Task force issues report on University and the eating clubs

In a report issued May 3, the University's Task Force on Relationships between the University and the Eating Clubs reaffirms the important role the clubs play at Princeton and offers recommendations for enhancing the positive contributions the clubs can make to social life on campus for all undergraduate students. The task force also offers recommendations to address a number of concerns and challenges that are described in the report, and to strengthen relationships between the clubs and the University.

The task force provides a brief history and some basic facts and figures about the clubs before presenting findings and recommendations in eight key areas for consideration by the University and the clubs. These include: alcohol and safety; financial aid and cost; the "bicker" member selection process; the role of fraternities and sororities; exclusivity, inclusiveness and diversity; communications and representations of information about the clubs; academic life and community service; and relationships between the University and the clubs.

The 23-page report, which is available online, is the result of nearly seven months of work by the task force, which was established last fall by Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman and then-Undergraduate Student Government President Connor Diemand-Yauman, a member of the class of 2010. The task force is made up of 18 members of the University community, including Diemand-Yauman and seven other undergraduates, as well as alumni, faculty and staff. It is chaired by Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee.

"We hope that our report will stimulate an informed and wide-ranging conversation over the next few weeks and continuing into next year in the clubs, on campus, between the clubs and the University, and with a broad range of students and alumni," Durkee said. "We are encouraging readers to share their comments and reactions with us through our website and in discussions we will be having with the student and alumni leaders of the clubs, other interested students and alumni, and various University officials and offices."

The task force noted that the private eating clubs, of which currently there are 10, are "an integral part of Princeton's history and distinctiveness" and that they "shape the Princeton social scene even for students who are not members." Today, more than two-thirds of all juniors and seniors join the clubs, beginning in the spring semester of sophomore year.

The charge to the task force was to review the relationships between the University and the eating clubs 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."

One of the first activities of the task force, which started meeting last October, was to create a website to communicate information about its charge and invite members of the University community to share their views about the issues that the task force had been asked to consider.

As of the time of the report's publication, more than 650 visitors had submitted comments to the website, some of which are excerpted in the document. The task force noted in the report that "while it is clear that students and alumni have divergent perspectives on the nature of the club experience and about the relationships between the clubs and the University, the similarities in what we heard were much more striking than the differences. To put it most simply, even those who expressed the greatest concerns or disappointments about the clubs recognized their benefits and strengths, and even the strongest proponents of the clubs recognized their shortcomings."

The report outlines the living and dining options for Princeton students, which have been expanded in recent years. In particular, the full implementation in 2009 of the four-year college system with the completion of the Butler College dormitories rounds out residential choices at the University. All freshmen and sophomores must live on campus and are assigned to one of the six residential colleges. At the beginning of spring semester of sophomore year, students choose where they will live and eat in their junior year. For many students, the eating clubs are a popular option for dining. Five of the clubs have a member selection process, known as "bicker," and five have a member sign-in process.

The strengths of the clubs derive from their relatively small size, the "familial ethos" they evoke, the degree of responsibility that students are given in the management and programming of the clubs, and the lifelong connections to the clubs of many alumni, the task force said.

The task force also noted "a number of developments in recent years that seem to have improved the experiences of students in the clubs and the relationships between the clubs and the University." They include "the identification of 'best practices' governing several aspects of club operations, including the provision of alcohol; improvements in the process by which the bicker clubs notify their new members; modifications in the University's financial aid policies to recognize the costs of club meal contracts; the introduction of shared meal plans; and even the appointment of [the] task force."

At the same time, the findings of the task force point to several areas of concern. Such concerns include lower participation in the clubs by students from lower-income and minority backgrounds; "the 'culture of alcohol' that seems to characterize much of club life; a selection process that many describe as hurtful; and the development of pipeline relationships into a number of selective clubs that help sustain Greek organizations that many feel are incompatible with the Princeton residential experience," stated the task force.

Other areas of concern include the ongoing financial viability of the clubs, in particular the sign-in clubs, as well as the cost of maintaining old, much-used buildings.

Stating that "we hope and believe that these concerns and challenges can be addressed," the task force emphasizes that "both the University and the clubs have a great stake in preserving the viability, vitality and value of the eating clubs, and as in a crew race, the best outcome is going to be achieved if everyone is pulling on the oars in the same direction, and together."

Major recommendations

Regarding alcohol and safety, the task force recommends additional steps to control excessive alcohol consumption and potentially dangerous activities such as drinking games. Such steps should be part of a campus-wide strategy to encourage the responsible use of alcohol and could include the reintroduction of a campus pub. It also proposes expanding and improving on-campus social activities and more major alcohol-free social events at the clubs. With safety a paramount concern, the task force recommends exploring the possibility of reinstating the University's public safety department as first responder at the clubs, with support from Princeton Borough police only as needed, as part of a larger effort to encourage more constructive engagement between the clubs and public safety.

In the area of costs, the task force states that concerns remain about the affordability of the clubs, despite the University's recent modifications to its financial aid policy to include the cost of club meal contracts. Students express concern about the costs of social fees and sophomore charges and the mechanics of the aid distribution/bill-paying process. The task force encourages the clubs to consider actions to reduce the costs of operating the clubs, including collective purchasing and waste removal; working with the University to reduce the cost of insurance; and possible modifications in club meal plans. 

Noting a variety of concerns about the bicker selection process as it currently operates, the task force proposes an alternative club selection process in which sophomores interested in joining a club would submit ranked lists of preferences and each club that wished to do so would submit a ranked list of sophomores it would most like to admit. A computer program would then make matches based on the preferences submitted by sophomores and any preferences submitted by the clubs. The task force notes that such a process would "permit clubs to retain aspects of selectivity but would not require them to do so"; that it would place "every student who participates in his or her highest possible choice as part of a single process"; that it would provide for greater privacy in the selection process; and that it would be easier to describe to potential applicants and admitted students, "since every student interested in a club gets to submit a list of preferences and every student gets placed." The task force commends recent improvements in the process by which new members are notified of their acceptance to be less conspicuous to those not accepted, but calls for even further improvements in this area. 

The task force expresses concern that because fraternity and sorority members at Princeton are "disproportionately white and from higher-income families," the feeder relationships that have developed between some of the fraternities and sororities and some of the clubs contribute to the social and economic stratification of the clubs, and particularly the selective clubs. There is also concern that fraternities and sororities contribute to the "pervasiveness of an alcohol culture" and "a sense of exclusivity and privilege." The task force suggests the clubs consider ways to reduce the advantages associated with Greek membership in the selection process and in access to passes to club parties, and suggests that fraternities and sororities move their admission process from freshman to sophomore year.

The task force asks the clubs to "reach out and be as welcoming as possible to students from a full range of backgrounds" and suggests greater efforts to introduce all freshmen and sophomores, especially students of color and international students, to the clubs, and particularly to the non-party aspects of club life. Further recommendations include enhancing social programming across campus with a broad appeal and encouraging more joint programming and meal exchanges between the residential colleges and the clubs.

The group recommends describing the clubs more fully and fairly to prospective students and applicants, and suggests that the clubs expand their educational and community service activities, potentially with support from the Princeton Prospect Foundation.

Noting the importance of preserving a critical mass of clubs and ensuring there continue to be clubs that operate on a non-selective basis, the task force suggests that some University investment may be required over future years "to help some of the less financially secure clubs to get on a firmer financial footing." It suggests the expansion and enhancement of the clubs' Best Practices Handbook to "strengthen the sections on alcohol usage and safety policy and develop additional sections on the selection of club members and governance" and recommends "improved mechanisms … for regular communication and shared planning between the University and the clubs."