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The eating clubs and a sense of Princeton community
— Alumni respond to “Building Community,” a May 11 PAW article by Richard Just ’01

Date Posted: 7/6/05

Social engineering deserves caution

Richard Just ’01’s article, “Building Community” (May 11), is a powerful article that deserves careful thought from both young and old Princetonians.

My class, the Class of 1952, enjoyed a similar campus environment with the Class of 1951. The changes in college community, particularly at Princeton, since the early 1950s are awesome. Just articulated these changes very well and, I think, accurately. After I read his article my first thought was one of nostalgia, followed by concern that nostalgia among alumni could be an impediment to wanting change at Princeton, a University that prides itself on making a positive difference in an ever-changing world. My second thoughts were cautionary as I focused on my deep-seated belief that human nature does not change, even though the socioeconomic makeup of the Princeton student body has changed so greatly since 1951.

When I was chair of the Southwestern Virginia Schools Committee in the ’80s, I was aware of Fred Hargadon’s concern about the exclusionary nature of the club system and the effect the clubs have relative to student recruitment. Hargadon was concerned, and perhaps rightly so, that the clubs would turn off gifted students in the applicant pool who were of an egalitarian bent, as opposed to an elitist frame of mind. Since that time many attractive eating options have been made available to undergraduates, and I am not sure fairness or unfairness today is an important issue among undergraduates in choosing an eating option.

Community concerns, which Just focuses on, and recruitment concerns, which Hargadon focused on, are different. Discussions of bonding social capital and bridging social capital that Just describes could be a smoke screen for describing the problem of individual identity in today’s undergraduate body at Princeton. Because human nature does not change, I would argue that the club system is not any more of a problem today with respect to student individual identity than it was in 1951. History records, it should be remembered, that my Class of 1952 was concerned with the fairness of club availability and not choice. We successfully promoted the 100 percent bicker for the club system. Today, fair choice is not really an issue.

The Alumni Council recently responded to a question by reporting that 70 to 71 percent of the junior and senior classes today belong to clubs. These numbers indicate that undergraduate concern for community and the stress of finding personal identity in that community is real, and a club, among other good options, is still the preferred way to go. Certainly, given choice amongst undergraduates, clubs are still very popular. Could it be that persons who would do away with the club system at Princeton may be guilty of social engineering and denying individual opportunity to develop positively in a competitive, complex, and existing undergraduate social system?

Danville, Va.

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The Prospect Club experience

The May 11 PAW contains some fascinating material for anyone interested in the club system, and particularly for Prospectors. Richard Just ’01 notes that Princeton, when our class entered in 1947, was largely white, largely wealthy, largely Protestant and largely from elite secondary schools. As our history will show, Prospect, while it was largely white (Prospect and the Class of 1951 had one black), was not wealthy, by 1949 included a substantial percentage of Jews as well as Protestants, and was not composed of a majority of graduates of preparatory schools, even when it was founded back in 1941. It did not matter to Prospectors whether we would be dealing with “one another on a face-to-face basis” in the future. Prospect was hardly representative, but if anything approached the kind of student body the admission office has recruited today.

Note also the President’s Page by Shirley Tilghman reporting on Whitman College and the effort to create social and intellectual communities in the four-year colleges, something we tried to do at Prospect. It will be interesting to see how the club system is affected by four-year colleges when there are three of them in 2007. A May 11 Notebook story reports on those admitted to the Class of 2009, which include 41 percent from minority groups as compared with 35 percent last year. We had at least two Asians in the club when I was in my senior year. I don’t think we had Hispanics, but I am still surprised at how few [Roman] Catholics we had.

Nantucket, Mass.

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Don’t forget the Frist Center

How could you publish an article on Princeton’s recent and current forms of communal life and leave out the Frist Campus Center and its significance?


Philadelphia, Pa.

Editor’s note: Robert Venturi ’47 *50 is the architect of the Frist Campus Center, which opened in 2000.

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Bicker’s ‘snobbish distinctions’

In his excellent article on the eating clubs (May 11), Richard Just ’01 points out how Princeton in the late l940s could be a “socially brutal place for those who did not fit in.” As a returning veteran of World War II who graduated in l948, I witnessed first-hand as a member of Charter Club’s bicker committee how the snobbish distinctions – what the English department’s distinguished professor, Willard Thorp, called the club system’s “institutionalization of an artificial set of values” – worked in practice. It was published in the March l948 issue of the New Century, the publication of Princeton’s Liberal Union.

About eight of us were sitting around a long table in the club library. In front of us were mimeographed sheets of all those eligible for admission into one of the 16 clubs. Someone recognized the name of an undergraduate the Prospect Club was considering. “Scratch him off,” the chairman said. “If Prospect is interested in him, we probably don’t want him anyway.” Another person was blackballed. “Not the kind of guy we’d want in the club.”

In about 15 minutes we ran into a person who gave us a good deal more trouble.

“Anybody know him?” the chairman asked. “Very nice guy,” someone answered. “Comes from New York City.”

