecy has on other students. This has led to varying forms of harassment from “angry and disparaging comments,” according to Richards, made by students to paper clips being left outside her door.
“I did not realize how unsafe I felt in my office,” Richards said of her new door key, “until I got that on there, and then the difference of how I feel now, that I know when I leave that my office is secure.” She also says that other professors with similar positions about secret societies and were under possible threat are being given the opportunity to have a more secure lock.
The same day that Richards discovered her office door unlocked, she said that she was met by three “middle-aged people” who identified themselves to her as Shifters. The Shifters, at least two of whom also identified themselves as members of Wittenberg’s Alumni Board, stated that they had come to her to express their concern at the situation.
“However, I experienced the meeting as one that made me feel more vulnerable and exposed,” Richards said. According to Richards, this meeting with the Shifters was the first outreach she had received from “an official representative of the University, apart from the police.”
President Michael Frandsen sent an email to the entire campus early April 30, explaining the circumstances of the break-in and challenging the Shifters to “take responsibility for any actions of their group or demonstrate to [Wittenberg] in a way that is credible and trustworthy that its members are not responsible for this incident.” Frandsen declined to comment further when reached out to by The Torch, and the because of the ongoing investigation surrounding Richards’ office, the Wittenberg Police Division could not respond to a request for commenting.
Shortly following Frandsen’s email, the Faculty Executive Board (FEB), released a campus-wide email expressing their concern about the situation and reminding campus of the resolution that was made in April 2018 “discouraging [faculty] membership in secret societies” and requesting that “the Board of Directors and the Administration align campus policies and practices with the Statement on Faculty Participation in Wittenberg-Affiliated Student Groups and Organizations and with the Student Handbook.”
The FEB also advocated for the immediate rekeying of all locks on campus and asked that HR and the Provost Office provide training and education on “legal liabilities and responsibilities under Ohio law that stem from faculty and staff membership in secret societies.”
“Students, faculty, and staff cannot trust in their security if the locks are not replaced,” the email went on to say. The rekeying process began over winter break with the keying of exterior doors of all the campus dorms and, according to Dean of Students Casey Gill, will continue this summer with the rekeying of every door, both in dorms and in academic buildings.
The Staff Advisory Board released a statement expressing their support and agreement with the FEB’s email two days after the FEB’s email was received by campus, stating that “the security and safety of our campus community must remain our highest priority.”
The Shifters, as a group response to the break-in, drafted and printed a letter, included as a Letter to the Editor for The Torch, that was distributed throughout campus, stating their complete condemnation of the incident and emphasizing that they are “founded on, and still believe in, a culture of character development, self-understanding, trust leadership, but most of all a historical and continuing love of Wittenberg.” The letter included in The Torch was signed by 16 students, who have identified themselves as members and representatives of the Shifters.
“The letter was originally drafted by a Shifter faculty [member], then Shifter students and other faculty made edits, added some things, deleted some things, etc.,” said a junior Shifter of the letter, who asked to remain anonymous.
The Shifters also chose to make public their Code of Conduct which has also been published by The Torch and initialed by 49 members of the organization.
A senior Shifter, who also wished to remain anonymous in their response, was disheartened by the incident.
“We pride ourselves on loving Wittenberg,” the senior Shifter said. “It’s hurtful that we love this university so much and we want to give back to it as much as we can, but we feel attacked as well.”
Members of other secret societies are concerned about what this event means for the future of all secret societies on campus.
“I think that what is happening right now is really dangerous for the secret societies at Witt,” a junior Wizard, who also wished to remain anonymous, said. “Whether [the Shifters] were framed or created this problem for themselves because of a group effort, or even a member of the group [that] went rogue, who’s to say this won’t cause investigation into all societies?”
The Shifters’ letter also mentioned the involvement of faculty and staff in their society as an aspect that “enriches [their] organization,” and the universal outrage and hurt that the faculty and alumni felt at the break-in.
“We make it very clear from the get-go that we do not receive special treatment,” the senior Shifter said. “Every Shifter has signed a Code of Conduct stating that we don’t stand for treating people this way… we do not accept nor receive specific treatment from any faculty member that’s involved. And I understand the hesitation of the faculty involvement, but it’s a little misunderstood.”
