Druids dominate student government: Members of secret society continue to deny involvement

By Thomas Visco / Staff Writer

[Editor’s note: This article as been corrected.]

Editor’s note: Last week, Student Government Board Elections Committee Chairman Aaron Gish filed an infraction complaint against SGB President Gordon Louderback that mentioned Board members affiliated with a student group known as the Druids. Because the Druids are a secret society, little is known on campus about the organization or its members.

This is the second of a two-part series by The Pitt News looking into who the Druids are and what they do at Pitt. Part Two examines the increased political activity of the Druids in recent years and the complications that have resulted.

Click here to read Part One of the series.

When Gordon Louderback ran for the presidency of Student Government Board in November — a race he won by a comfortable margin — he said that “any student really does have the ability to change Pitt’s campus.”

“To me, that’s something that I want to make available to every student. Because, as of now, [SGB] is really closed in and sort of a closed family,” the future president said in an interview shortly before the election. “To have the ability for all students to benefit from it — which we’re meant to do, we represent the student body — is really important to me.”

But this year, six of the nine students elected to the Board, which is responsible for allocating the more than $2.3 million of the Student Activities Fund, shared membership in the same student group before winning their seats — although that information wasn’t listed in their campaign biographies.

Louderback and Board members Thomas Jabro, C.J. Bonge, Sarah Winston, John Cordier and Sowmya Sanapala are all members of the Druids, a society of active students on campus whose members have kept their identities a secret since the mid-1990s. Of these six, all but Sanapala ran on the Fifth and Forbes megaslate headed by Louderback.

The Druids have often done good deeds around campus in the past and — albeit robed in black hoods — have engaged in anonymous acts of kindness throughout their long history.

The small group itself also comprises a varied spectrum of involved students from across campus. Among the Druids on SGB, Cordier is a Pitt soccer player, Jabro is a Pitt Pathfinder, Winston is a member of Hillel, Sanapala served as a former president of the Indian Sub-Continent Association and Louderback is deeply involved with PALS, the Pitt Association for Leadership and Success.

But although the group has included student government leaders since its earliest years, the exclusive society’s increasing overlap with members of SGB has been viewed by some — including former members of the secret group — as detrimental to the transparency and diversity of the student body.

Rosie McKinley, former president of the Pitt Pathfinders and also a former Druid, echoed the sentiments of two other society initiates when she stated after the November 2012 SGB election that she was worried about the group’s political ambitions.

“I think there’s real value in students getting involved on campus,” McKinley said. “The Druids have instead used [their group] as a way to form a secret clique, which has helped, I think, significantly in the last two elections to impact the way the election turns out.”

The Druids get political

The Order of the Druids is one of Pitt’s oldest student organizations. However, the society isn’t officially recognized through the Student Organization Resource Center. Created in the 1920s as a sophomore honors fraternity, the now-secret society is historically known for recognizing students’ achievements on campus.

But according to several former Druids, the group has recently undergone some drastic changes, lessening its focus on encouraging other student leaders and becoming more intent on electing its own to Pitt’s student government while remaining shrouded in anonymity.

McKinley, who left the group in the fall of 2012 because of disagreements with other members, believes the Druids are exerting undue influence on SGB politics. She recalled the experience of her first meeting as a member of the society in October 2011 after having been “tapped” — or initiated — into the group about two months prior to the SGB election that year.

“The first meeting after my initiation was all about getting James Landreneau elected president,” she said.

Landreneau, who was elected the 2012 SGB president that November, confirms McKinley’s memory, but said he remembers disagreeing with the group’s political agenda. Landreneau also left the Druids in fall 2012 after a disagreement with members over the group’s mission.

“That probably is right. This is right around the same time I began to lead meetings,” Landreneau said, referring to his official role as grand executioner, or discussion leader, of the society.

“Someone made that comment [about getting Landreneau elected], and I said, ‘I really appreciate you saying we should support [me], but that’s not what we’re here for.’”

According to multiple sources, Pitt Drum Major Paul Bowers has since taken over the role as grand executioner of the group.

The Druids have typically always included one or two SGB members over the years.

