Inside the Signet Society, 1992

"Inside the Signet Society", by Anna D. Wilde, The Harvard Crimson, March 18, 1992


Though the house system was originally created to bring faculty members and students together in a nonacademic setting, for most students, the ideal of sitting down for lunch with a senior professor is far from a reality.

In fact, says Director of Expository Writing Richard Marius, for many faculty members, venturing into a house for lunch is "frankly, terrifying."

"It's so forbidding not to see anybody you know," he says. "You feel like, `My God, is there anyone I can sit down with?"'

One place that faculty-student contact takes place with more ease, Marius says, is the Signet Society, an officially-recognized College organization that brings undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members and administrators together at daily lunches and at other events.

Members echo Marius' description of the club as an open, friendly forum for discussion on intellectual and artistic topics.

"At the Signet there is inter-generational discourse on a small level," says Matthew Lee '92, the club's vice president. "You find a more interesting side to the lecturer when you sit down to eat with him."

Gurney Professor of History and Political Science Adam B. Ulam, an associate member, concurs. "It's one of the few places where conversations [between students and faculty] are not forced and are not connected with courses," he says.

The Signet Society was created in 1871 by a group of dissidents who decided to boycott the Hasty Pudding Club and the rival sophomore society, Pi Eta. Initially, the club's charter contained a "Pudding clause" prohibiting its members from belonging to the Hasty Pudding.

The Signet today includes approximately 50 undergraduate members, 250 active associates and 2500 alumni and inactive associates. The club is governed by four undergraduate officers and a trustee organization called the Associate Board.

The trustees' job is "to make sure we have a building and we pay the bills," says Rodney G. Dennis, the board's president. "We are the people the undergraduate members go to if there's something they don't like."

The Signet's stated purpose is "to stimulate and promote greater interest and proficiency in letters, the arts and scholarship." Members are supposed to be selected on the basis of their contributions to the arts and to scholarship.

`Not Elitist'

Most people join the club by being invited to lunch by a member and then "put up" by that member. Lately, however, that procedure has begun to change, says Signet President Sarah B. Fels '92.

Fels says that some new members simply called to ask about the club and were invited to lunch by officers.

"The fact that they came to the Signet on their own initially did not work against them at all," Fels says.

Signet officers say that the club's election decisions are merit-based.

"Students are chosen essentially on the basis of their activities in arts and letters at Harvard," says Fels.

"People need to warrant election," says John H. Finley IV '92, the club's secretary. "They must have achieved something."

However, some member say that social contacts are an important part of the selection process.

Signet member Raiko Mancini '92 says that much like advancement in the real world, election to the club rests on "a combination of two things: social connections and the richness of the cultural layers of the person."

Undergraduates, associates and members of the governing Associate Board all stress the more democratic nature of the Signet as compared to the final clubs, which do not admit women and since 1984 have not been recognized by the University.

"If you accept the basis for membership, which is not social or based on class, it's not elitist in the sense of the finals clubs," says Dean of Students Archie C. Epps, an associate member.

Marius says, "the Signet was [created] for poor kids. The final clubs were for wealthy kids."

On occasion, however, says the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Plummer professor of Christian morals, the Society's membership has not reflected the diversity of Harvard's student body.

In those cases, says Gomes, who was president of the Associate Board from 1981 to 1991, the Board's officers "have suggested that students ought to look at other constituencies" for potential members.

Dues for undergraduates range from $10 to $50 per month, and are adjusted according to the amount of financial aid the student receives from Harvard. In addition, members pay a one-time initiation fee of $125.

Suzanne Madden, the club's steward, says that only about 10 percent of undergraduate members pay less than $50 per month in dues. Dues cover eight lunches at the club per month. Additional meals cost more.

The Society relies partly on student dues and on annual appeals to alumni for funds. It also receives revenue from renting the top floor of its building to a design firm.

The organization's financial position is "secure," according to officers of the trustee board, thanks to a five-year fundraising drive initiated by Gomes.

"Every generation has an obligation to renew the investment of the previous generation," says Gomes. "It fell to my watch to take over at a time when there were serious needs." Gomes' fund-raising paid for a recent renovation and redecoration of the club's building.

Nancy Sinsabaugh '76, treasurer of the Associate Board, says the organization is "well-endowed" but refused to disclose the size of the endowment.

"I'd call it comfortable," said Dennis.

Teatime and Teddybears

Like most long-lived Harvard institutions, the Signet Society has a extensive set of traditions and rituals passed down through the years.

Perhaps the most constant of these traditions is the weekly Friday afternoon tea hosted by student members. The host receives $40 from the club and is free to spend as much as he or she wants on the tea.

One such event this year cost over $100, Madden says, but students say there is no pressure to spend over the allotted amount.

Many of the teas have themes: one this year was based on the works of British author Evelyn Waugh and featured a teddy bear named Aloysius and strawberries and champagne, details taken from Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.

Other theme teas have centered on childhood--serving chocolate chip cookie dough and ladyfingers--and comfort food.

One of the club's most intricate rituals is its election procedure. The person being elected must give a display of his or her most notable accomplishment, whether it is playing a musical instrument, reciting poetry or showing a sculpture.

New members receive roses, which they are supposed to press between the pages of a book and to return to the Signet when their first works are recognized or published.

The Society still displays the roses of luminaries such as T.S. Eliot '09, who was a club member during his time at Harvard.

Initiation ceremonies conclude with the passing of a large silver bowl known as "the loving cup" from person to person, with each taking a sip.

The Signet also enjoys a longstanding relationship with Yale University's Elizabethan Society. The two groups host parties for one another following the Harvard-Yale football game and compete in a croquet match each year.

The club holds three annual events, a Christmas party, banquet and "Strawberry Night," a spring party hosted by the undergraduates.

An annual spring banquet, put on by the Associate Board, is the year's biggest event. Celebrity alumni like Walburg Professor of Economics Emeritus John Kenneth Galbraith can usually be relied on to appear, and the evening always features a distinguished guest who is awarded the Signet's medal of achievement.

World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma '76 received the medal last year and became an honorary associate.

President Neil L. Rudenstine, also an associate member, will speak this spring, as will Porter University Professor Helen H. Vendler, who will introduce the poet chosen to recite this year's verses.

Filling in Gaps

In many ways, some members say, the Signet fills in the gaps that intellectual life in the houses today leaves--but only for its members.

The club was once "a supplement to 12 flourishing intellectual centers," says Gomes, adding, "That's not entirely the case" at present.

But though not all students can have access to the resources of the Signet, the club's members say that it makes a valuable contribution to the community as a whole in a number of ways.

"It enhances and increases the quality and interest of artistic life," says Mancini.

"I don't think in a real sense one can measure the value on a per capita or aggregate basis," says Gomes, "but it is a significant component in the diversity of undergraduate life."