Campus Club 2.0: The Administration’s New Street Venture

by Nicholas Elan ’11

In many ways, the new Campus Club has much to recommend it. The former eating club, which shut its doors in 2005 and is now owned by the University, has been restored to a fine condition and is splendidly furnished following 18 months of renovation work. But the most striking aspect of this second iteration of Campus Club is not its sumptuous new interior, but rather its lack of activity: the plush billiards room does not echo with raucous voices; a large flat-screen television blares, but no one is there to watch it; the beautifully restored taproom (rechristened as The Taproom Café), now perpetually dry, rarely entertains a patron. Twice as I was writing a draft of this article in the club’s lavish wood-paneled dining room, the room’s motion-activated lights suddenly shut off. I was forced to get up, walk to the middle of the room, and wave my arms about until the light returned. Luckily, nobody was around to witness this spectacle. So, where is everyone?

The answer to this question is a complex one. The peacefulness of the empty Campus Club belies the ferocity of a long-running conflict between the private eating clubs of Prospect Avenue and the University administration—a battle of which Campus Club has emerged as the most tangible locus. Though the repurposing of Campus Club may not represent the first effort by the administration to compete with the eating clubs for student patronage, it might be the most brazen: unlike past efforts, the administration has encroached on the physical space of “the Street” by occupying a former eating club and then marketing that space solely as a venue for social activity (ideally, the administration seems to hope, the “good” kind of social activity—of the sort that would yield colorful, viewbook-friendly photo opportunities).

In its final years as an eating club, Campus Club suffered from a dwindling membership, which in turn led to financial problems—clubs need a critical mass of (paying) members to keep up with operating costs. After various attempts to increase membership, including a brief switch to a bicker selection process, the club finally folded in 2005. Shortly thereafter, the club was donated to the University, under a stipulation that the building would remain a social space for students. The University began planning the Campus Club revision, and renovations were soon underway. The administration created an advisory board of both undergraduate and graduate students which would help make programmatic decisions for the updated club and in 2007 Dianne Spatafore was hired to serve as the club’s director. This September, amid moderate fanfare—a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by President Tilghman—the club finally opened its doors once more.

Administrators and students involved in the planning of Campus Club have been coy about the role the club is intended to play on campus. A 2006 article in the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, published shortly after the University’s acquisition of the club, describes a reopened club of manifold function: “a place where students can gather informally between classes as well as a place that they can reserve for dinners, receptions, musical and other cultural events, social events, meetings, precepts and more.” Elsewhere in the article, Amy Campbell, an administrator in the Office of the Vice President for Campus Life, laments that “the eating clubs have dances and social gatherings, but a lot of times they are only open to club members.” In contrast, she says, “Campus Club will be open to the entire student community.” While she concedes that Frist Campus Center does offer much of the social space of the sort planned for Campus Club, “it’s very much a public thoroughfare. Students are looking for the cozy living room of home.” Then-USG president Alex Lenahan explains that “we pictured students using the club as a place to hang out both during the day and the night, and at night especially have the club provide a different sort of social option for students.” On the other hand, in an interview with The Princeton Tory, Spatafore played down the eating club argument, explaining that “while Campus Club has the form of an eating club, it’s not necessarily intended to function in the same way.” She also described the relationship between Campus Club and the eating clubs as “like apples and oranges.”

Two types of goals for Campus Club are discernible from this collection of statements. The first goal, which is made explicit, is to supplement the social space already provided by buildings like the Frist Center, but on a smaller scale. The second goal, which is only hinted at, is to compete more directly with, and thus perhaps undermine, the eating club system, much in the way that the expanded residential college system has attempted. If we are to predict the success of Campus Club once its novelty fades, we must choose one of these two standards to evaluate it by.

If we judge Campus Club by the standards of the much less ambitious purpose of supplementing the University-owned social spaces already available, it may well succeed. Indeed, it is hard to fathom how it would not do so at least to some degree. To be sure, student presence at the club building has been sparse, but this is best attributed to its unfamiliarity among students. The club offers all the superficial elements, short of alcohol, that could attract students, though its location on “the Street” ironically makes it most easily accessible to eating club members, who have no use for it. Several student groups have already held meetings in the club, and the Class of 2011 student government hosted a study break there. The space will be used, though it may take a while.

On the other hand, if we judge the success of Campus Club by its ability to compete with the eating clubs, then it is almost certainly doomed to fail, just as the expanded residential college system has and as all bureaucratic attempts at social engineering tend to do. Indeed, Campus Club is poorly suited to foster social connections of the sort that are formed so prolifically and effortlessly in the eating clubs. The theory behind the administration’s attempted engineering of student social life at Princeton seems to hold, myopically, that if students could somehow be brought to a single venue, if not by force (as with the residential colleges for underclassmen) then by enticement—in the case of Campus Club, a billiards room, a computer cluster, a café, and so on—new friendships will inevitably be formed.

This is wishful thinking at best. While the social vibrancy of eating clubs has many causes, it is likely due in part to the very properties—namely, exclusivity and some degree of self-selected homogeneity—that the administration means to combat. This suggests that the administration, in its social projects, may be pursuing a chimera. To make matters worse, the university’s unmistakable presence in the spaces it administers imbues virtually all interactions conducted therein with a sickening wholesomeness. The eating clubs avoid such problems with ease, perhaps by the very virtue of their autonomy.

Meanwhile, Campus Club finds itself in the awkward state of an ersatz eating club—taking the form of a real club and offering the superficial conditions for social connections, yet unable to provide the real qualities that make those clubs succeed. Unlike its eating club predecessor, Campus Club will be able to sustain itself indefinitely, unburdened as it is by funding concerns in its present manifestation. This means there is plenty of time for the club to increase its attendance and develop a presence among students. Time will reveal the path it takes, and whether that path leads to the social chimera the administration has long sought.

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