The Street View from Nassau Hall: Investigating the Eating Club Task Force

by Aaron Smargon ‘11

For nearly half its history, the University has intermittently issued policy recommendations regarding the independent eating clubs of Prospect Avenue (AKA “The Street”). Last school year’s Eating Club Task Force (ECTF) report is but one example. While part of the administration’s tactics this time around may have been unique, its motive was the same: an attempt to wrest more control from the clubs to make them less of a “distraction” to Princeton life.

The Street is lined with ghosts of eating clubs past—a tribute to a tireless, century-old crusade. Some say that if trends continue, then, whether by the clubs’ individual mismanagement or by economic misfortunes that Princeton’s multibillion-dollar endowment is better able to handle, the University will one day own the entire Street, from Washington to FitzRandolph.

In the meantime, administrators patiently write periodic eating club-focused reports, which are shrouded in mystery and crafted with a premeditated outcome. That outcome is the attenuation of some clubs’ selectivity, which has always been an embarrassment and inconvenience for Nassau Hall. Each time such a report is issued, the clubs ultimately reject its core. For a time after, they even believe that the University’s intrusion has ended. But they are wrong, for new administrators again emerge to challenge the eating club system, and the cycle begins anew.

The latest such administrator is University President Shirley Tilghman, who has begun a comprehensive, multiyear inspection of the entire Princeton social experience. Where does the current analysis stand? This September 20th, the University announced the formation of a 13-member undergraduate, faculty, and staff  “working group on campus social and residential life.” President Tilghman tasked the working group with continuing the examination of social and residential issues that began with the ECTF.

Said Cesar Devers ’11, a member of the working group, “I can’t discuss the [meetings of the] working group in any capacity.” He would only say that his invitation “came out of nowhere,” that the group has met twice and has already formed subcommittees, and that it has discussed the task force. As in all such committees, the University has asked members of the working group to refer press to the University website and to working group co-chairs Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69 and Vice President for Campus Life Cynthia Cherrey.

The secrecy of working group members is one matter, but far more critical is the question of when the working group was first planned. This chronology would indicate whether or not the working group was in fact part of a broader scheme initiated by the Tilghman administration, which has claimed that the group was a “response” to the ECTF, and that it had been conceived of in late spring or early summer of this year.

Corroborating the administration’s story, several members of the ECTF confessed that while they were not surprised, they knew nothing about the working group until it was announced. Yet Connor Diemand-Yauman ’10, former USG president and member of the task force, wrote in an email that he was aware of the working group (and an additional group devoted to revising the eating club selection process) at an earlier date. From his recollection, the task force itself began discussing the working groups perhaps halfway into its tenure. Asked how a former USG president would have knowledge beyond that of his colleagues, task force member and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Maria Flores-Mills explained, “If you know how the University works, then you wouldn’t be surprised by that.”

Behind Closed Doors

How did the current study of the eating club system begin? According to President Tilghman, “The conversation [that led to the ECTF] really began after [Diemand-Yauman] was elected president of the USG and—as many newly elected presidents do—came into meet with me to talk about the issues that were on his mind, and he wanted to understand the issues that were on my mind.” Calling him an “extremely effective USG president,” Tilghman said that Diemand-Yauman recognized Princeton’s propensity for ongoing internal studies, and the two agreed that a study on the University’s relation to the eating club was long overdue. There was no single event that precipitated the task force, but rather an amorphous cluster of factors, including the recent recession, the introduction of the four-year residential college system in 2007, and a decline in the number of eating clubs over the past twenty years.

Tilghman chose Vice President Durkee to chair the task force because of his “long institutional memory” as an undergraduate and then campus administrator for most of his career. Well acquainted with the eating club system, he was a member of Colonial Club his junior year and Quadrangle Club his senior year. Durkee said that Tilghman then personally chose the faculty, staff, and alumni members of the task force, while Diemand-Yauman and former Interclub Council (ICC) President Aran Clair ‘10 selected students from an applicant pool. While the task force’s 18 members reflected diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, they included no seniors other than Diemand-Yauman and no students who were eating club officers at the time. In essence, the ECTF contained hardly any of the students who would have the most intimate knowledge of the current eating club system.

ECTF members did not appear to care. Genevieve Ryan ’11, presently Vice President of Cottage Club, lauded the ECTF as a forum of “free flow of ideas and viewpoints.” The task force first responded to a compilation of about 650 comments from students and alumni on the ECTF website, as well as to concerns that alumni had brought up to Vice President Durkee in person. (All members interviewed were struck by how balanced these comments were, regardless of the personal opinions of the authors.) After discussing the comments, the task force settled on a list of topics as well as subcommittees. From their findings Vice President Durkee then wrote a draft of the report with recommendations both to the University and the eating clubs. Multiple revisions from task force members resulted in the final ECTF report released this May.

