Web Exclusives: Bonus Stories

November 6, 2002: An opinion

Four-year residential colleges, what’s to come?
Steve Caputo ’01 assesses the situation and offers suggestions for improvement

With all of the new construction occurring on campus, I knew that Princeton would one day seem very different to me. I just didn’t expect this to happen so soon. In mid-September, I read the final report of the Four-Year College Program Planning Committee — the group responsible for developing the social, dining, residential and educational objectives for Whitman College and the other two planned four-year residential colleges. At first, many of the ideas in the programming committee’s report impressed me. But then I realized that the Princeton described in the report was not the Princeton that I knew.

What struck me most about the report was what it was missing. Back when I went to Princeton, Prospect Avenue’s eating clubs dominated campus social life. Nearly 80% of upperclassmen ate at the clubs and the majority of undergraduates spent their weekends partying at the street. That’s why I was shocked that the eating clubs scarcely received a mention in the four-year college report. The report recommended an improved meal exchange program between the clubs and the university but it otherwise neglected to envision how the four-year college system would impact and relate to Princeton’s prevailing sources of social life. And what about alcohol consumption? Reading the four-year college report made me wonder if drinking on campus had suddenly gone out of style. The report’s sole reference to alcohol use is found in this sentence: “The judicious serving of alcohol to students who are of age could be permitted at College Society events.” When I was a student at Princeton, there was nothing judicious about alcohol consumption. Students mobbed the eating clubs every weekend for free beer. Of course, you couldn’t blame them since the clubs were the only places on campus where you could socialize among large groups of friends. This left me with a fundamental question about the report: with barely any mention of the eating clubs or drinking, how would students in the four-year college system spend a Thursday or Saturday night?

It is truly unfortunate that the programming committee’s report failed to engage this question. I’m otherwise enthusiastic about the report’s goal of diversifying social options and encouraging normative changes that will enable the viability of new opportunities. However, I can’t understand why the report articulated these visions in a vacuum. By not discussing the opportunities and obstacles represented by the eating clubs, the report neglected to grapple with the realities of campus social life in formulating the four-year residential college system. I keep asking myself if this was an effort to avoid controversy, or if the university has a hidden agenda.

You don’t have to be a university historian to know that the eating clubs are Princeton’s Achilles heel. Shortly after their inception, critics targeted the clubs for their exclusive membership policies and for permitting excessive fraternizing. In recent decades, these longstanding criticisms were compounded by the assertion that eating clubs perpetuate racial and economic divisions on campus and contribute to the limited diversity of Princeton’s applicant pool. A recent article in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education supported this claim, remarking that Princeton has “an archaic undergraduate club system that is said to discourage the applications of many blacks.” Since the beginning of the 20th century, eating club reformers have attempted to create alternative dining and social institutions to balance or undermine the role of the clubs. In 1907, Woodrow Wilson proposed to eliminate the eating clubs and replace them with a four-year residential college system called the “quads”. Despite its aspirations for a more integrated intellectual and social life on campus, Wilson’s Quad Plan outraged many alumni and students, who by this time were deeply devoted to the clubs. After waves of damaging publicity and threats by alumni to withdraw financial contributions, the board of trustees withdrew its support of the plan. Wilson continued his anti-club campaign and a year later an alumni committee proposed the “University Club,” essentially a university operated student center and neutral space for socializing. As before, pressure from alumni influenced the board of trustees to table the “University Club” plan. The controversy subsided temporarily, but for nearly a century after Wilson’s campaign, various incarnations of these two goals—the four-year residential college and the student center—remained a primary focus for eating club reformers.

In 2001, my senior year at Princeton, these two long-debated proposals were finally realized. The Frist Campus Center opened its doors and the Board of Trustees approved the development of a four-year residential college system to accommodate a planned increase in undergraduate enrollment. While these major developments are bound to impact the role of the eating clubs and the character of social life on campus, the university is saying very little about this. The recent publication of the Four-year College Program Planning Committee’s report, which seeks to revolutionize campus life while saying almost nothing about the future role of the clubs, raises a red flag for me. If we read between the lines of the report, can we infer that the eating clubs will gradually lose their relevance or self-destruct under the new plan? Can we imagine that future elaborations to the four-year college system may bring an end to the clubs?

Here’s a doomsday scenario. Upon the opening of the four-year colleges, many upperclassmen elect the four-year residency plan because of its affordability compared to the high cost of eating club membership. At the same time, the institution of a flexible dining plan makes it easier for upperclassmen to choose independent status. These two factors will likely lead to decreases in club membership. Lagging club enrollment accompanied by rising cost of facility maintenance and need for capital improvements could pose serious financial constraints for the clubs and force some of them to close. As it has done in the past, the university will purchase these defunct clubhouses and convert them to academic or non-social functions. The remaining clubs may be forced to raise membership fees to stay afloat. Inflated club membership fees and fewer clubs to choose from could lead to a socio-economic rift on campus between club members and independent or four-year residential college students. This situation would exacerbate existing racial and ethnic divisions on campus. But yet, since the new four year college system will not offer alternative venues for large groups of people to socialize, listen to live music, dance, or drink, much of the student body will still migrate to the street each weekend for entertainment. Consequently, the eating clubs will subsidize the social life—and alcohol consumption—of a student body that has grown by 500 students, even while enrollment at the clubs is on the decline. To avoid financial ruin, the clubs might cease to allow entrance to non-members, thereby intensifying exclusivity at the street and severely limiting social options for students who don’t join clubs. In the meantime, Princeton Borough will intensify its use of public pressure and legal means to end nightlife at the street. With this type of pressure on the eating club system, a meltdown of some sort is inevitable.

Selected proposals are shown below.
Click on the images for a larger view.