But others are against faculty involvement in the secret societies: “It creates environments of favoritism, and it’s toxic for staff to include their personal lives further than need be into their professional lives,” the junior Wizard said.
“[Faculty involvement] is deeply unethical and it goes directly against Wittenberg’s values of integrity, compassion and wholeness of person,” said Maddie Van Hook, ‘20, a student who does not identify with a secret society and chose not to remain anonymous. Jayson Nowak, ‘20, who is also not in a secret society and also chose not to remain anonymous, agreed with her.
“It’s not that I think someone will get a bad grade because they say something, or that they won’t be favored in class; it’s the fact that students are afraid of those things,” Nowak said. “They don’t have to happen for people to be afraid of them, and so just the idea of faculty being a part of these groups is inherently harmful to the student body.
Nowak sees the example of break-in as a reflection of “the inability of the university to reprimand the group since the group doesn’t exist formally on campus. Even though it’s obvious from the signs that it was a secret society, unless we know who individually did it we can’t do anything about it as it stands now.”
“Knowing that there’s no need for them to be made public, even after what’s occurred, says to me that they can pretty much get away with whatever,” Nowak continued. “This isn’t a normal thing to happen on campus; it’s irregularly upsetting. Yet nothing more is happening than meetings with anonymous people who are publicizing apologies. How do we really know that anything is being done?”
“It’s almost like this has been an avenue for all of the previous issues that have been just pushed under the rug to now come out,” the senior Shifter said. “It’s just unfortunate that it had to be something like this to make that happen.”
Gill has had preliminary conversations with individuals who identify with the Shifters about turning the Shifters into an active organization on campus. She is unsure whether those individuals are representatives of the society as a whole, and whether this is a process the Shifters will take.
“I imagine there would be more conversations over the summer,” Gill said of the possible organization. In order to become an active organization on campus, the Shifters would need to draft a constitution and a nondiscrimination statement, and would need to make their membership selection process more transparent.
Gill hopes the break-in and the surrounding events will offer “opportunities for more constructive dialogue about secret societies and the systemic impact and issues they bring to [Wittenberg’s] campus.”
“I’m glad that the administration is at the very least acknowledging the problem and is taking preliminary steps to do something,” Nowak said.
The 2018-2019 Faculty Handbook discourages “faculty memberships in Wittenberg-affiliated student groups” that “are not officially registered student organizations at Wittenberg” or “do not make transparent the membership criteria” but does not outright forbid faculty participation in Wittenberg affiliated or non-affiliated groups – like secret societies.
Because it’s more difficult to enforce this same principle among students, and the risk of a jeopardized student-faculty relationship is not present, these same rules are not currently applied to the student body.
On April 30, there was a faculty meeting in which, according to Reference Librarian Ken Irwin, a motion was approved by faculty “to express the sense of the faculty that membership in campus secret societies must stop by faculty, staff, and anyone in power on this campus, up to and including the board of directors.”
“What happened to me has been tough,” Richards, who remains increasingly concerned about the level of fear that students feel towards secret societies, said. “However, this story is not about me. It is about our students, and the type of community that we want to be… what happened to me is wrong, but if students even just fear this happening to them, that is so much worse than what happened to me. That is the bigger story. There have been quite a few students who have reported that they fear this.”
Others agree that this incident is an extreme situation that should lead to changes being made to the policies about secret societies on campus.
Justin Unternaher, ‘19, composed a Letter to the Editor for The Torch that “provided a paraphrase” of a letter he had drafted to members of Wittenberg’s faculty, staff and administration. In the letter, Unternaher implored the recipients of the letter to consider the lack of safety that students feel because of the secrecy of secret societies, specifically Shifters. The letter also asked its recipients to consider what value there was in “faculty, staff and administrators belonging to the Shifters”, a question that was endorsed by students who were non-affiliated with secret societies.
The Wittenberg administration will be continuing their investigation into who has broken into Richards’ office, as well as continuing to have conversations about what the future of secret societies on campus looks like.
The Torch will continue to report on necessary developments to this story in the fall semester.