Task force member Ben Weisman ’11 disclosed that, “There’s nothing in this report that anyone substantially objected to.” In fact, most of the recommendations—collective club purchasing, greater transparency about costs, increased outreach, more community activity, and the reopening of a campus pub to promote responsible drinking—are commonsensical and partially underway. What surprised many outsiders, however, was the recommendation that the eating clubs reincarnate a form of “100% bicker.”

The eating clubs instituted the 100% bicker system in response to a petition signed by 75% of the sophomore members of the Class of 1952 stating their intention not to join an eating club unless each sophomore received at least one club bid. 100% bicker lasted for a decade, but was abandoned when the ICC recognized it as no longer feasible, although it would evolve into a similar system called “hat bid” up until the 1980’s. The method would be modified for today’s single-club bicker system, so that those sophomores who bickered one of the five bicker clubs would then elect in order of preference their fallbacks among the five sign-in clubs. All sophomores would be guaranteed a spot in an eating club provided there was still occupancy, and all sophomores would be notified of their eating club at the same time.

How did such a recommendation come to pass? No one interviewed would comment on the mechanics of any decision by the ECTF, least of all the most controversial issue—changing the club selection process. It is worth noting, however, that both Vice President Durkee and Carlos Ferrer ’76 (ECTF member and graduate board chairman of Cottage Club) participated in clubs during the 100% bicker era. In addition, Dinesh Maneyapanda ’94 (task force member and Graduate Interclub Council president) is the graduate board chairman of Quadrangle Club, a club whose sign-in numbers have been lagging at fifty new members or below in recent years and which would presumably benefit from a system that guided rejected bickerees to a sign-in club.

President Tilghman maintains that Mr. Maneyapanda was selected since he is GICC president, and that Mr. Ferrer, as the grad board chair of a bicker club, was a natural second choice to balance the task force. Mr. Ferrer refused to interview on the subject. Mr. Maneyapanda implausibly contends that there was not one person who brought up the new selection process, and that it came out of a “collaborative process.” He also said, “I am publicly supportive of talking about changing the process.” He declined to comment on whether the proposed process would assist Quadrangle Club.

It is clear that the task force formed, had direction from senior members, and reported with a specific conclusion in mind. Although many of the ECTF recommendations may have genuinely been discovered within meetings, the University had set a task force agenda centered on the selection process long before. But why exactly?

Pain and Perception

President Tilghman opened up in an interview with the Tory, telling of conversations with Princeton parents whose children were “hosed,” or rejected, from the exclusive bicker clubs. Said the President, “I spent a lot of time with parents and I can tell you it’s a very painful experience for a student to be turned down from one of the clubs. It’s a very public event. It’s an event that can then appear to separate one friend from another. I can speak as a parent myself: when you have a child that is really unhappy and feels rejected, it’s a very hard thing for a parent.”

It is far harder for a student. In the humiliating practice of pick-ups, accepted bickerees are invited to parade around campus with fellow club members in the afternoon whilst hosed bickerees are left to mope in their dormitories as they contemplate their failure. The controversial tradition has lasted less than ten years. As Ben Weisman learned on the task force, each year a number of students enter the McCosh Health Center seeking mental health treatment for feelings of pain or rejection associated with bicker. These incidents are private due to confidentiality rules, but that did not prevent the ECTF from discussing them in appropriate context.

Many hosed bickerees may have never failed at anything in their lives, so their pain is understandable. But some alumni have argued that rejection is healthy for these dejected students, and that the University is attempting to coddle them. For instance, Ned Elliot ’62 wrote in the September 22, 2010 issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly, “I have always thought that one of the goals of a Princeton education was to prepare students for the real world. And bicker, with all its flaws, is one component of this preparation. The [ECTF’s] recommendation flies in the face of freedom of association, a concept pounded into my head in courses at Princeton. It reinforces a sense of entitlement.”

Said Tim Prugar ‘06, former Tiger Inn president and former graduate advisor to the ICC, “Bicker clubs are looking to minimize the hurtfulness and divisiveness of the bicker selection process.” Cottage Club eliminated pick-ups this past February, and more clubs may follow. Vice President Durkee believes that the ECTF’s recommendations would remove further discomfort. He explained that the new acceptance notification system will change the feeling from “I wanted to get into club X and I didn’t get into club X” to “I wanted to get into club X but I got an invitation from club Y or club Z.” Not entirely convinced, Prugar noted that, “There are still people who are Ivy-or-bust or TI-or-bust, and it’s still going to hurt.”

