This past week, some sophomores undergoing the Bicker process reportedly had to swallow live goldfish. Meanwhile, their counterparts were licking whipped cream off of other people's stomachs, serenading members with love songs and undergoing grueling interrogations. They all had one goal in mind: to receive a bid from a selective eating club.
The process that F. Scott Fitzgerald '17 once called an "orgy of sociability" has been thought of as both a fun and an unnecessarily exclusive tradition on campus. It is a time-honored tradition that has been both celebrated and contentious from its beginning.
Though it has evolved over the years — students used to have to wait anxiously in their rooms for an invitation to bicker and they used to be able to bicker at more than one club — Bicker has always had an exclusive nature. Until the late 1960s, all clubs generally used Bicker to select new members.
Selective clubs — which now make up five of the 11 current clubs — have over the years been accused of discriminating on the basis of religious affiliation, race and, until the early 1990s, gender.
Ever since the clubs were first formed in the nineteenth century — the first of which was Ivy Club, which was formed in 1879 when a group of students were banned from the University dining hall for disruptive behavior — the Princeton community has tried to abolish Bicker and replace it with less exclusive alternatives.
Woodrow Wilson, when he served as president of the University, tried to do away with the eating clubs in favor of residential colleges, citing the selective nature of Bicker.
"About one-third are left out in the elections; and their lot is deplorable. They go forward to their graduation almost like men who are in the University but yet not of it," he said in 1906.
Even though he was enormously popular and wielded considerable influence, Wilson failed to do away with the clubs because he could not overcome strong alumni resistance.
Though the 'Street' and Bicker survived Wilson's challenge, they continued to be controversial, particularly after 1941, when the clubs were able to offer bids to all sophomores for the first time — a precedent that raised expectations.
After 1941, the clubs — which were all Bicker clubs — failed to place all sophomores due to an influx of students returning from combat in World War II that swelled the campus population for several years.
After eight consecutive years of unsuccessful Bickers, more than 500 students — representing over 75 percent of the sophomore class — pledged not to join an eating club unless everyone was offered club membership in 1950.
With added pressure from the Inter-Club Council, which oversees the eating clubs, the clubs worked together to offer bids to sophomores who may not have otherwise received them.
Though the clubs were able to offer bids to all sophomores, the prestige of receiving a bid declined, as receiving a bid only from a less prestigious club became almost as bad as not receiving a bid at all. Nonetheless, in 22 of the following 24 years, all sophomores received bids.
However, in 1958, the clubs failed to place all sophomores when the now-defunct Prospect Club opened its doors to all sophomores, throwing into confusion whether admission to Prospect, which was not considered by many to be a "real club," was equivalent to receiving a bid. Of the 23 students who did not receive bids, 13 were Jewish, provoking cries of discrimination and anti-Semitism. This has been known as the year of "Dirty Bicker."
The various charges of elitism, racism, and anti-Semitism inextricably linked to the process of Bicker became a favorite target of student activists in the turbulent 1960s.
Disheartened by the exclusivity of the eating clubs, many students either resigned their club memberships or threatened to do so unless something was done about the process.
With student activism on the rise and more alternatives being offered by the University, the popularity of the eating clubs and Bicker declined during this time. In 1967, 83 sophomores signed a pledge not to bicker, and the following year, only 70 percent of the class registered to Bicker, compared with 90 percent the previous year.
As a result, the clubs encountered financial hard times caused by drops in membership, and several were forced to close. Key and Seal Club, Dial Lodge, and Cannon Club ceased operations as Terrace was taken over by the University for several years in the early 1970s. Cloister Inn even took a five-year hiatus because of financial troubles.
Challenged by University president Robert Goheen, 10 students submitted a proposal to ICC in 1966 to replace Bicker with a sign-in lottery process. They proposed that individuals and groups of sophomores be allowed to list three clubs in order of preference, after which the clubs would assign the students as space allowed.
Steve Oxman '67, a member of the group and Undergraduate Council president at the time, explained, "We are not trying to undermine the club system. We want to do away with the falseness of the Bicker system and yet retain the basic virtues of the club system."
Opponents to the 1966 proposal countered that Bicker offered the necessary free choice allowing students to choose their environments.
ICC stated in its response, "If there were no selective system, there would be no means to facilitate the indulgence of individual tastes and desires."
The proposal to open Bicker split the eating clubs, with some in support and the others in opposition, resulting in today's dichotomy of sign-ins and selective clubs.
Battered, but still alive, Bicker faced charges of sexism when three of the selective clubs, Cottage, Ivy, and Tiger Inn refused to admit women after Princeton went coed in the late 1960s. When Sally Frank '80 filed a complaint in 1979 with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights against the three clubs, she started a 12-year struggle in the courts.
In 1986, Cottage settled with Frank, but Ivy and T.I. did not admit women until 1991, and T.I. only after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear its case.
In the past few years, the Bicker clubs have enjoyed increased popularity. In the last two years, there has been about a 20-percent increase in the number of students who bickered the selective clubs, with approximately 627 students last year as opposed to just over 500 students three years ago.
Though the process of Bicker has been under siege since its inception, it has influenced the culture of the University and character of the campus for better or for worse.
If anything, it allows students to experience new culinary delights — live gold fish, whipped cream and all.
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