Theta Nu Epsilon’s history at MU

Oldest secret society on campus has connections to the Southeastern Conference.

While MU’s six secret societies honor their newest members in the annual Tap Day ceremony Friday, a seventh society, the oldest on campus, will not. For the 118 years that it has been at MU, it never has.

Theta Nu Epsilon is a secret society spawned from the Skull and Bones. Skull and Bones was established at Yale in 1832 to connect elite students and encourage service and leadership, according to an article in a special “Secret Societies” issue of The Media Source. According to the article, three U.S. presidents, including George W. Bush, are rumored members of Skull and Bones.

Luther Defoe, an MU graduate and previous professor at the university, started MU’s Theta Nu Epsilon chapter in 1895. Defoe is commonly credited for establishing the class society system at MU. Class societies base membership on academic year as opposed to other organizations, which are open to all grade levels.

The last year for which there is any record of Theta Nu Epsilon’s existence on MU’s campus was 2007.

Unlike the six other secret societies recognized on campus, Theta Nu Epsilon is a sophomore society, meaning only sophomores are considered active members. The identities of active members are protected through coding and the society has never participated in Tap Day.

The Tap Day ceremony is conducted in chronological order. Theoretically, as the oldest secret society at MU, Theta Nu Epsilon would begin the ceremony. However, QEBH, which was established three years after Theta Nu Epsilon, starts this MU tradition. Mystical Seven, LSV, Mortar Board Society, Omicron Delta Kappa and Rollins Society follow, founded in 1907, 1908, 1915, 1933 and 1994, respectively.

“Taps,” or the initiates of these societies, are usually juniors, with the exception of some Omicron Delta Kappa members, honorary faculty members and Rollins Society, which recognizes graduate students.

The first chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon was founded at Wesleyan University in December 1870. During the early 1900s, the society experienced growth around the country, according to the national organization’s website.

The Savitar, MU’s yearbook published from 1891 to 2005, lists Theta Nu Epsilon as a fraternity beginning in 1895. Lists of members were published until 1919 with some or all names coded. “(=9m O R X)” appeared in the 1896 Savitar to replace the name of a sophomore member. Chapters from other universities and colleges were sometimes published in the yearbook as well.

In the 1914 Savitar, Theta Nu Epsilon is listed as an “inter-fraternity.” The national organization addressed this issue on its website as a wide-scale problem from 1912 to 1916. An inter-fraternity acts to coordinate efforts of independent Greek organizations to accomplish a goal. The national organization denounces this practice on its website, saying it defeats the purpose of Theta Nu Epsilon, though some schools are still rumored to have their chapters function as a political arm.

Beginning in 1923, The Savitar stopped publishing information about Theta Nu Epsilon, but fraternities expressed their desire for brothers to join the society in annual reports published in The Savitar. In addition to these reports, The Savitar also used to publish fraternity meeting minutes.

In 1928, Theta Nu Epsilon, represented as ΘΝΕ with Greek lettering, appears in a list of “leading and questionable sub rosa fraternities” due to “general disreputability.” No specific information was found about the early activity of Theta Nu Epsilon, but this may refer to its role as an inter-fraternity. Some of the other organizations include Kappa Beta Phi, Seven Equals and the Ku Klux Klan.

The last appearance of Theta Nu Epsilon in The Savitar was a group picture from 1933, in which all members wore masks. No names were included. Activity was suspended in 1933, according to the MU chapter’s website.


One of the most powerful chapters of Theta Nu Epsilon can be found at the University of Alabama. There, the society is more commonly known as the Machine and is an invisible but effective political force.

Esquire published an article in April 1992 about the Machine’s activity. According to the article, the Machine “acts as the political arm of twenty-seven leading fraternities and sororities at the school.” The Machine has controlled elections for Student Government Association and Homecoming Court, among others, by busing Greek voters to the polls and punishing people who do not vote.

When it was established in 1902, the Machine “was to be a suprafraternity,” according to the Esquire article. This label is similar to the one the 1914 Savitar gave MU’s chapter. “The boys who started the fraternity nationally thought it unseemly that fraternity men would fight openly for campus leadership positions … the men of ΘΝΕ would quietly seek out future leaders when they were sophomores and then sort out campus honors among them.”

Eventually sorority women were included, but not until 1976. According to the article, “Honorary organizations like Mortar Board also seem to be under Machine sway.” MU also has a Mortar Board Society that participates in Tap Day.

In 1993, the University of Alabama administration abolished the Student Government Association for three years after a presidential candidate was assaulted by representatives of Theta Nu Epsilon. The candidate had decided to run against the wishes of the Machine.

