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Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014

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Working group recommends changes to enhance social and residential life

While Princeton University undergraduates express high levels of satisfaction with social and residential life, a working group of students, faculty and staff is recommending several changes to enhance this essential element of the campus experience.

In a report issued May 2, the Working Group on Campus Social and Residential Life states: "The basic message is clear: Overall levels of satisfaction are high (and generally higher than at other institutions) and where there is dissatisfaction, in large measure it does not correlate with any specific demographic factor or living arrangement. In other words, while we found areas for improvement, we did not discover any definable group that is not having a meaningful and rewarding social life at Princeton."

The 13-member group, appointed by President Shirley M. Tilghman in September 2010, however discovered after meeting with 17 focus groups and receiving almost 300 comments on its website that there were some needs that could be better met, areas that could be improved and concerns that could be addressed. Its key recommendations include:

  • Students should be prohibited from affiliating with a fraternity or sorority or engaging in any form of rush at any time during the freshman year, or from conducting or having responsibility for any form of rush in which freshmen participate. The penalty for violating these prohibitions should be severe enough to encourage widespread compliance, which probably means a minimum penalty of suspension.
     
  • The University should significantly increase its commitment to enforce policies that prohibit serious forms of hazing wherever it occurs, and the University should become even more vigilant in imposing highly consequential disciplinary penalties on students found to have engaged in hazing that seriously threatened the health and well-being of any student.
     
  • The working group concurs with the widespread and strongly held view across a broad range of campus constituencies that it would be desirable to reinstate a campus pub that would be open to all undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff and help to model the responsible use of alcohol.

The group also recommends several initiatives regarding both larger- and smaller-scale events on campus, building relationships across classes, enhancing life in the residential colleges, expanding the roles of residential college advisers and Outdoor Action/Community Action groups, and revamping aspects of freshman orientation and Princeton Preview.

"The working group was asked to put forward its judgments and suggestions and to stimulate lively and informed conversation about on-campus social and residential life," the report concludes. "The next steps depend on those students, faculty and staff who have responsibilities in these areas. It is now for them to decide which of the ideas and recommendations in this report ought to be pursued, by whom and at what pace. The members of the working group would be delighted to participate in this ongoing conversation in any ways they can be helpful."

Following up on previous work

Tilghman appointed the working group following a period of significant change in campus life. A new four-year residential college system had been implemented, creating new living and dining options for juniors, seniors and graduate students. The Frist Campus Center was celebrating its 10th anniversary; the Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding had moved into spacious new quarters; and Campus Club -- a former eating club -- had reopened as a gathering place for all undergraduate and graduate students.

A separate student-faculty-staff-alumni task force had spent the previous year examining relationships between the University and the eating clubs, organizations founded and operated by students and alumni that for more than a hundred years have played an integral role in undergraduate life at Princeton. In May 2010 that task force issued a report making 25 recommendations to improve the relationships and the experiences students have in the clubs. In addition, the task force identified several issues related to undergraduate on-campus social and residential life that fell outside of its charge, but that it thought merited careful review by a similarly constituted group of students, faculty and staff.

Tilghman asked the new group to address the issues identified by the Eating Club Task Force and, specifically, to accomplish two tasks: review the University's goals regarding undergraduate on-campus social and residential life; and answer four questions: How can undergraduate social and residential life be enhanced and improved on campus? How can the University enrich the social and residential experience in the residential colleges? What is and should be the role of fraternities and sororities at Princeton? Is it desirable, and if so, feasible to reintroduce a campus pub?

The working group included five undergraduates, two faculty members (one of them a residential college master) and six members of the staff, including two directors of student life in the residential colleges and, as co-chairs, Vice President for Campus Life Cynthia Cherrey and Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee.

In addition to meeting with focus groups and creating a website, the group examined data about the social and residential experience of Princeton undergraduates, and it met with an outside expert on fraternities and sororities. It also established an affiliated committee under the leadership of Amy Campbell, director of campus life initiatives in the Office of the Vice President for Campus Life, to examine in detail the issues related to reinstatement of a campus pub.

Identifying goals and themes

The group's report provides a brief history of social and residential life at Princeton, as well as a snapshot of the data the group considered in making its recommendations.

