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This month, over three-quarters of sophomores chose to join one of the 11 eating clubs that line Prospect Avenue. These clubs — which have histories spanning 139 years — open a gateway to new social lives. With their opulent mansions, popularly-ingrained stereotypes, and mysterious names like Ivy Club, Tower Club, and Colonial Club, eating clubs seem to be as uniquely Princetonian as an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

But they’re not. In fact, eating clubs were popular social options for many American college students outside of Princeton in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries until they were replaced by modern fraternities and sororities. While the most famous eating clubs are at the University, they’re not the only ones to have ever existed. Our eating clubs should learn a few lessons from the eating clubs at other colleges to improve the Princeton experience.

Davidson College in North Carolina hosts eating clubs as well as traditional fraternities and sororities. Unlike Princeton’s eating clubs, Davidson's four “eating houses” have only female members. In the fall, there is an information session for first-year women during which an ambassador from each eating house speaks about their house’s activities.

Tara O’Herlihy is the Chief Justice of the Patterson Court Council — a position roughly analogous to being the president of Princeton’s Interclub Council. She said in an interview, “Each house has a social event and a service event for members and first-year women. The social event may be a party. The service event is a community service project on campus.”

During the start of the spring semester, women sign up to join an eating house in a process similar to that of Princeton's sign-in eating clubs, called “Self-Selection.” Women rank the clubs in order of preference in a survey, and an algorithm sorts them into houses based on membership openings.

But there's a critical difference between Davidson and Princeton’s processes. At Davidson, O’Herlihy said, “The survey allows women to cluster with up to three other women. Most do choose to cluster to stay with their friends.” She estimated that 80–85 percent of women are in an eating house. O’Herlihy said the eating houses “are very popular because of the open Self-Selection process. No one has to put on a face to get accepted.”

Once in an eating house, women participate in a variety of activities. Claire Thompson is the president of the eating house Warner Hall, and her father — Charles Thompson ’86 — was the president of Cap & Gown Club. 

“There are three big reasons why women join an eating house,” she said in an interview. One of the reasons, she said, is “that each eating house has a philanthropic cause that they adopt. My house increases awareness of HIV/AIDS.” Warner Hall’s signature Red and Black Ball raises money for the HIV prevention nonprofit RAIN and the Mwandi Mission Hospital in Zambia. “The philanthropy side has been a significant part of my college experience,” Thompson said of her eating house.

Princeton’s ICC should incorporate elements of Davidson’s Self-Selection into its own admissions process. This past fall, it was difficult to find open house events for the eating clubs. They either were poorly promoted or e-mailed at random times from club officers. The ICC should make a standardized calendar that lists each club’s sophomore information events that mirrors Davidson’s fall information session.

At such sessions, the eating clubs should also promote their service programs. While each club organizes unique service projects, this aspect isn’t well-communicated to sophomores. In other words, most sophomores don’t consider community service as a criterion to evaluate when determining which club to join.

One common complaint about the eating clubs is that they break up friends. Not everyone in a group can get into the same Bicker club, and sign-in lotteries could do the same. The ICC could mitigate this problem for the latter by allowing students to apply in small groups much like Davidson’s eating houses.

Stanford University also had eating clubs until the administration abolished them nine years ago. Established in 1892 — only one year after Princeton's Colonial Club was founded — they provided an alternative to the school's dining halls for 117 years; students could join one of seven eating clubs all located in a single L-shaped building. In the beginning, students had to undergo “rush,” like that of a fraternity. But the clubs gradually abandoned this policy and became open to anyone who wanted to join. As a member of the El Capitan eating club said in 1967 after deciding to end rush, “We did not like playing junior gods.”

Leslie Nichols graduated from Stanford in 1963 and was the president of Los Arcos, Stanford’s oldest eating club and one of the first to eliminate rush. In an interview, he said of joining the club, “I got a hand-written invitation from the president. You just dropped by the open house and joined.” He added, “There was nothing elitist about it,” saying that he “didn’t feel there was any sort of exclusion.”

In an advertisement from The Stanford Daily in 1968, each club published demographic statistics about its members. Club advertisements contained members’ names, majors, and extracurricular activities.

Princeton’s eating clubs should also release demographic information on their members. A 2016 referendum directed the USG to form a committee that would collect statistics on the composition of students in eating clubs. Since the eating clubs are independent from the University, they were not forced to provide this information. Club presidents argue that collecting information about members would further reinforce club stereotypes because, as former ICC President Christopher Yu ’17 stated, “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.”

But the story of Stanford’s eating clubs undermines this argument. They served as bastions of diversity and inclusivity on a campus with an exclusive fraternity system. A Stanford alumnus who was an eating club member told the Stanford Alumni Association, “Many — or most — of us did not fit into the fraternity mold.” Likewise, publishing demographic information didn't make the eating clubs any less diverse.

Finally, Princeton’s eating clubs should follow the lead of Stanford’s eating clubs by incrementally phasing out Bicker. Traditions aren’t malleable in the short-term. Students lack institutional knowledge; consequently, they assume that the current social traditions at Princeton have always existed. But traditions are fluid over the course of decades, as they’re altered by changing cultural norms and student body compositions.

Every other collegiate eating club in recent history outside of Princeton has abandoned its exclusive practices. Bicker is too entrenched in campus culture for it to disappear overnight. But the eating clubs could abandon it — one by one — over the course of a decade. A pragmatic, gradualist approach will dually ensure that Bicker does end and that the clubs can adequately adjust their practices to prepare for the change. Eventually, students would forget that Bicker ever existed.

It’s already hard enough to get into Princeton, so we shouldn’t create new internal boundaries that prevent students from eating with old friends or making new ones. We should aspire to create a coed version of Davidson’s eating house model where any student can join any eating club to partake in its fellowship and service.

While our 11 eating clubs are distinct to Princeton, they are not the sole collegiate eating clubs in existence today or in American history. Their traditions may go back a century, but sometimes traditions need to change in favor of more equitable practices. None of the eating club systems are perfect, but the University’s eating clubs should adopt the progressive policies from other schools that increase fairness, inclusivity, and diversity. By continuing to improve the eating club system, we can create an environment where all Princetonians thrive.

This is the third article in a series about improving the University’s eating clubs.

Liam O’Connor is a sophomore from Wyoming, Del. He can be reached at lpo@princeton.edu.

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