Download PDF about the design competition.
The images below show two of the entrants before the judging panel. (These images do not enlarge.)

Far more favorable scenarios for the future of campus social life are possible. I know this because students envisioned these scenarios. During my senior year I was a part of a student group called Prospects that sought to stimulate dialogue about the future of social life at Princeton. Prospects organized a design competition in the spring of 2001 asking for proposals, primarily from students, for how spaces along Prospect Avenue could be enhanced, changed, redefined or added to in ways that would create a more diverse, inclusive and stimulating social life on campus. The competition received 50 energetic and provocative proposals and a jury comprised of university officials, trustees, professors and students met publicly to award $5000 in prizes. A year later, Prospects organized a second design competition asking students to generate proposals for Whitman College, the first of the new four-year residential colleges. The second competition received more than 65 entries and awarded $10,000 in prizes to the winners. For more information, download the 2002 competition catalogue below or check out www.princeton.edu/~rethink.

Taken as a group, the Prospects competition proposals illustrate how the university could combine ambitious plans for the new four-year college system with thoughtful initiatives at Prospect Avenue to improve campus life comprehensively. The 2001 Prospects entries challenged the university to reinvest in the street’s social geography through urban design and policy initiatives. A number of the proposals critiqued the university’s recent conversion of defunct clubs into non-social spaces and its proliferation of new academic buildings on Prospect Avenue, posing an alternative development model in which the university creates spaces that would reinvigorate social life at the street. Many entrants proposed building a performance hall, galleries and art studios at available locations along the street, citing the desperate need for these spaces on campus. Other entrants advocated providing neutral social spaces at Prospect Avenue that could be used by anyone for parties and other events. A number of entrants proposed revitalizing the Third World Center (now the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality & Cultural Understanding) or recommended building a new cultural center at a central location on the street to activate a spirit of multiculturalism. A few proposals even suggested knocking down all physical barriers between the clubs and creating a vast stretch of green space that students could freely traverse and utilize for recreation. Pointing out that the university owns much of the land surrounding the clubs, these proposals suggested the possibility of far-reaching urban design initiatives. Accompanying these urban designs were policy proposals aimed at making the clubs more affordable, diverse and inclusive. One consistent proposal was for the clubs and the university to coordinate purchasing, maintenance and security operations to reduce membership costs and keep them within reach of all students. Other proposals envisioned a highly integrated dining plan allowing effortless meal exchange at any club or university dining hall. As a body of ideas, the 2001 Prospects proposals illustrated how an activist agenda on Prospect Avenue could engender tremendous vitality at the street, while validating the role of the clubs and improving their social contract with the University.

Proposals for the 2002 Whitman College design competition provided an essential counterpart to the first year’s entries by striving to integrate the four-year college into the existing campus social system. Many entrants suggested that the four-year colleges must augment the role of the eating clubs by offering attractive social spaces and programs that complement and add to those provided by the clubs. Dozens of proposals indicated that a student operated twenty-four hour café would draw people from all over the campus, just as the clubs do in the late hours. Other entries sought to create a pub or lounge along the lines of the old “Library” at Chancellor Green, which would allow upperclassman to drink and socialize within the college. Many of the proposals envisioned Whitman College as the campus’ new performing arts hub, realizing that arts spaces like an outdoor amphitheater, darkrooms, studios and galleries would entice upperclassmen. The central theme to these proposals is that Whitman College and the other four-year colleges must provide a stimulating, comfortable and non-institutional setting and that they must allow privileges, flexibility, and a sense of autonomy to upperclassmen residents. The proposals insightfully recognized that the success of the four-year system depends on whether it will allow upperclassmen the space to be upperclassmen; this is what the eating clubs do best it is the reason for their longtime popularity. Allowing for this type of atmosphere will ensure that the four-year colleges don’t make their upperclassman residents feel isolated from campus social life. Instead, by acknowledging and catering to the reality of the upperclassman lifestyle, the four-year residential colleges could become popular destinations in an expanded social field.

The Prospects competition proposals exemplify how widespread dialogue about the realities of campus life can generate profound visions for the future. They prove that unconventional initiatives by the university to reinvigorate social life could stir up demographics and encourage diversity at the street, could integrate new possibilities for socializing with existing options, and could even moderate drinking habits on campus.

Cooperative initiatives between the university and the eating clubs have engendered mutual suspicion in the past, but maybe it is finally time to make them work. The way I see it, the viability of the four-year residential college system depends on it. Ignoring the reality of the street and banking on the four-year colleges to solve all the problems of campus life is a hopeless, if not hazardous proposition. Instead, the University must stimulate broad dialogue and carefully consider how campus social life will evolve under the four-year system. Doing this will enable a student life that enlivens traditional social opportunities while realizing the progressive ideals and possibilities of the four-year residential college plan.

Perhaps it is a great irony that when the four year residential college opens in 2006, ninety-nine years after the idea was first proposed by Woodrow Wilson, this progressive institution will be clad in stone, elaborately carved (or mechanically produced) fenestration and maybe even a few gargoyles. Built in neo Collegiate Gothic style, Whitman College will monumentalize a century long struggle and ongoing tension between progressive reformers and nostalgic conservatives at Princeton. The Collegiate Gothic inaugural four-year college will symbolize a contradiction in form: an ambitious project of social engineering given the look of institutions built during an era when Princeton’s campus was far from the thriving, diverse and accessible intellectual community it is today. It’s possible that this contradiction will be a source of creativity in Whitman College and throughout the campus. Let’s hope so.

— Steve Caputo ’01

Steve Caputo majored in architecture and urban planning and received a certificate in East Asian Studies. He is currently working as a designer at Polshek Partnership in New York City. sacaputo@alumni.princeton.edu

Write to PAW about this article.