Behind victory, a break from the past
When all 10 eating clubs agreed in recent weeks to partnerships with the University, they confounded perceptions built up over more than a century of acrimony between Prospect Avenue and Nassau Hall.
Though the individual agreements are largely being kept private, the University has pledged to make club membership more financially accessible — providing students on financial aid with $2,000 more in annual grants — and each club has agreed to allow some members to share their meals with a four-year college.
Nassau Hall and the clubs are both claiming victory, celebrating the potential for increased diversity in club membership and the opportunity for a few dozen students to divide their meals between the clubs and the colleges. The declarations of success, however, belie serious compromises on both sides.
University administrators and club leaders have respectively backed away from their historically entrenched positions, acknowledging first, that the clubs and the residential colleges are here to stay and second, that Nassau Hall and Prospect Avenue must work together for the benefit of undergraduate social life and dining.
Nassau Hall has long stood in opposition to the selectivity of the bicker clubs and the fact that not every student is guaranteed membership. In the earliest years of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson 1879 called the clubs "a little less than deplorable" for excluding a third of all upperclassmen.
This summer, President Tilghman continued that line of thinking, telling The Wall Street Journal that the five remaining bicker clubs "don't for me represent the spirit of Princeton ... They tend to select more homogeneously than I would like."
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, then-provost Neil Rudenstine '56 refused to work with the bicker clubs on the Committee on Undergraduate Residential Life (CURL) project to integrate the clubs into the University, making a sort of moral judgment that Bicker was in fundamental opposition to the values that Nassau Hall was trying to promote.
"[T]he eventual success of a unified social system for juniors and seniors," a CURL report from the spring of 1980 noted, "would depend heavily on its ability to alter the rather separate social and dining patterns that currently prevail."
"For 'alteration,' read 'end of Bicker,' " The Daily Princetonian suggested at the time.
Earlier this week, former Interclub Council and Quadrangle Club president J.W. Victor '05 told the 'Prince' that "the crux" of the discussion about Bicker and club-college interaction is Tilghman's "hatred — I use this word carefully, but I use it — of the Bicker system."
"She feels that it discriminates based on race, on socioeconomics and [that it] puts women in uncomfortable situations to be pressured sexually."
But in trumpeting yesterday's proposal as a step forward for the University community, Tilghman appears to have yielded to pressure from students and alumni who refuse to relent in their support of Bicker.
When asked on Tuesday about how the University reconciles opposition to selectivity with bicker club partnerships, Tilghman said the administration "must keep in mind all interests –– in particular the interests of all the students of Princeton University" when dealing with the clubs. For some students, she acknowledged, that interest is in Bicker clubs.
The club system "is not a system that has ever been static at Princeton," she added. "It has evolved over time and, of course, will continue to evolve."
Executive Vice President Mark Burstein, the man seen as the principal architect of much of the recent University planning on clubs, said the agreements with the five Bicker clubs do not mean those clubs have agreed to end selectivity — a position that would likely have been anathema a mere 20 years ago.
"The ways that the clubs select their members are their choice," he said. "Certainly, members of the administration have their views [on selectivity] but the choice is really [the clubs' and the students'.]"
The clubs' risk
The financial repercussions for the clubs are hazy, given the scarcity of publicly available information on each institution's finances. Also, since the full details of the individual agreements between the clubs and the University remain private, the effects of the newfound cooperation are unclear.
Some alumni have voiced fears in the past that at least one club will close as a result of the four-year college system and it is possible that the University may have guaranteed the clubs' survival in the private agreements. Such assurances were considered in the 1980s during CURL discussions.
What is clear, though, is that there has been a shift in the clubs' attitude toward working with the University.
The shift seems to be led by one figure, Burstein, who came to the University in August 2004 from Columbia. Working with Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel to plan the four-year residential colleges, Burstein has been meeting with club presidents and graduate board chairs since last spring to negotiate how to integrate the club and college systems.
Though he initiated those meetings, Burstein said "the eating clubs came up with most of the agenda for proposing the relationship."
Privately, however, Tilghman has said that Burstein deserves credit for forging the new proposals. At least one club graduate board president agrees.
Meeting with all the clubs and getting them to come to similar agreements with the University is "like herding cats," Tiger Inn board chair Hap Cooper '82 said.
But "Mark Burstein is tireless," Cooper said. "The guy is just a juggernaut with regard to his energy and his focus because I know he's doing lots of other things."
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