Referendum calls for public demographic numbers of eating clubs, meets objections from club officers
Leila Clark '18 started gathering petition signatures on Nov. 21 for a referendum to publicize the demographics of eating club members and bickerees.
The referendum asks that the Undergraduate Student Government Senate establish a standing committee that collaborates with the Interclub Council to annually collect and release characteristics like race, gender, and major for each club.
After the petition received the necessary signatures from 10 percent of the student body, USG circulated an email about the referendum on Wednesday.
Clark said she proposed the referendum because she realized by her sophomore spring that eating clubs massively affect every University student.
"The first step to understanding the impact of eating clubs is to understand who is in the eating clubs," she said.
Clark, who chose Terrace partly to interact with a diverse set of majors, said her proposal would help sophomores make more informed decisions about which clubs to join. She also said that the data would dispel many myths about clubs, adding that, even if some stereotypes prove true, having more information is always a plus.
However, President of the Interclub Council and Colonial Club Christopher Yu '17 emphasized the importance of also weighing the referendum's consequences rather than simply demanding information.
Yu said the clubs do not collect demographics and do not want to.
He explained that each club's undergraduate officers and graduate board, as well as the ICC, lack the right to demand that members identify themselves for public records, because no such requirement exists in their contracts.
"There's a danger in profiling," Yu said. "A lot of people won't join a particular club because they think there's too many of X or too many of Y in that club."
He added that stereotypes rely on more than numbers. Moreover, just because a club has many people of some category, that does not make it homogeneous, as each demographic contains many levels of diversity.
Charter Club President Lorena Grundy '17 also objected to the referendum, citing a belief that collecting and releasing demographics could sabotage diversity.
Although majors are available in databases like the College Facebook, Grundy said she would not take the liberty of guessing members' race or gender in case they identified differently from how they appeared.
Additionally, she would not trust a survey of members to yield representative results, since people sensitive about their demographics could be more or less likely to answer. She added that a policy requiring all members to disclose their race and gender could push away the minorities that the clubs are trying to welcome.
"If there's a club with a fairly small membership, and we release information that X number of our members are gender non-binary, you might be able to figure out who those people are based on your interactions with them and your knowledge of what groups they're involved in. And I can see that being scary for those individuals," she said.
Yu and Grundy emphasized that all the clubs are already demonstrating a commitment to diversity through other means, like the Carl A. Fields Center Dialogue, which gathers upperclassmen regardless of dining option for a dinner discussion at a club, and social events that foster unity.
USG President Aleksandra Czulak '17 said members' and bickerees' demographics could not come from the University.
"Logistically, all previous demographic information about the clubs has either been anecdotal or self-reported," she said. "The only way I can see that this information could be 100% reported is when students sign up to bicker or pay their dues to the eating club every year." But she noted that even in that case, coordinating data among the eleven clubs might prove difficult.
Clark's claim that the referendum would serve prospective members addresses the question of widespread ignorance about eating clubs among underclassmen. In December 2014, only about half of then-sophomores felt knowledgeable about the clubs, with the rest claiming some or no knowledge, according to USG's Eating Club Accessibility Report 2014-2015.
Furthermore, demographic disparities in club membership have historically emerged in USG's Committee on Background Opportunity (COMBO) Reports.
Membership, especially in selective clubs, has historically been skewed toward white and wealthy students. Representatives of the committee for the most recently released report, COMBO III, confirmed the continuation of the trend through 2011.
The longtime income disparity partly resulted from the high cost of club participation. An automatic $2000 increase in financial aid for upperclassmen began in fall 2007 to combat the issue. However, over 40 percent of the Class of 2017 reported as sophomores that the money would not sufficiently support their future dining option.
If the demographics referendum passes, it may have no effect. Graduate Interclub Council Chair Thomas Fleming ’69 said that the ICC cannot force the clubs to act because they run independently of the University and of one another. He explained that the graduate board of each club would need to adopt the policy for it to work throughout the Street.
The referendum marks the second recent attempt to propose a policy that would apply to all of the clubs. The first, circulated in February 2015, called for every club to end Bicker with the support of an ad hoc USG committee, one of whose members would serve on the ICC. But that referendum failed, garnering only 43.7 percent of the vote.
For the current proposal, Clark said she picked race, gender, and major because they represent the most obvious demographics, easy to gather because of their availability to the public. Her peers suggested including athletic team membership and socioeconomic background, but she omitted those from the referendum to minimize controversy. She said other candidate traits, like extracurricular involvement, could enter the discussion if the referendum passes.
Referendum supporter Jeffrey Kuan '18 said that, with enough student interest, the community could work together to overcome any hurdles to collecting such basic, unobtrusive demographics.
"If anything, releasing this data should really be a catalyst for eating clubs to branch out to more diverse communities," he said.
The purpose of the data would be to hold the clubs accountable to students, rather than to sway sophomores toward joining certain clubs over others, Kuan said. He added that confirming stereotypes with evidence would force officers to reform unfair admissions practices.
Another petition signatory, Allie Burton '17, noted that if the release showed certain groups being accepted into clubs at lower rates, then the University community would need to discuss that problem. Transparency would deter clubs from discrimination. Meanwhile, major distributions could help prospective members choose the kind of community they want, she said.
However, Josh Latham '20 said he opposed the referendum because publicizing demographics would fail to help students.
He pointed out that if the data proved a club contained mostly a certain kind of person, then the officers would recruit others to avoid looking bigoted, but that shift would be too impersonal.
"A pressure to be socially responsible isn't the same as an actual desire to be with somebody and welcome them in," Latham said. "Having nice numbers isn't the actual solution."
Clark said most people she had talked to, especially underclassmen, expressed surprise that USG does not already collect this information regularly. She added that she expects the biggest obstacle to the referendum will be insufficient turnout.
Yu urged the University community to consider both sides of the debate before voting.
Critics of the demographics referendum have until Sunday to form an official opposition party.
The referendum will come to a vote during USG elections from Monday, Dec. 5 to Wednesday, Dec. 7. At least one-third of the undergraduate student body must vote, with a yes majority, for the referendum to pass.
Cannon Dial Elm Club President Keelan Smithers '17, Ivy Club President Mina Para '17 and Tiger Inn President Connor Moore '17 deferred comment to Yu.
Terrace Club President Nick Horvath '17 declined to comment.
Quadrangle Club President Yekaterina Panskyy '17, Tower Club President Romie Desrogène '17, Cap and Gown Club President Sean Poosson '17, Cloister Inn Vice President Allie Diamond '17, and Cottage Club President Danny Baer '17 did not respond to a request for comment.