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Reactions: What does the future of the eating clubs look like?

The view of a crosswalk between Prospect street, with the Eating Clubs Cannon, Quad, Ivy, and Cottage in view but partially obstructed by mostly bare trees.
Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian

Cloister Inn is inviting sophomores to launch a “takeover” of the club in order to revive lagging sophomore interest, while telling alumni that there is a risk the club may close. With the Class of 2026, the largest class to ever matriculate at Princeton about to join the clubs, Cloister’s situation speaks to the long-time recurrent cycles of sign-in clubs and also raises questions about the importance of bicker to the Princeton social scene. In light of these new concerns, along with conversations over recent years about the role that bicker plays in students’ Princeton experiences, we asked our columnists and some guest contributors to share their thoughts on what the future holds for Princeton’s eating clubs.

Decentering the eating clubs from the Princeton experience

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By Ashley Olenkiewicz, Associate Opinion Editor

Princeton’s eating clubs, and the bicker process in general, are here to stay. Although many students have shared their dissatisfaction with the institution, the fact remains that a large portion of the student body joins an eating club, and many are happier doing so. Trying to “abolish the eating clubs” is about as productive as arguing that we should abolish Ivy League schools because they’re exclusive and tons of perfectly deserving students will never have the opportunity to attend one. Instead, students should recognize that other opportunities give equal, or in some cases better, opportunities than eating clubs to find happiness in their college experiences. Thus, students should decenter the eating clubs from their Princeton experience and focus on building community through more organic means, like by joining student organizations, playing sports, or finding joy in hobbies. 

Perhaps the increase in class sizes over the next few years will lead to the creation of new bicker or competitive sign-in clubs, or maybe it’ll mean that more students are rejected from clubs than accepted into them, causing the popularity of sign-in clubs to grow. That might lead to a more equal distribution of students across clubs, and hopefully help bolster the finances of clubs struggling with low membership. Alternatively, students may turn away from the street and look towards other forms of community. In our first two years on campus, we’re told repeatedly how awesome the eating clubs are, how important they are to your Princeton career, and how terrible it would be to not join one. I’m not disputing the value of eating clubs. It’s true, they offer a tight-knit community with traditions, events, and special opportunities for those who join. But these exclusive clubs are not the only way to find community or maintain friendships during our four years at Princeton.

Ashley Olenkiewicz is a junior in the School of Public and International Affairs and pursuing certificates in both Latin American Studies and Journalism. She can be reached at ao8250@princeton.edu.

The people have spoken — and they want selectivity

By Anna Ferris, Columnist

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The pages of The Daily Princetonian are frequently filled with calls to abolish many of the systems that prop up a University-wide culture often described as elitist and hyper-competitive. From bicker to application-based clubs, Princeton students face rejection at every turn in their college careers. But, as the recent financial difficulties faced by Cloister Inn demonstrate, when push comes to shove, we tend to choose selective institutions over more open ones. As last year’s statistics show, the increase in the number of students choosing to join an eating club mostly centered around more students choosing to join bicker clubs. Why do we continue on this trend, even though we call for an end to competition culture? 

It seems obvious that Princetonians actually like competition — regardless of what opinions they may publicly share. This is not a groundbreaking remark, but it bears repeating as we ask ourselves how a Prospect stalwart like Cloister would find itself in dire financial straits. The answer might lie in its sign-in status. Princeton students applied to the University in the first place knowing the low chances of gaining acceptance, but knowing even better the kind of social and academic validation attendance would confer. Since high school, we’ve demonstrated a preference for competition. It’s unsurprising that we’re loath to abandon this attitude once we get on campus. After all, if it feels good to be selected as a Princeton student from the massive group of applicants, it seems that it must feel even better to be further selected from within the Princeton pool itself. In short, selective institutions and systems make us feel special; they make us feel chosen. 

In terms of the future, this trend suggests a rise in clubs either switching to a bicker process, or, like Charter, a form of selective sign-in. Whether by competitive or first-come-first-serve processes, we must simply hope that Prospect Avenue continues to offer the kind of community and kinship that generations of Princetonians have long celebrated.

Anna Ferris is a sophomore planning to declare a concentration in English and a minor in Values and Public Life. She can be reached at annaferris@princeton.edu

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A shared financial structure could help eating clubs down the line

By Alex Norbrook, Columnist

Cloister Inn’s financial woes merit worry. So does the lack of response from its ten eating club peers. If the eating club system hopes to survive in the long term, clubs ought to consider creating some sort of shared financial structure to prop up their struggling peers in times of need. 

Cloister’s trouble started because of repercussions from the pandemic; it doesn’t signal some sort of systemic issue with eating club membership (indeed, many clubs seem to be thriving post-pandemic). But that initial shock has now created a potential death spiral for the club, according to the statements of the graduate board. Now that the student body sees its closure as possible, as the club’s graduate board warned, Cloister risks turning off the very students needed to keep its doors open. 

Yet if Cloister could access a limited emergency fund, maintained by all of the eating clubs, it could buy time. Prospective members may be more tempted to join if they didn’t have to worry about an imminent closure of the club. And if they do, they can stabilize the club’s finances, ensuring that the COVID-19 dip doesn’t turn into something more permanent. If the shock was temporary, so can be the solution. 

