Web Exclusives: Raising Kate
a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

March 13, 2002:

A losing proposition?

Eating clubs bring out the best and worst

By Kate Swearengen '04

I was eating at Forbes the other day when I saw the signs. There were at least 30 of them, and they were plastered to the bulletin boards that face the cafeteria entrance. "If anyone found my silver Kenneth Cole watch, please call (telephone number). It was lost somewhere at Forbes on Friday, amidst all of the Bicker chaos."

Indeed, the Bicker and sign-in process for eating clubs may have ended, but the damage isn't over. Yeah, you survived initiations, and antibiotics killed off any germs you picked up from licking the toilet seats in Firestone. The folks at Craft Cleaners managed to save your mohair coat. You may be able to get your self-respect back, and you may even have licked Tabasco sauce off a tanned, taut stomach for the last time. But that silver Kenneth Cole watch is long gone.

I mean, before reading those signs, I never knew that Kenneth Cole made watches. Shoes, yes, but timepieces? For years, I had just assumed that the man was a footwear specialist. I guess it's a good thing I didn't go through Bicker.

Not that I'm making any kind of point. Signing into an eating club, I've been told, doesn't give me carte blanche to spout populist rhetoric. After all, when the sign-in clubs go door-to-door in the dorms to pick up their new members, they spill the same pungent champagne all over the hallway. Okay, maybe it's not the same champagne. I can't imagine Ivy toasting its new members with the same stuff that the Terrace people spilled on me. But in any case, the janitor is the one who gets stuck cleaning it up in the morning.

People say that sign-in clubs are more equitable, because selection to these clubs is based on a lottery, which is overseen by one of Princeton's many deans. Tuition for the sign-in clubs is also cheaper. Most important, the sign-in clubs generally don't run on passes, which means that you can get in, even if you're not a member of that club. Even if you're only a freshman. Well, at least most of the time.

Of course, some people don't like the idea of having eating clubs at all. Woodrow Wilson felt this way, and campaigned against the system during his tenure as Princeton's president. After failing to elicit change, he moved on to bigger and better things, like the White House and self-determination. The most recent challenge to the eating clubs came last year, from a project called "Rethink The Street." Students were supposed to submit plans to transform Prospect Street, and the author of the winning proposal would be awarded $5,000. What ended up happening was that the deadline for submissions was extended several times, and, if a winner was ever selected, it was poorly publicized. The group that mounted the campaign has since changed focus, and is currently devoting itself to the planning of the sixth residential college.

Heck, if anyone should be against the eating clubs, it should be those Woodrow Wilson School people who pursue an academic curriculum named for the 28th president. Don't they realize that in bickering Tower en masse, they're dishonoring the man who gave them the Fourteen Points and a virtual lock on a nice ambassadorship? Or is it just that faced with the prospect of abstaining from marijuana or kinky sexual behavior during their undergraduate years (these things have an ugly tendency to resurface during senatorial campaigns), thumbing their noses at poor old Woodrow Wilson is the next best thing?

Who knows. I'm just glad that this semester will be my last with Princeton University Dining Services. My parents, for their part, are glad that I'll finally be eating vegetables. They're happy with my decision, aside from the fact that eating leafy greens at Terrace means that I'll be absorbing second-hand smoke at the same time that I'm absorbing vitamin B.

Of course, not everyone is happy. Charter was a popular choice this year, and the club filled up in the first round of sign-ins, thus relegating some students to the waiting list. Then there are the casualties of Bicker, who have to recover from the knowledge that a week's worth of interviews and public embarrassment wasn't enough to make the club members like them. Or, at least, enough to make them think they were good enough to eat with. Heck, even people who did get into their first choice clubs may have second thoughts. Tiger Inn, which is a notoriously popular club with a notoriously disgusting Bicker process, didn't release its statistics this year. Rumor has it that this is because so few people chose to bicker Tiger Inn, the club only turned nine people away. You have to wonder if a lot of T.I.'s applicants swallowed carp needlessly.

And even if you're happy with the club you joined, your parents may not be. This is the case with my friend Margaret, whose father is less than enthused that she joined Terrace.

"Isn't that the gay club, Margaret?" he asked her.

Margaret hedged.

"It is," he persisted. "I see their name on all the Gay Pride posters around campus. Terrace sponsors all of it."

"First you stop going to Mass," he went on. "Then you start eating at the Center for Jewish Life. Now you've joined Terrace?"

Terrace will be holding its initiations next weekend. Wait until he hears about that.


You can reach Kate Swearengen at kswearen@princeton.edu