Theta Nu Epsilon’s national website states that the society as whole, “is not involved in any kind of political or social agenda.”

On Theta Nu Epsilon’s national website every university in the Southeastern Conference except for Texas A&M University was listed as having a chapter. The University of Alabama is the only school besides MU listed as having a current chapter. This website has not been updated since 2009 and the last records of ΘΝΕ at MU are from 2007. Theta Nu Epsilon collapsed at many of the other schools between the 1920s to 1930s.

According to the national website, some chapters were illegitimate, meaning they were not founded or legitimized by the national organization. These include the chapters at the University of Florida, South Carolina University, the University of Kentucky, Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University and Vanderbilt University.

The national organization of Theta Nu Epsilon underwent a few major changes in its leadership, traditions, the Constitution and the nature of the organization, according to its website. Conferences were reportedly held in upstate New York.


MU’s chapter resumed in 2003, according to Theta Nu Epsilon’s website. From 2004 until 2007 there are reports of new initiates in the fall and spring semesters. Anywhere from five to 11 members per semester have been inducted, according to the website. Fall initiation occurs in November and spring initiation is in April, though there are discrepancies and inconsistencies concerning these dates on the website.

Rather than participating in Tap Day, Theta Nu Epsilon marks initiation through banquets, according to the national website. ΘΝΕ has never participated in Tap Day ceremonies.

The founder of MU’s Theta Nu Epsilon chapter might have also played a role in the creation of QEBH, a senior class society and the oldest recognized secret society on campus. Dr. Royall Hill Switzler founded the organization in 1898, three years after the establishment of Theta Nu Epsilon.

Defoe reportedly held an advisory position for QEBH, according to the chapter website of Theta Nu Epsilon at MU. From 1900-1902, six students were listed in The Savitar as having membership in both Theta Nu Epsilon and QEBH. Today, prominent inductees of QEBH include Chancellor Brady Deaton and Vice Chancellor Cathy Scroggs.

The most recent connection between the two societies was in 2007. MU’s ΘΝΕ website listed MU graduate Dustin Barker as the president of the society that year. Barker was inducted into QEBH in 2007. In a phone interview, he acknowledged the website but said he has not had contact with Theta Nu Epsilon recently. Barker described the organization as having an on-and-off presence on campus.

Current QEBH members were not familiar with Theta Nu Epsilon or the connection between the two organizations’ histories.

Every year, QEBH inducts one sophomore to become president as a senior. Junior Rachel Newman was inducted last year and said she was shocked after learning she would be recognized.

“The common bond between all the societies here is that members seek to preserve the best interest for the university and promote all the university has given them,” Newman said.

Scroggs said these honor societies are meaningful at the university and provide students a chance to alert employers of their success, as they would with an honors diploma or other achievements.

There are similar honors societies on campus such as Mizzou 39, but membership is public. According to the Mizzou Alumni Association website, seniors are “chosen for their academic achievement, leadership and service to Mizzou and the community.”

Scroggs said QEBH recognizes its inductees based on their service, involvement, leadership and academic success on campus. The difference between public and private societies is the time of recognition, she said. Mizzou 39 is a senior award while most of the Tap Day organizations recognize juniors.

“Students take pride in being recognized by other students,” Scroggs said. “The fact that it’s secret makes it that more special.”

QEBH members were hesitant to speak on the record due to the secrecy surrounding their organization.

Despite this, members are publicly recognized on Tap Day and some have even listed QEBH on their LinkedIn profiles. Some members of Mortar Board Society, Mystical Seven and Omicron Delta Kappa have also posted their membership on LinkedIn.

While MU shows no evidence of having a political machine like Alabama, there is a documented concentration of campus-wide power in secret societies.

Of the 61 undergraduates tapped last year, 43 percent belong to a fraternity or sorority. Twenty-six percent of those undergraduates were also awarded Mizzou 39 membership this year. Other popular organizations were Homecoming Steering Committee or Homecoming Court, the Missouri Students Association, Summer Welcome and honor fraternities.

These percentages were based on available data obtained from LinkedIn profiles or other news articles. Names of the 2012 taps were found on Rollins Society was excluded as members are graduate students.

Contrary to the data, students from QEBH said one reason they enjoyed the organization was the chance to meet people they were unlikely to meet before.

“Members of all societies have a wide range of leadership and service,” MSA President Nick Droege said in an email. “Each person has contributed in their own unique way to Mizzou.”

Droege declined to comment on the class society system and Theta Nu Epsilon.

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