The University may be less concerned with some students’ feelings than with its own image. Research data have shown that the exclusivity of the eating club system deters many qualified prospective students from accepting Princeton’s invitation or even applying. President Tilghman said, “I think there is a lingering perception in the public that they are the last vestiges of elitism—social stratification—at Princeton.” According to Tilghman, many current students concur. She attributes much of the success of four-year residential colleges and food cooperatives among upperclassmen to this sentiment. In her view, a friendlier selection process may help make Princeton life more palatable to everyone.

President Tilghman and Vice President Durkee are both optimistic about the eating clubs’ approving some version of the new selection process. One issue on which they also agree is that the ECTF report is the University’s “first comprehensive review” of the eating club system. History would tell a different story.
A Perennial Power Struggle

In the 1907 Report on the Social Co-ordination of the University, President Woodrow Wilson, class of 1879, laid the framework for the residential college system. His “Quad Plan,” as it was known, proposed the creation of an integrated dining and social experience for all students, of which he felt the eating clubs deprived many students. Quite radically, he advocated for their elimination. As Wilson wrote in the report, “The effect of this plan upon the upper-class clubs would be either their abolition or their absorption…A separate club life for them would rob the whole plan of its vitality, and is not to be thought of.”

Just as today, the exclusivity of the eating clubs—particularly their selection process—was creating an image problem for Princeton, and populist President Wilson sought to remove that blemish. According to T. Wyatt Yankus ‘08’s “Woodrow Wilson, Moses Taylor Pyne, and the Second Battle of Princeton,” what resulted from the report were an administration failure and angry alums at Princeton, but a successful national speaking tour that paved Wilson’s way to the American presidency at the expense of his alma mater. For years after his 1910 resignation as Princeton president, he would remain a persona non grata on campus. Remarkably, it was only because alumni stood up en masse to object to his proposal that club life still exists at Princeton.

With a few minor exceptions, it would be 70 years before the University would be so bold as to inflame alumni sensitivities over the eating club system. In 1978, President William Bowen formed the Committee for Undergraduate Residential Life (CURL) to study precisely the purview of the ECTF and its resulting working group today. And just like the ECTF, CURL cited an American recession and the closure of several clubs as its motivations for policy recommendations for the University and the eating clubs.

CURL resulted in the expansion of the nascent residential college system from two colleges to five. It also suggested a quid pro quo arrangement with all the eating cubs, under which it would take care of the maintenance of the clubs in exchange for absolute control over the clubs’ selection process: “After careful deliberation, we have concluded that membership in the participating clubs ought to be determined in the same way it is presently determined in the eight open (sign-in) clubs which now constitute a majority of all the clubs.”

The report tellingly asserts, “In short, the governing presumption of University policy is that all programs and activities will be open to all students; in those instances where some selection is required, the University administers all aspects of the process itself, because it cannot delegate so important a responsibility.” None of the clubs—not even the sign-in clubs—signed on. Due to University policy, the executive records for CURL (located in the Office of the Provost Records) will remain sealed for another 12 years.

Fast-forward to 2002, when President Tilghman formed the Four-Year College Program Planning Committee to continue the work of her predecessors, for several of the same stated reasons. To many, this was no coincidence. And neither was the formation of the Eating Club Task Force in 2009.

John Bruestle ’78, graduate board chairman of Charter Club, explained, “There seems to be a prevalent suspicion amongst club alumni that the University would like to absorb the eating clubs into four-year residential colleges.” Whether the administration’s ultimate goal is to implement Wilson’s Quad Plan or simply to replace the clubs’ current selection process is unclear at this stage. Regardless, mistrust toward Nassau Hall still abounds on Prospect Avenue.
A Confederacy of Clubs

The administration has tried to distance the University’s position from the findings of the ECTF report. President Tilghman called the “independent” task force’s recommendations “unanimous.” Genevieve Ryan ‘11, however, voiced her dissent: “I don’t agree with every aspect of all the changes suggested, but the conclusion was that there may be ways to change parts of the selection process that don’t actually change the entire process.” She would not discuss her specific concerns.

Like the individual task force members, the eating clubs share their own disagreements. All are concerned that a unified selection process may undermine their individual characters. The bicker clubs want devoted bickerees—not sophomores who are bickering simply for the experience. And as the more successful sign-in clubs seek their own brands, they would rather be viewed as a first option than as a fallback. The struggling sign-in clubs Colonial Club and Quadrangle Club do have a compelling reason to support the new proposal, but some have suggested that internal reform may be superior to University dependence.

On May 7th of this year, the Daily Princetonian quoted Martin Scheeler ’11, President of Tower Club as well as of the ICC, as calling the proposed selection system “extremely misguided and unrealistic.” He has since toned down his criticism. Wrote Scheeler in an email interview, “As it stands now, both the clubs and the University are still working towards finding a system that improves the selection process for both the clubs and the broader University community.”