“He’s Jewish, isn’t he?” another person asked. “I don’t suppose it makes too much difference, but – ”

“Of course it makes a difference,” someone else broke in. “Let’s drop him for the time being and come back to him when we’re all through. We can take up the special cases then.”

“What’s so special about him? He’s a good friend of mine.”

“Is he Jewish?” someone else wanted to know.

“Yes, he is. But does that make any difference?”

“I’m afraid it does.”

“Do you mean we have to know the religion of all these guys?” the person who knew him asked.

“It’s not just a question of religion. It’s a question of club policy.”

“What is the club policy? Is there anything written down?”

“No, it’s just one of those things. If he’s Jewish, we can come back to him at the end.”

Another person stood up and sat on the edge of the table. “This thing has come up before. We’ve had a few Jews in here. Of course, not many people knew he was Jewish. I’m talking frankly now. You want to be damn sure if you take this fellow into the club that he’s an exceptional guy, because as sure as we’re sitting here your president will be called to the mat by the Board of Governors. The whole thing is a rather dirty business, but there’s not much we can do about it. Of course, there’s always the chance you might be able to sneak him in.”

We never came back to the Jewish undergraduate at the end of the meeting. Several club members came to my dorm room a week or so later. They conceded the accuracy of the account of the bicker committee meeting, but complained that it should not have been made public. It was not the gentlemanly thing to do.

It is often necessary to see how much the composition of Princeton’s student body has changed by recalling what it was like when it was a more “closed” and homogeneous (meaning virtually all-white) community that harbored a mostly genteel but nonetheless real anti-Semitism (and not so polite anti-black sentiments). I wonder, with Richard Just, whether the eating clubs today fully reflect the democratic diversity of Princeton and are preparing its elite members for the massively changed world of 2005.

Senior Research Fellow
Hoover Institution, Stanford University


Allowing freshmen to join clubs

In response to Richard Just 01’s thoughtful piece on the clubs, I expect that the four-year college system will have an impact on them in ways that we might not expect. I do think it would be reasonable to allow freshmen to join clubs, since the old reason for postponing membership until the junior year was that there was nowhere else to eat. This would eliminate the tensions caused by freshmen and sophomore women visiting the clubs as the guests of junior and senior men, with the freshmen and sophomore men feeling excluded, unless they know older women who prefer younger men.

Most of the clubs are now not selective, with only a handful holding a bicker. All are co-ed. This makes Princeton far more democratic than Harvard, where the final clubs are selective and all-male. But now there are fraternities and sororities on campus, which are selective, thus changing the focus of bonding at Princeton. And now, because of the four-year college system, one can opt out of social competition to concentrate on getting an education without starving alone.

Bridgehampton, N.Y.

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Community within a dorm

I found Richard Just 01’s article very interesting and well-balanced (although I know little about the social scene at Princeton today), but he doesn’t say that in the early ’50s most of us lived in a dorm with men who may have shared nothing with us except being on the same floor.

For example, in my junior year in Walker Hall, no one on our second floor shared my club (Cloister), my major, or soccer. My roommate Jack Gray ’52 was in Tower. I have forgotten which clubs Jerry Rockefeller ’52, Dave Milbank ’51, and Brad Drowne ’53 belonged to.

Jack and I didn’t socialize very much together, and hardly at all with the others, but he and I inevitably came to know them and enjoy their company, which added a breadth to our experience symbolized by the fact that I still remember names!

Of course, as a student body, we were homogeneous in the way that Just describes the Class of ’51, but living in a dorm and eating in a club allowed greater “bridging” than he suggests and was one of the strengths of that system.

I applaud the new colleges. Will the clubs coexist with them? I recognize that a student body much more heterogeneous than in 1950 makes connecting both difficult and rewarding. I hope the new arrangement enriches it.

Cambridge, Mass.

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Time and the larger community

As a scholarly essay, I give the article an A (perhaps an A- in light of the grade inflation initiatives). It is refreshing to see that the Princeton Alumni Weekly values such contributions.

Addressing Richard Just ’01’s thesis, however, I view eating clubs, fraternities, sororities, and similar organizations as the inevitable consequence of human need to belong to a group. “Us versus them” is a theme that has dominated human history from time immemorial. Very few people have the bent and/or strength of character to override this primeval urge. So, I say to Richard, wait a couple of decades to let time take its course. Allegiances change and broaden with experience, and most people eventually embrace a larger community of “us” with the passage of time. Attempting to accelerate this process may well backfire, however well-intentioned the instigators may be.

Centennial, Colo.


Focus on more important issues

I don’t even have to read the Richard Just ’01 take on how the eating club system influences a sense of community to know that there are numerous other topics important to graduates besides articles justifying the clubs’ continued existence. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a loyal Cap & Gown alumna. However, most people who read PAW have ended their run on campus, thus making this ongoing blather about the clubs amusing at best and irrelevant at worst. I, for one, am aching to read more about how the University is preparing its current students to address pressing societal concerns (the recent ethics articles [Jan. 26] being excellent examples). There’s a big world out there beyond Prospect Avenue!

