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For more than a century private eating clubs — founded and operated by students and alumni — have played an integral role in undergraduate life at Princeton University. Today more than two-thirds of all juniors and seniors join the 10 clubs that currently exist, and for members and many non-members alike, the clubs play a central role in the social life of the campus.

In the spring of 2009, Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman and Undergraduate Student Government President Connor Diemand-Yauman ’10 began a conversation about the eating clubs and the relationships between the clubs and the University. They agreed that it was healthy to re-examine these relationships periodically to see whether they can be improved, just as the University periodically re-examines other aspects of campus life. Their conversation led them to establish a task force of students, faculty, staff and alumni to review these relationships and to “examine whether there are steps that can and should be taken to strengthen those relationships for the mutual benefit of the clubs and the University, and for the benefit of Princeton students and the undergraduate experience.”

In announcing the creation of the task force, they reaffirmed the important role the clubs play at Princeton and cited a number of positive developments in recent years. They pointed to “the increased size of the undergraduate student body, the financial challenges being faced by both the clubs and the University, and the full implementation of the four-year college system with the completion of the new Butler College dormitories,” as reasons why “this seems an especially appropriate time to ask a broadly constituted task force to conduct a wide-ranging review of relationships between the University and the clubs.”  

Charge to the Task Force

The charge to the task force asked it specifically to consider “whether there are ways to improve the club experience for students who are members and the application process for students who wish to become members; whether there are ways to increase engagement with the clubs for students who currently choose not to become members; whether there are ways to strengthen relationships between the clubs and the colleges and between students in the clubs and students who choose not to join the clubs; whether there are additional ‘best practices’ that can and should be identified; and whether we can do a better job of describing the nature of the clubs to potential applicants and admitted students.”

Composition of the Task Force

The 18 members of the task force included eight undergraduates, three faculty members, five staff members (four of whom are alumni), and two alumni who chair the graduate (governing) boards of clubs. The undergraduates included Diemand-Yauman and seven other students whom he appointed following an application process during which he consulted with the chair of the Inter-Club Council (ICC), the coordinating group on which all undergraduate eating club presidents are represented. Since six of the eight students were sophomores or juniors, they will be able to continue as members of the task force if its work continues into a second year. One of the graduate board chairs, Dinesh Maneyapanda ’94 of Quadrangle, is also the current chair of the Graduate Inter-Club Council (GICC), the coordinating body for the chairs of all 10 club graduate boards. The 18 members of the task force include current or former members of eight of the 10 clubs that currently exist, including all five of the clubs that admit members through a selection process known as bicker and three of the five that admit members on a sign-in basis.

The Work of the Task Force

The task force met eight times between October and April, beginning with a meeting that was joined by President Tilghman. At its first meeting working groups were established to prepare a history of the relationship between the University and the eating clubs, create a website for the task force, identify data that the task force wanted to examine, explore issues related to the admission process, and actively seek the views of a broad range of individuals and groups.

The task force learned a great deal in the course of its work, and in issuing its report it hopes to share what it learned with the broader University community (including students, faculty, staff and alumni), while also making a number of observations and recommendations that it hopes will be considered carefully by those in positions of responsibility at the University and at the clubs. As described in this report, the task force believes that the eating clubs will and should continue to play an important role in the life of the University; that there are concerns about the role of the clubs that can and should be addressed; and that a number of opportunities exist to strengthen and improve the relationships between the University and the clubs.

The Task Force Website

Shortly after it began meeting, the task force created a website that had two purposes. One was to provide basic information about its charge, its membership and the history of the eating clubs. The second was to invite members of the University community to share their views about the issues that the task force had been asked to consider. The task force called its website “Word on the Street: a conversation on University/eating club relationships” and asked visitors to respond to four questions:

  • How have you engaged with the eating clubs and what is your opinion of them?
  • If you think the eating club experience can be improved, what are your suggestions?
  • What is your opinion of the relationships between the eating clubs and the University? If you think the relationships could be improved, what are your suggestions?
  • What topic(s) do you think the task force should focus on?

As of the writing of this report, 653 visitors had submitted comments on the website. Two things were especially striking about these comments. One was that almost all of the comments were exceedingly thoughtful and helpful, and in a later section of this report we will characterize what they had to say. The other was the degree to which they reflected the breadth of the University community. For example:

Of those who indicated class year:

  • 580 gave an undergraduate class year, and of these
    • 110 were freshmen or sophomores
    • 287 were juniors or seniors
    • 183 were alumni
  • 14 gave a graduate student class year, including 5 current students and 9 alumni
  • Others didn’t answer the question or were faculty/staff, parents or other relatives

Of those who indicated gender, ethnicity or financial aid status:

  • 51% were male and 49% were female
  • 29% were minority students
  • 50% received financial aid

Of all respondents, 412 indicated specific club membership. Of those who did not so indicate, most were freshmen or sophomores; some identified as independent or members of residential colleges; and a few indicated they were club members but did not indicate which club. Included in the 412 who indicated specific membership were current and former members of all 10 existing clubs plus four former clubs (Campus, Dial, DEC, Cannon). A list of club affiliations is available.

Other Outreach

In addition to seeking comments through its website, the task force published a letter soliciting comments in the Princeton Alumni Weekly and met with 16 individuals and groups, some more than once, to seek their views and guidance. As with the comments on the website, these conversations helped shape the agenda and deliberations of the task force.