TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — The fabled Skull and Bones society is the stuff of lore at Yale University. Harvard University has Final Clubs, known as a grooming place for the rich and powerful.
In Tuscaloosa, a group called "The Machine" may not rise to Ivy League heights of prestige or mystique. But it's a powerful force at the University of Alabama, functioning within the shadows of what is billed as the largest community of fraternities and sororities on a U.S. college campus.
Machine members don't acknowledge its existence, and the university doesn't recognize it as an official group. Yet the homecoming queen and student government president generally are elected through bloc voting run by the group, and alumni of Machine-affiliated Greek organizations have gone on to hold offices including governor and U.S. senator.
Knowing of the group since high school, 19-year-old Alex Smith was happy to be elected to the campus Senate as a representative of her Machine-aligned sorority earlier this year. Her excitement turned quickly to uneasiness, and it ended this week in the most unthinkable of ways: She publicly exposed The Machine in a first-person article published by the campus newspaper and she resigned from the group.
Smith, a sophomore honors student from Huntsville, wrote that she no longer could be part of an organization that uses pressure and intimidation to control campus for the benefit of fraternity and sorority members, who comprise about 25 percent of the university's 36,000 students.
"It is a corrupt system. It suppresses people's opinions and they use a scare tactic to keep people on their side," Smith told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday.
The fraternity president who serves as Senate speaker did not return an email seeking comment on Smith's resignation.
University spokeswoman Deborah Lane said administrators investigate all alleged violations of the student conduct code, which bans intimidation and coercion. She cited privacy laws in refusing to say whether any formal complaints had been filed but said school officials can investigate potential problems on their own.
Student government President Elliot Spillers — an independent elected without the support of the Machine — praised Smith for being brave enough to go public.
"She truly spoke truth to power," Spillers said.
Composed of the most prestigious, traditionally white fraternities and sororities on campus, The Machine is said to date back a century or more. Through the years, stories of nefarious Machine actions aimed at opponents have become numerous — a burglary, a cross-burning, vandalism, social blackballing, to name a few.
The student government association was temporarily disbanded two decades ago after a non-Machine presidential candidate claimed she was assaulted in her home, and a former Tuscaloosa school board member is currently suing over claims The Machine improperly swayed a city election by plying students with booze, concert tickets and other perks. But allegations of wrongdoing are generally tough to prove because of the Machine's secrecy.
In her article in The Crimson White, Smith recounted attending a cloak-and-dagger Machine meeting earlier this year in the basement of the Old South fraternity Kappa Alpha — which reveres Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. She also received directions by text messages on how she was supposed to vote on issues before the Machine-controlled Senate.
Smith wrote of being distraught last week as she left a Senate meeting where she said she was denied permission to speak in favor of a resolution that could mandate greater openness by the Machine. Smith said the experience pushed her over the edge.
"I walked out in tears," she said. "I felt like I had purposely been not allowed to speak. I was the only Machine senator who had their hand raised in affirmation of the resolution."
Spillers said Smith's revelations have made a difference.
"People are dialoguing and discussing what had happened," the student body president said.
Smith said she began having misgivings after her election last spring when the student government's Machine-affiliated members refused to approve Spiller's choice for his chief of staff simply because he was independent.
Smith remains a senator, and she said she's received mostly positive feedback since her resignation although some people she considered friends are giving her the cold shoulder. She doesn't know whether her actions will help change the university.
"Even if no one joins me, even if people who once spoke to me turn their backs on me, even if no one whose mind can be changed reads this article, I won't regret writing it," Smith wrote. "Because I'm finally doing the right thing. I'm finally free."
(This version is corrected to show Senate speaker, not secretary, did not return message.)