In order to create such a mechanism, eating clubs could consider pooling together a fund, strictly for emergency use, to offset the damage from future shocks such as another pandemic. This sort of mechanism is important because future shocks could threaten many of the eating clubs on Prospect Avenue. At the very least, closure for even one club could risk overcrowding in others. Of course, such a fund would only be necessary in truly last-resort cases. Gifts from donors or sophomore takeovers might save Cloister’s skin and the skin of any eating club in a similar situation in the future. But a fund should be there in case those options fall through.

The number of eating clubs has gradually whittled down to the eleven we see today because of shocks like the one Cloister is responding to now. If nothing changes, that whittling trend is all too likely to continue in the long term. Even if Cloister spares itself in the coming years, another club might be in its position down the line. Clubs banding together to protect each other now saves closures in the future. 

Alex Norbrook is a sophomore intending to major in History or Politics. He can be reached at alexnorbrook@princeton.edu.

Invest in alternative upperclass dining options, not more expensive eating clubs

By Madeleine Burns and Rakesh Potluri, Guest Contributors

Cloister’s struggles with low membership highlight the problematic and exclusive nature of the eating club system. Students would rather join bicker clubs, simply because you must bicker to get in — the exclusivity makes them more desirable than sign-in clubs. As Princeton adds around 500 undergraduate students by 2025, demand for limited spots in bicker clubs will increase, creating a vicious cycle. To provide adequate dining and social options to the growing student body, Princeton needs to end this cycle.

First, Princeton should force the clubs to end bicker, which will remove the hierarchy of club desirability and the nasty culture of exclusivity. On top of that, however, Princeton should increase other upperclass dining options, such as co-ops and independent cooking opportunities, in response to the increasing student population. This way, upperclass students can create organic, inclusive communities that do not require paying $10,000 per year to perpetuate social stratification.

Instead of shutting down co-op-style housing and dining, the University should support and expand access to these options. Only one of the three new residential colleges (Hobson) includes a co-op kitchen. The University should create or convert more spaces for co-ops, which provide communal dining and a social scene at a fraction of Prospect Avenue’s costs. Princeton should also increase access to kitchens and grocery stores so more upperclass students can become independent. Apartment-style dorms increase convenience and create a community for independents, yet no apartment-style dorms were added in the new residential colleges. It’s imperative that the University add more dorms with kitchens so that independent students aren’t limited to only the voyeuristic rooms of Spelman Halls. Additionally, the University should take steps to improve access to grocery stores for independent students, such as decreasing the exorbitant costs of walkable options, expanding selection at the U-Store, and improving transportation to McCaffrey’s Food Market and other off-campus options.

Overall, Princeton has an incredible opportunity to shift the norms around upperclas student dining. If they truly seek to “nurture inclusivity” and “generate community,” the University must take steps to diversify access to dining for upperclass students and foster communities outside of Prospect Avenue.

Madeleine Burns is a senior in the CEE department. Rakesh Potluri graduated with a degree in Psychology in 2023. They can be reached at mcburns@princeton.edu and rpotluri@alumni.princeton.edu.

Bicker clubs offer a sense of belonging that can’t be found anywhere else on campus

By Francis Barth, Guest Contributor

Eating clubs are an awful way to organize belonging. Bicker hurts so many people under the false charge of some meritocratic selection, and there’s no insurance for those left out of its matching process. Without bicker, sign-in clubs like Cloister struggle to offer the club-wide community sometimes found in their counterparts. And while the University administration seems to hold an anti-club bent, they’ve failed to provide sufficient alternatives for people seeking social outlets. They often note that eating clubs meet only some students’ ideas of a fulfilling social life, but it’s hard to justify the administration’s antagonism towards these clubs to the many students who desire exactly that form of social life.

After being double-hosed my sophomore spring, hurt and aggrieved, I met with an administrator in Nassau Hall to discuss the University’s take on undergraduate community spaces. She cited vacancies in Cloister, Quad, and other clubs as evidence that the student body’s demand for eating clubs is more than met by existing institutions. I’ve heard similar thoughts before, especially as we consider how eating clubs might adapt to an increasing undergraduate body. The aggregate demand for eating clubs is not the issue in question — the market isn’t for eating club spots at all. Huge numbers of students are looking for communities in which they can feel loved and valued, and only a few clubs have managed to meet that need. It’s why some can go bankrupt, and why others can be the center of life for so many. The market is belonging.

I got into my current club my junior fall. My eating club has rejected me, made me feel awful, yet became a source of comfort, joy, and love. For so many people, eating clubs don’t offer belonging at all. But the need for belonging is vast, and while eating clubs don’t meet the whole need (and sometimes exacerbate the feeling of not belonging), they can provide real sources of community for many of their members. I went back because I couldn’t find what I was looking for anywhere else. 

Francis Barth is a senior from NYC majoring in Spanish and Portuguese. He directs the Pace Center’s English as a second language program, El Centro.

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