Thomas Bailey, a Druid in the early ’70s, was president of an earlier iteration of the current SGB. Kevin Washo, SGB president from 2002 to 2003, was also known to be a member of the secret society.

According to Dave Gau, a former undergraduate student at Pitt and a current doctoral student in engineering, Charlie Shull, the Interfraternity Council president and SGB president in 2010, was a Druid. Gau himself was a Druid when he served on the Board alongside Shull. Both were tapped in 2008.

Molly Stieber, the SGB president following Shull in 2011, was not a member of the Druids. But at least three of Stieber’s other board members — Ryan Gayman, Emily Hoover and James Landreneau — were.

Landreneau’s Board consisted of Druids, as well — Louderback and Alex Murdoch, according to McKinley.

McKinley said the Druids played an active role in Landreneau’s presidential victory and in getting Murdoch and Louderback onto the Board, but she thinks the group’s political ambitions have grown exponentially since then.

Gau, who followed the 2012 SGB election and helped run the campaign of Louderback’s opponent, Natalie Rothenberger, said he also noticed the political trend developing.

“When Charlie Shull was running, we didn’t say, ‘Alright, we need to make sure Charlie wins, tell your friends,’” Gau said.

Landreneau, who said he wanted to run for SGB prior to even being tapped into the Druids, admitted he still took advantage of the secret backing of the Druids during his 2011 campaign.

Although the society is a relatively small student group composed of only about 20 students, the Druids’ membership touches all corners of campus and creates a broad base for networking — but without most students knowing when they come into contact with a member of the society.

“It’s impacting the election without people on the outside knowing what’s going on,” McKinley said. “It just seems undemocratic. If we’re operating in what claims to be a democratic process, electing SGB leaders, then it should be naturally transparent.”

The 2012 SGB election

The Druids continued actively supporting a presidential candidate in the most recent SGB election.

In November 2012, Louderback defeated Rothenberger. His megaslate, Forbes and Fifth — the group of candidates with whom he ran for Board — swept the election, with all of its six members winning seats on the nine-member Board.

Only two members of Rothenberger’s Steel and Stone megaslate, Mike Nites and current Druid Sowmya Sanapala, were elected to the Board. Dave Rosenthal, who ran on the three-person Pitt United slate, also won a seat.

McKinley said the Druids’ role in the 2012 election was different than in previous years.

The Druids effectively ran the Forbes and Fifth megaslate, on which five of the six candidates were members in the secret society. Kate Malekoff, a member of the Druids since 2011, was campaign manager, serving as the chief organizer and contact for campaign volunteers and official business.

Similar to McKinley’s 2011 election-season experience, an anonymous Druid present at an October 2012 group meeting felt that the conversation was dominated by Bowers’ and Malekoff’s discussion of how to get Druids elected to the Student Government Board.

“They were just talking about getting elected to SGB and drawing ‘D’s around campus,” the source, who requested anonymity to avoid group ridicule for coming forward, said. “They talked about [other activities] for like, one minute.”

McKinley’s assessment of the Druids’ “secret clique” impacting the elections revolves around the reality of SGB elections, which are widely viewed as contests based on social networks, rather than issues. As SGB candidates campaign, they use a combination of paper campaigning, campaign speeches to garner endorsements from student groups and election-day fanfare to increase turnout at the polls.

Endorsements are generally the most important aspect of campaigning for candidates. Access to a large student group’s email contacts, known colloquially as a distribution list or “D-list,” gives campaigns a large podium from which to distribute their messages via email on voting day.

According to Gau, candidates win by mobilizing networks, and “the Druids are probably the easiest to organize.”

“It will always be a popularity contest,” he said.

Gau graduated in 2011, effectively ending his tenure as a Druid, although he hasn’t strayed far from student government politics at Pitt. He currently serves as president of Pitt’s Graduate and Professional Student Government, and he helped Rothenberger with her campaign as an unofficial campaign manager.

“She’s my friend, [she] asked for help. How could I say no?” he said via text. “I helped Natalie before the drama began. I think me helping Natalie aggravated the Druid drama. I was disappointed that they made anyone associated with me after that point a villain, such as what happened to James.”

