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Under water, Cloister risks closure and floats sophomore takeover

Pictured is a stone building with a wooden door and an American flag. Multiple bushes and trees surround the building.
The outside of Cloister Inn.
Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian

“We are confronting a crisis, and it is not just possible, but likely, that absent significant aid from our alumni, Cloister will close its doors,” reads a email by the Board of Governors of Cloister Inn to Cloister alumni with the subject line “CRUCIAL: SAVE THE INN.” According to the email, with membership struggling to return to pre-pandemic rates, the club has had to use 90 percent of its reserve savings to stay open.

“In order to stay open through next year, we need to raise $250,000 by the end of this school year,” the Board of Governors wrote. Elsewhere, the email refers to “an aggressive fundraising goal by the close of 2023.”

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The email raises the specter that absent significant fundraising, Cloister Inn, an eating club founded in 1912, will close.

Newly elected Cloister President Alexandra Wong ’25 denied that the club was at risk of closure in an email to members. Referring to the email to alumni, she wrote, “The email had a tone of urgency for fundraising purposes, aiming for 250K in donations by the end of the year and suggesting closure if we didn't reach this goal. Cloister will not be closing, regardless of whether or not it meets this goal.”

Cloister has one of the lowest memberships on the street and has struggled with investments in recent years. Cloister’s membership lags far behind other sign-in clubs like Terrace and Charter, both of which have extensive waiting lists.

Clubs have recovered from slumps in the past. For Cloister itself, in 1985, the club almost closed after recruiting only 11 new members during the sign-in period. In 1994, Cloister leadership staged a “takeover” by sophomores in order to revive lackluster membership.

But Cloister’s current financial crisis comes as eating clubs across Prospect Avenue have largely recovered from the pandemic and are preparing for next spring’s new members from the class of 2026, the University’s largest graduating class ever.

Beyond fundraising, the Board of Governors is inviting a “takeover” in which a large number of sophomores are invited to join the club, potentially drastically reshaping the club’s identity and culture. In the internal email, Wong wrote that current members will not “be pushed out from club culture” as a result of a takeover.

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In a statement to The Daily Princetonian, Chair of the Graduate Board of Trustees Jose Pincay-Delgado ’77 wrote, “We had generally steady membership for 25 years dating back to February 1994, but the current down cycle started coming out of the pandemic.”

“We look forward to recruiting a dynamic class this year,” Wong wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ She referred all other comments to the Graduate Board.

Cloister’s financial and membership situation

According to Form 990 tax filings for the fiscal year ending June 2022, Cloister made just over $874,000, compared to Charter’s $1.8 million. Charter also reported a net income loss of just shy of $12,000, while Cloister lost almost $270,000 in 2022.

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In 2019, Cloister had a just $34 return on its just over $424,000 investment, or 0.008 percent. Cloister Inn also had the lowest net valuation of the Eating Clubs at $602,212.

According to the email to members, Cloister has 44 members. This makes it one of the smallest eating clubs on the street. The eating clubs that have faced membership struggles in recent years have almost universally been sign-in rather than bicker clubs.

Additionally, Cloister’s 2023 Street Week recruitment process yielded very few new members, according to an email obtained by the 'Prince.' Of the 86 spots Cloister gave out to new members in February, including 70 members of the Class of 2025, just 18 were listed as Cloister members in November 2023.

Six members of the Class of 2025 who were not listed on the initial new member list in February are now Cloister members, indicating they likely signed in during the spring or this fall. Cloister continued to accept applications for rolling admissions following the spring sign-in period.

Plans for the ‘takeover’

The Cloister Graduate Board of Trustees and current undergraduate officers are also “aggressively campaigning to recruit large groups of students to join the Club,” according to the alumni email. They hope that the strategy of a “takeover” would revitalize Cloister in the long run by bringing membership to full capacity with new undergraduate leadership.

Pincay-Delgado added, “We want [interested groups of students] to give us a wish list of proposed improvements to the clubhouse and service that we can fund in part with this year’s alumni donations. Ideas we’re suggesting include upgrading our movie room & hot tub, planning fun off-campus trips, and booking live bands.“

Wong expanded on the idea in the email to members, writing, “it entails a discretionary ‘membership fund’ that potential members can submit proposals on using if a recruitment goal is reached.“

Cloister and other clubs have successfully staged sophomore takeovers in the past. Most recently, in 2019, Charter Club solicited groups of between six and 100 sophomores and juniors to join, asking them for proposals for “a new direction” for Charter. Previously, the club had been known for attracting engineering students. During the “takeover,” they heard suggestions about changes ranging from dining options to social events to financial aid. Charter Club has become increasingly popular over the past few years.

When Cloister almost closed in 1985, the club first installed its hot tub. Two months later, “the new group was thoroughly entrenched, with only one person remaining from the previous year's membership, and only two who had joined during sign-ins.”

The Club also experienced a very similar situation exactly thirty years ago, when it faced a crisis of membership in the fall of 1993. Cloister leadership partnered with a group of sophomores interested in a “takeover” to plan a future direction for the Club. The eventual wish list of the alumni, otherwise known as “Innmates” of the Class of 1996, included longer meal hours and internet access for the Club.

“The members of the Class of 1996 are now revered among Cloister alumni. They’re the ones that transformed the club for a generation of members,” Pincay-Delgado wrote.

Pincay-Delgado also explained that in 1994, Cloister held another round of officer elections after Street Week so that new members could “immediately be candidates for top officer roles.” Club leadership plans to do the same next spring if membership grows significantly.

Wong wrote to members, on the other hand, the current members would not be pushed out of “informal or formal leadership.”

The email to alumni stressed that a takeover alone won’t be sufficient to save the club given that their dues would not be received by the club until fall 2024. This makes the fundraising goal critical.

“The fundraising is also meant to support the wish list of our new members as they define the next generation of Cloister,” Pincay-Delgado wrote.

The current generation of Cloister is evenly split between the Class of 2024 and 2025, with 20 members from 2024 and 21 members from 2025. Three members are graduate students or associate research scholars.

The club’s aquatic stereotype

The reputation of Cloister has varied over the years. Famous Innmates include Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan ’81, Sirius Satellite Radio co-founder Robert Briskman ’54, and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer ’81.

In recent years, the common stereotype of Cloister members is that they are “floaters and boaters” — athletes on water sports like rowing and swimming. The ‘Prince’ cross-referenced the list of Cloister members with the rosters for men’s and women’s swimming and diving, water polo, and rowing teams, and found that just one-third of Cloister’s membership qualify as “floaters and boaters.”

Men’s heavyweight rowing accounts for about 14 percent of Cloister’s membership, while 10 percent were on the men’s swimming and diving team. No Cloister members were on the men’s or women’s water polo teams.

Similarly, over a quarter of men’s heavyweight rowers call Cloister home, the most among any water sport team. A fifth of men’s swimming and diving team members are in Cloister, while about 13 percent of women’s lightweight rowers are members of the club.

No members of women’s swimming and diving or either water polo team are also Cloister members. An important affinity group at the club is “Women of Cloist,” which highlights the gender diversity of the club.

The Board of Governors invoked a history of community at Cloister, while stressing the need for donations to keep it open.

They wrote, “we are reminded of the faithful bonds we have all forged at our home away from home, Cloister Inn.”

Sofia Arora is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’

Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

Correction: A previous version of the article said that Alexandra Wong provided Cloister's membership roster to the 'Prince.' In fact, Wong did not provide the roster, but an internal source did.

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