During tenure, campus social life transformed
If University President Shirley Tilghman could have her way, every student on campus would be a member of both a four-year residential college and an eating club.
This ideal vision reflects a series of reforms to campus residential and social life made under Tilghman’s tenure, characterized by the expansion of residential colleges, hostility towards Greek life and a relationship with eating clubs defined by underlying support but a desire for reform.
“If I could be queen for a day…I would love to create a residential system for undergraduates in which students were members of residential colleges for all four years and every student had an affiliation with an eating club, so it’s just part of the experience of every single Princeton student,” Tilghman said on Saturday afternoon, shortly after announcing she would step down in June.
Former Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel, the architect of the residential college system, said the expansion was one of the most rewarding initiatives that she and Tilghman had worked on together. When Tilghman took office, the new president inherited a plan to create three of the residential colleges into four-year colleges, while the other three would remain two-year colleges.
However, looking back, Tilghman questioned whether that was the right way to approach expanding the system.
“I’m not sure it worked as well as everyone thought it might work,” Tilghman said, adding that her ideal system would see each college turned into a four-year college.
While some have interpreted the University’s promotion of four-year residential colleges as an attempt to pull students away from the eating clubs, Tilghman’s vision suggests that she views the eating clubs as an important component of the Princeton experience.
She has overseen a number of initiatives to change the eating club experience, mostly with the aim of making the system more open to students.
Beginning in the fall of 2007, the University introduced four-year residential colleges. At the same time, the Office of Financial Aid started giving higher board allowances to juniors and seniors and offering shared meal plans to students so they could combine the eating club experience with staying in a residential college for four years.
This higher board allowance is based on what the University calls “the average cost of an eating club dining contract,” according to the 2010 Report of the Task Force on Relationships between the University and the Eating Clubs. However, the package does not take into account eating club social fees or the sophomore fee.
The move aimed to allow students to decide on their upperclassman eating arrangements without financial constraints, according to the report.
The higher board allowance is distributed whether a student actually joins an eating club or not, meaning that a student who does not join an eating club receives a substantial increase in his or her financial aid package.
Also according to the task force's report, the shared meal plans allow students to “reduce the degree of separation between students in the colleges and students in the clubs” by belonging to both a four-year residential college and an eating club.
However, as Tilghman said at the time, the introduction of the shared meal plan was not meant for the majority of students. “We are not talking about a large number of students," Tilghman told The Daily Princetonian in 2006. "But they're important students because of how they'll bring the systems together."
According to an interview with Executive Vice President Mark Burstein, only 89 students had shared meal plans in 2007. Last year, over 150 students had them. Colonial Club has been the club offering the most number of shared meal plan members, with 50 last year.
Jamal Motlagh ’06, a former Interclub Council president, said that during his time, Tilghman worked to improve the relationship of the eating clubs with the University and to make the clubs available to any student who wanted to join.
“I think she understood that the eating clubs were an integral part of Princeton,” Motlagh said. “Whether people liked them or not, they were a big part of the University, and I think she helped to reverse the idea that the University and the eating clubs could not be associated with one another.”
“She is understanding. I had her write one of my recommendations for business school. I think she truly was putting the students first," he said.
Current ICC president Alec Egan ’13 said Tilghman has been helpful and supportive of eating clubs throughout his tenure.
“We’re sad to see her step down, but we hope that whoever takes her place is as accepting of clubs and of what the Street means to the University as a whole,” Egan said. “In anything we did, the University was always very willing to discuss with us and was open to trying things a new way in order to make them more efficient.”
Egan said the expansion of the four-year residential college system has not hurt the Street. Furthermore, he said shared meal plans have bolstered the Street by making it more open and appealing to students who may not have otherwise been interested in joining an eating club.
Tiger Inn president Ben Barron ’13 said Tilghman's legacy will include better relations between the eating clubs and the administration.
"She’s done a lot of good work building a productive and coordinated relationship between the University and the Street," Barron said. "Particularly, shared meal plans are a way to open up the opportunities that the Street gives and make sure that there are balanced opportunities for whatever kind of student to have whatever kind of experience they want."
The eating clubs task force was also commissioned under Tilghman’s presidency, with the intention of reviewing relationships between the University and the independent clubs. The task force recommended changes to the Bicker process, allowing sophomores to rank the clubs they would be interested in joining. The ICC is now considering implementing a multi-club Bicker process that incorporates some of these elements.
“I’ve always thought it’s funny to hate on Tilghman for being against the clubs because in reality behind closed doors she was the biggest cheerleader of the eating club system,” said former USG president Connor Diemand-Yauman ’10, who served on the task force. “She just wanted to make sure the system was as inclusive as possible.”
While the Street may have a generally favorable view of her reforms to eating clubs, leaders of fraternities and sororities have not been pleased with University efforts under Tilghman’s presidency. Greek organizations have occupied a precarious position since they returned to the University in the 1980s. Since they are neither officially recognized nor officially banned by the administration, leaders of these organizations have disputed the notion that the University can regulate them at all.
Nevertheless, in the summer of 2011 Tilghman announced that the University would ban freshman rush beginning in the fall of 2012, to give a committee time to figure out how to implement the policy. Last March, the committee announced that it planned to suspend freshmen who rushed and upperclassmen who encouraged them to rush.
The decision has been one of the most controversial and widely discussed reforms to campus life made under the Tilghman administration.
“I don’t consider it a mistake,” Tilghman said of the policy. “One of the things that gives me a lot of comfort about that decision is that it is happening at campus after campus after campus around the country. We weren’t the only university in the country that had come to the conclusion that delaying those kinds of decisions was in the best interest of the student body.”
In 2004, well before the ban, Tilghman’s administration suggested postponing rush until the spring of freshman year. Greek organizations declined this offer. After the Working Group on Campus Social and Residential Life recommended the freshman rush ban in spring 2011, the leaders of Greek organizations complained that they were not given adequate opportunity to respond and give input.
Sigma Chi president Cuauhtemoc Ocampo ’14 said he does not believe Tilghman was the driving force behind the rush ban and that he understands that the proposal to ban rush was given to her as a recommendation. Nevertheless, he said he hopes that a new administration will help bring about more Greek-friendly policies.
“Hopefully with a new president comes a new committee, and we can have a new conversation,” Ocampo said.
Though Ocampo said the current environment at the University is “hostile toward Greek life,” he added that he does not blame Tilghman for this and says he respects her as a president. As a result of that respect, he said his organization is making sure that no freshmen attend any of its events.
Overall, Tilghman said life on campus is different than it was when she took office, as the campus has become a more open and welcoming place.
“This feels like a different place than it did 12 years ago,” Tilghman said. “Some of it may be about a lot of the things we have done to try and make Princeton a more welcoming place, and that’s relevant for undergraduates very, very significantly, I think.”
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