Landreneau agreed that being seen as supporting Rothenberger was problematic when interacting with the Druids.

“A lot of people in the group did not like Natalie,” he said. He explained that many members in the society became hostile to him because of his relationship with Rothenberger, despite the fact that, because of his role as SGB president at the time, he did not support either campaign during the election. Landreneau was also close friends with Louderback at the time.

McKinley describes the Druids as “an inorganic connection” between student leaders. Both Gau and McKinley argue that the group’s presumed secrecy is an advantage in SGB politics. Access to the secret network is closed to anyone not tapped into the organization, and, according to McKinley, decisions about membership have recently been made with politics in mind.

Landreneau thinks Forbes and Fifth may have used the prestige of the group to their advantage.

Landreneau said Louderback may have organized his megaslate, Forbes and Fifth, based on who may be in the Druids in the future, with the possible intention of forging both political and fraternal alliances.

“Some people felt that he, with respect to Gordon, had chosen people [for his slate] that he knew would get into the group,” Landreneau said.

While the incidence of a few Druids on the Board seems to have been common, Gau maintains that no one was ever tapped into the organization for political purposes during his time.

“Normally, we never tapped while they were running,” Gau said.

But Landreneau argues that Louderback and Malekoff, prominent members of the Druids and of the Forbes and Fifth campaign, used their unrevealed network in the campaign.

Landreneau said he believed the two were “using their connections to downplay Steel and Stone and whoever they were against.”

But the source of animosity between the two megaslates, Forbes and Fifth and Steel and Stone, as well as the growing discontent within the Druids, leads back to an interpersonal conflict between members of the secret society and Rothenberger.

Leaving the Druids

While the student government politics started to heat up, so did the politics within the Druids.

McKinley left the Druids after a disagreement with current members over the SGB election. It began during the summer as then-Board members Rothenberger and Louderback began positioning themselves for a presidential campaign.

McKinley said that, in late September, Megan Elliot, programming chairwoman of the OCC Honorary Society and a member of the Druids, nominated Rothenberger to be tapped into the group. According to McKinley, Malekoff and Louderback objected.

“I asked flat out — why not?” Mckinley recalled.

McKinley said Malekoff objected because it “would threaten the brotherhood of the group.”

Louderback agreed with Malekoff, according to McKinley. When McKinley asked Louderback at the time if his objection to Rothenberger was because they were SGB opponents, Louderback said yes, also according to McKinley.

The Pitt News attempted to contact Louderback multiple times regarding McKinley’s comments, but the SGB president declined to answer any questions. In a text message to a reporter, he said, “There’s no way I have anything to say about that completely fiction[al] story. It shows how reliable your sources are.”

Malekoff also declined to comment on the story after multiple attempts at setting up interviews, and she said in a text message to a reporter that she didn’t “wish to have any relationship with The Pitt News.”

Elliot also didn’t respond to attempts to contact her.

McKinley said she left the group when Louderback supporters used the secrecy of the Druids as a political advantage.

“I thought [Natalie] and Gordon were equal candidates, but I didn’t like that Gordon had an unfair advantage because he was in the Druids, because it gave him access to all sorts of people,” she said, referring to the networks the Druids members tapped into to garner votes.

Landreneau left the group in late October 2012 because he was dissatisfied with the environment.

“You had to hand-pick who your friends were and not leave that bubble,” Landreneau said, indicating that the atmosphere represented a shift from when he first joined.

At one point, he said, he felt like he couldn’t escape the Druids being intertwined with many aspects of his life at Pitt. Landreneau compared the group atmosphere to a fraternity, but said that the group’s purpose shouldn’t be friendship.

“It’s not a fraternity. It’s not meant to be like that. A level of friendship fine, but it’s not a hidden sect.”

Instead, Landreneau thinks the group’s purpose should be two-fold.

First, he argued, the main purpose was intended to be to “recognize individuals or groups on campus who are doing great things.” Second, Landreneau said, the network of the Druids can be a powerful tool to improve campus and inspire students via leadership.

McKinley, who didn’t have any SGB experience prior to joining the Druids, but eventually applied and was selected to work on the 2012 Allocations Committee, said she initially stayed in the Druids after the surprisingly political experience of her first society meeting, hoping that the group would develop into something else.