This October, Vice President Durkee released a progress report to keep track of the recommendations and to continue the conversation. The task force members have not reconvened, but they were notified of the progress report. According to Dean Flores-Mills, who is also a University liaison and advisor to the ICC, Vice President Durkee had a long conversation with the ICC on October 20th, and a discussion of the selection process alone lasted about two hours. One month later, the talks over selection have produced no results.

The continued dispute does not indicate a complete unwillingness of the eating clubs to cooperate with the University. Scheeler wrote that he expects the task force report’s proposed restructuring of club financing, greater club transparency with prospective members, and reduction of internal costs all to be adopted by the clubs. He added, “These are a few of my favorite things.”

While Scheeler represents the ICC (a governing body composed of all eating club presidents), he does not necessarily represent each club. As Ryan put it, “Not only are the eating clubs as a body autonomous, but so are the individual clubs.” President Tilghman consents with this attitude, and expects any change to occur on a one-by-one basis. She also views the clubs as “an integral part of Princeton.” But at another point during the interview she said of the ideal number of eating clubs, “I would define it as the number that can accommodate all the students who wish to be members of clubs.”

Vice President Durkee, who was a part of the club system, responded differently: “I don’t know if there’s an ideal number of clubs, but one of the conclusions we came to as a task force was that going forward it would be very desirable if the number of clubs did not dip below the level that exist now.” He also stated that the current distribution of five selective clubs and five open clubs was “healthy,” but that the number of interested students is too low to sustain ten eating clubs.
Better Relations?

In discussing the impetus behind the ECTF, Vice President Durkee noted that, “Recent relationships between the University and the clubs seemed to be better than they had been for awhile.” Some have pointed out that this may have come with the University’s realization that excessive alcohol consumption is a far greater problem in campus dormitories than in the eating clubs. But whatever the reason, the past five years have seen “improved” cooperation between the two parties. Against the backdrop of the ECTF have been a host of recent negotiations, many of which are just as calculated as the task force itself.

The underlying goal has been to increase the eating clubs’ dependency on the administration. At no cost to the clubs, the University installed wireless Internet (presumably to establish its own infrastructure) and increased the top financial aid package by $2000 for juniors and seniors so that they might better afford eating club membership (although some criticize the additional financial aid for incentivizing non-participation in the clubs). In addition, the University introduced shared meal plans between the residential colleges and eating clubs (but the clubs view the deal partly as a financial concession), and provided the clubs with shared alumni data (the clubs previously had access to this data, but it had been cut off a few years before).

Around the time of the shared meal plan negotiations, says Executive Vice President Mark Burstein, the University began to sort out “various outstanding issues” with the clubs. These issues included, but were not limited to, real estate claims. In response to a request for materials pertaining to past negotiations, Vice President Burstein wrote that,  “Any documents related to real estate transaction whether with eating clubs or any other party are confidential as requested by both parties.”

Burstein did, however, refer the Tory to page 103 of the Princeton Campus Plan. On it is a map of the area around Prospect Avenue, and the colors green and grey distinguish University and non-University property, respectively. Curiously, the land on which Colonial Club stands and significant portions of the backyards of Charter Club and Cloister Inn are depicted in green. In 1988, the University purchased Colonial’s land to help the club out financially—a fact which Colonial’s graduate board readily acknowledges. Neither Burstein nor Charter’s graduate board chairman John Bruestle ’78 would comment on Charter Club’s status.

Preston Granbery ’69, chairman of Cloister Inn’s graduate board, revealed that Cloister Inn had settled a land negotiation with the administration and was now a beneficiary of a renewable, revocable long-term lease from the University. Vice President Burstein confirmed that this settlement had taken place in 2008, and that the lease was revocable only in “extreme circumstances.” He would not say what these circumstances were, nor would he comment on why the University did not simply sell the land to the club, although he did concede that the University agrees with Cloister’s stated need for the property. Yet the timing and conditions of this specific land negotiation (which Burstein repeatedly refused to call a “dispute”) are curious.

Vice President Burstein insisted that such negotiations at the time of the University’s new cooperation with the clubs were not quid pro quo. In his words, “We went out and we said, ‘How can we enhance the eating club experience?’” After eating club graduate board chairs and presidents compiled a list of issues that they felt could be better addressed by the University, the administration listened. In turn, the University hopes that the clubs will listen to its wishes about a revised selection process.

Still, given the administration’s motives and the clubs’ mistrust, it seems that the more the University pushes, the more the clubs will continue to resist on reforming their selection process. Said Mr. Granbery, “There’s not much chance that the specific proposal will be passed or anything [like it] this year.” He added, “I don’t know how to evaluate how there will ever be changes.”

If history is to be relived—and students and alumni indeed continue to assert their autonomy on the Street—then those changes will come when the eating clubs deem fit, or perhaps not at all. As Genevieve Ryan put it, “At the end of the day these are private institutions, and they’re going to stay that way.”

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