In reviewing the University's goals regarding undergraduate on-campus social and residential life, the report states: "In its undergraduate admission process, Princeton University looks carefully at two sets of characteristics. One set focuses on academic qualifications and capacities, while the other encompasses extracurricular activities, leadership potential and a broad range of personal qualities. Both sets of characteristics are important because while Princeton is first and foremost an academic institution, it also cares deeply about developing each student's non-academic interests and talents and preparing students to live healthy, productive and meaningful lives that include opportunities for leadership and service to others."

The residential experience and campus social life, the report concludes, are intended to develop core values and build the skills needed to create a sense of community and mutual respect, a sense of responsibility for themselves and others, an empathy for those from different backgrounds and a capacity to be refreshed, foster friendships and live a balanced life.

Throughout the report, students and alumni who submitted comments to the group’s website are quoted. "I think the goals for social and residential life should be about creating opportunities for meaningful interaction, to prepare students for life beyond the University, and also to provide a social network that ensures that they have support and guidance and the strength of community," one wrote. "I also think that there must be an expectation of responsible, thoughtful, engaged participation for all campus community members in the social life of the campus."

The working group identifies three recurring themes that emerged in its work: an "intense desire" by entering students to get to know older undergraduates in order to benefit from their experience; the importance of relieving stress and building friendships through unstructured socializing; and the call for a broader sense of community.

Recommendations

In recommending the changes regarding fraternities and sororities, the report states, "The working group expresses its concern that because of the nature of the selection process and the cost, fraternities and sororities exacerbate the divide on campus between students of means and students with limited resources. It also expresses its concern that behavior within some of the Greek organizations is demeaning, dangerous and incompatible with Princeton's values."

The proposal to prohibit first-year students from affiliating with these organizations grew out of a concern that "membership … in freshman year narrows students' social circles before they gain a full sense of the opportunities Princeton has to offer or experience the full diversity of backgrounds and interests among their fellow students," the report states. "This concern is heightened by the pipeline relationship that exists between some of the Greek organizations and some of the eating clubs, which has the effect of tracking students very early in their Princeton careers."

This recommendation, as well as the one on enforcing hazing policies, also emerged from a concern about the dangerous use of alcohol, according to the report.

"The particular circumstances of Greek life at Princeton accentuate this concern," the report states, "because (a) rush takes place in freshman year when students may be more insecure and less capable of resisting peer pressure than they will be in later years; (b) students may be more susceptible to peer pressure if they believe admission to a fraternity or sorority will also get them into the eating club of their choice; and (c) the lack of a significant junior and senior presence in fraternities and sororities at Princeton means that most pledging and hazing is conducted by sophomores, in contrast to the junior and senior leadership that more typically exists on campuses with fully developed Greek systems."

The group is not proposing a prohibition beyond freshman year, but is recommending the University continue with its policy of not officially recognizing fraternities and sororities. This means the organizations cannot use University resources or facilities. The group also recommends that the University be more vigilant in challenging the national fraternities and sororities that use Princeton's name on their websites.

While the working group endorses the widely supported reinstatement of a campus pub, it states that the next step of finding a place for it was more difficult. In the end, it acknowledges the advantages of building a new facility, but recommends as more feasible converting one of two spaces on campus: the downstairs "Tap Room" at Prospect House; or the downstairs café area at Chancellor Green.

"The working group believes the benefits that would accrue from reinstating a pub, especially in helping to create a more responsible culture on campus regarding alcohol, justify the investment of time and resources to develop a plan for one of these two locations, and seek the approvals and funding necessary to go forward," the report states.

The working group also recommends a variety of changes to address the recurring themes that surfaced.

They include adding one or two "big signature events" each year to attract all four undergraduate classes, such as concerts with headliner talent, all-student dances, or an annual Princeton birthday party with music, dancing and a special cake. It also recommends smaller-scale events intended to increase bonding within each of the classes and among the classes. In addition, the report calls for more events in the residential colleges that are open only to college members, open to those outside the college and planned by students, as well as greater outreach to juniors and seniors.

The working group also suggests that Outdoor Action and Community Action groups get together on occasion throughout freshman year to share experiences and seek guidance from the upperclass students who lead these pre-orientation programs.

The report asks whether residential college advisers and dormitory assistants in the upperclass dorms should play more of a role in building a sense of community in those dorms.

In addition, the report recommends making a greater effort during orientation to bring freshmen together with upperclass students who can share their insights and experiences. And it suggests creating more time for bonding and fun at both orientation and Princeton Preview, the annual hosting program for admitted students and their families.

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