Unfortunately, Landreneau said, the Druids seem to have lost track of the goals of the organization.

“I just think you have to be conscious of why you’re part of this group,” Landreneau said. “It’s not to gain ownership of a certain club — i.e., SGB.”

Screen Shot 2013-04-11 at 1.10.08 AM

The Druids on campus

Following the SGB election, The Pitt News obtained a list of the current Druids, many of whom play or have played some sort of role in student government.

The list has been cross-referenced with multiple sources, including Gau and McKinley. But because the Druids are a secret society, The Pitt News has no way of knowing if this list contains the names of every current Druid.

In addition to the six members on the Student Government Board, Druids Shivani Patel and Mimi Frisch serve as members of the SGB Allocations Committee. Other members of the society include Nick Stamatakis, the assistant opinions editor for The Pitt News, and Grand Executioner Bowers, the Pitt Band drum major.

The Pitt News contacted each of the 18 individuals on the list. Most did not return reporters’ calls or emails, and those who did either declined to comment or denied being part of the group.

When asked if she wanted to comment on her involvement with the Druids, Board member Sarah Winston responded, “No, not really.”

Former Allocations Committee member Zach Harr said via text, “I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t be able to offer you any knowledge on the subject,” when asked about the evolution of the Druids.

Stamatakis declined to comment on his affiliation with the group, and Murdoch denied being involved with the society.

Mike Osterrieder, a member of the Pitt band, said, “I’m not sure where you got this information from, but I’m not a Druid, nor do I know much of anything about them.”

An untransparent future

As the semester winds down, SGB only has one public meeting left in this academic year to address the student body.

This Tuesday, the Board took the opportunity to discuss some of their achievements, including Louderback securing the installation of wireless Internet in the dorms this summer and Sanapala establishing a partnership with the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force to provide prophylactics to student groups through Student Health Services.

As one of the more active Boards in recent memory up until this point in their terms, it’s clear the Druid majority on the 2013 Board hasn’t inhibited the group’s productivity. Both Druid members and non-Druids alike on the Board have taken significant positive steps toward improving student well-being and campus life at Pitt.

The problem most critics of the Druid presence on SGB see, however, is not in their activities on the Board, but the fact that student voters didn’t know they had elected a group of officials who were secretly aligned through an exclusive society.

“It creates this inorganic connection between people who would otherwise not be connected,” McKinley said. “It isn’t transparent in any way.”

The issue was finally brought to light on March 31, when SGB Elections Committee Aaron Gish filed an infraction against Louderback regarding what Gish claimed to be Louderback infringing on the Election Committee’s autonomy. Gish’s infraction complaint indicated that Louderback had accused the committee chair of bias after Gish — who was in the process of revising the SGB Elections Code at the time — had made comments about the Druids’ presence in SGB.

The complaint resulted in a hearing, and the SGB Judicial Committee found Louderback guilty of exerting undue influence on the Elections Committee on April 4.

Louderback said at Tuesday’s SGB meeting that he hopes to continue to work with Gish to have a successful year of SGB activities. Following the filing of the infraction, he still refused to comment on the mention of his affiliation with the Druids.

Landreneau, despite his leaving the group, said he believes the Druids have done great things on campus and that they still have the potential to do so. But, he said, there is a fine line between being a Druid and being involved in SGB.

“The line between SGB and the Druids should be so thick that it’s almost inescapable, like you can’t hop over it,” Landreneau said. “If someone in the group wants to run for Board, that’s great. But it should also not be incentive … to run for Board.”

Landreneau said he doesn’t think the line is that thick for all current Board members.

“No one should be picked [to run for Board] just because they’re your best friend. I think you can look at last fall and pinpoint which individuals were purposefully doing that,” Landreneau said.

“There’s a reason why five or six of those people are on Board.”

Pitt News reporters Mahita Gajanan, Matt Singer, Natalie Daher and Elizabeth Furiga contributed to this report.

[Correction: This article originally identified Dave Gau as the president of Pitt’s Graduate and Professional Student Government. Gau is the president-elect until May 1; the current president is David Givens.]