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On Charter’s decision and giving students control

<p>Charter Club</p>
<h6>Photo Credit: Ariel Chen / The Daily Princetonian</h6>

Charter Club

Photo Credit: Ariel Chen / The Daily Princetonian

Last week, the Princeton Charter Club’s Board of Governors sent out a letter that called for students to submit proposals to, as this publication put it, “redesign and revitalize Charter in time for Street Week.” The idea seems to be that because of dwindling membership numbers, the Board is looking for new ideas that will attract students to the club as Street Week approaches. This call, it seems to me, is a step in the right direction. While I am not convinced that the reasons the Board of Governors is looking for student input are sound, the ultimate desire to allow students to be in “a club that you can make your own” is admirable and should be encouraged.

Why should it matter to us that Charter has called for student input? After all, the policies that Charter selects currently only affect about 1 percent of the undergraduate student population. Moreover, if the trend of decline continues, then the policies selected by the club will affect less and less each year. If that’s true, this decision should, at best, only matter to those students.

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However, that seems wrong to me, on two grounds. First, it's not clear that the policies affect only 1 percent of undergraduates. As we all know, the eating clubs are one of the central locations of many students' weekend social activities: many will "go out" to the clubs on weekends. And since most clubs are consistently closed on Fridays, Charter in particular has traditionally played an outsized role in that social environment. It’s also true that it is a sign-in club, which means that if it changes to bicker, a possibility suggested by the Board, this could change the calculus of joining a club for underclass students — a goal that the Board seems to explicitly endorse, even if it does not necessarily endorse this particular means. Given that to be true, it follows that at least some of Charter’s policies affect more than 1 percent.

But even if I am wrong about this, this action should matter to us because it signals to others that we, as students, have some and ought to have more control over our social experiences. The decisions we make as students — whether intentional or not — have led to a dwindling membership for Charter, which has motivated the Board to cede more control to students. 

This account simply begs the question: why should control matter? One reason control matters relates to the first argument I proposed about whom Charter's policies affect. It seems fairly clear to me that we should have control over those policies that affect us. For instance, one reason we should have control over government, say through elections, is that the government imposes policies and rules that affect everyone within the borders of the United States. This principle applies to an eating club’s policies as well.

But as I suggested, we might reject the first argument about whom Charter's policies affect. Perhaps, we might want to give more control to the club’s actual members, but it doesn’t follow that we should give any more control to the rest of the student body. Even if that’s true, though, this move at least signals to the rest of the clubs that they ought to open up the mechanisms of control to at least their membership.

Certainly, club members have a certain amount of control, in that they choose their officers. Just as political elections are not sufficient, that is not sufficient for true control over the clubs’ policies. In our country, we can pursue lawsuits against the government and protest it. Other countries have experimented with stronger forms of control, such as Ireland’s recent Citizens’ Assembly. These examples certainly might not transfer directly to the case of eating clubs. But they do tell us that the methods of control that exist now are not enough; we can rightfully call for more control over the content of the decisions made, not simply control over the people making the decision. Charter’s move, in encouraging students to make that club “your own,” seems to implicitly agree with this.

All of that said, I suggested that the reason that the Board of Governors has given for desiring more input is not sound. This, it seems to me, is reflected in the argument I’ve given thus far, but let me expand on that a little more. This move is a response to the dwindling numbers. In the hope that this trend will stop and reverse itself, the Board has chosen to reach out to students with the opportunity for more control.

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The worry here is that this control is not robust. It is only given so that Charter can pump up its numbers, and if that is fixed, then the control will likely be rescinded. Moreover, the choice of giving control is itself entirely out of our control. Control over our social experiences ought to be part of what rights we have as members of a community. This implies that we get to decide what control we do have and that these decisions are not made by external others. While Charter’s move is a step in the right direction, it is, at the end of the day, still only a step.

Ideally, we, as members of the University community, would have significantly more control over the choices that affect our day-to-day lives. This very well might start with taking control over the decisions that affect all of our social lives.

Sebastian Quiroz is a senior from Deltona, Fla. He can be reached at squiroz@princeton.edu.

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