Massapequa, N.Y.


Opportunities to meet new friends

While Richard Just ’01 provides a compelling argument (feature, May 11) for why eating clubs create “homogeneous groups from a heterogenous student body,” I strongly disagree with his implication that eating clubs lessen diversity in the average Princeton student’s group of friends. In fact, I believe that the eating club experience enhances “bridging social capital.”

During my first two years of Princeton, I made many friends and acquaintances through my residential college, classes, and extracurricular activities. All of these friends had different interests outside of how I knew them, and so we were all drawn to

different “stereotypical” eating clubs. It was through venues such as meal exchanges or evening social events that I was introduced to people my current friends had met at their respective eating clubs or other dining options – people I normally would not have met if I had stayed in a four-year residential college. In addition, I would note that stereotypes are, of course, only broad generalizations. For example, though I joined the “engineers’ club,” more than half of the close friends I made there were A.B. students. Finally, the sheer number of members in each eating club (upwards of 100 members in each class) makes it nearly impossible not to meet new people after joining.

Eating clubs are not only a Princeton tradition; they are an important avenue for bridging social capital.

Rosemont, Pa.

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Serious about the swimming team

With reference to “Building Community” by Richard Just ’01, I was a bit surprised at Walter Braham ’51’s comment regarding the swimming team at Princeton. It seemed to me a bit more than a pastime. By the way, the Princeton swimming team placed fifth in the NCAA championships after winning the Easterns in 1962. As further evidence of Tiger prowess of the time, Bill Bradley ’65 shortly thereafter led the Princeton basketball team to the Final Four at the NCAA tournament.

So, athletics were somewhat serious in the good old days.

Fairhope, Ala.

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The positives of club life

The article by Richard Just ’01 in the May 11 issue of PAW raises some interesting observations about the club system as reflected in changes at Princeton over the last 50 years. Just covers the period from 1951 to when he graduated, but it might be just as revealing to cover what happened from the period from 1954 to 1958 compared to the present. The dramatic changes in class demographics, plus the growth of residential colleges, have lessened the criticality of belonging to a club. Yet, they remain immensely popular. In the mid-’50s it was essential, and anyone who did not was labeled a “100 percenter.” He was likely assigned to a club after failing to be selected by even one. This was a terrible indictment of the bicker system of that time, as there really was no social alternative. I had friends from Brooklyn to Beverly Hills and many places in between. They included Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.

Just emphasizes class makeup and socializing, but fails to mention the positives about club life such as house parties and IAA sports (I played touch football, pool and basketball for Elm). Unfortunately, Elm has closed, denying me the opportunity for many years to play host in the place I knew best. The diversity of club members, plus having a place to bring dates, parents, and friends, gave a sense of security and freedom, as dorms were off-limits to women and liquor. Proctors frequently prowled the halls, unexpectedly knocking on doors to look for violations. That is part of what social life was like.

Just cites claims that eventually preppies and public school boys looked and behaved alike. That may have been so for some, but another observable characteristic may have been the difference between engineers and liberal students, the former having many more class hours and labs. Still, having to do a junior paper and thesis presented tremendous challenges. The success of many of my classmates in their careers is evidence that regardless of background and field of study, hard work paid off.

The changes in student demographics are more than matched by changes in the University with a woman president, head of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, editor of PAW, and other key positions. This cannot be overlooked in evaluating the social aspects of Princeton today.

Bethlehem, Pa.


Segregation by room rent

Kudos to Richard Just ’01 for an insightful comparison of mid-century and current Princeton undergraduate social life. However, the continuity regarding eating clubs obscures changes in another aspect of undergraduate life. At mid-century, there was de facto housing segregation by virtue of variations of room rent from one building to another. A sixth-floor garret-size walkup in an old building went for $27 per term, while a room in a modern building went for many times that amount. All students had to provide their own furniture, but in comparison to the “Maid in Princeton” scenario in the same issue of PAW (On the Campus), the University provided periodic janitor service including the making of beds, irrespective of the room rent. Interestingly, the Graduate School had its own segregation in reverse. First-year unmarried fellowship students lived at the Graduate College, while non-fellowship students had to find accommodations in town.

Fountain Valley, Calif.

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Woodrow Wilson would approve

I read with interest the recent President’s Page (May 11) on the emergence of Princeton’s four-year residential colleges. As an undergraduate, I had a good experience as a member of a club of which my father had been president in his day. But as a graduate student at Harvard I lived for a year in Adams House, with its mingling of students and faculty at meals and in many other ways. I came to feel that Princeton had missed a lot in not adopting Woodrow Wilson’s plan for multiple colleges that would bring faculty, undergraduates, and graduate students together intellectually and socially.

Now this is finally happening. I am sure that from some academic heaven, Wilson is looking down with an approving smile. From the bounds of earth, I am doing the same.

West Hartford, Conn.

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Let the undergraduates decide

Regarding the club system and the article by Richard Just ’01 (feature, May 11): Over the 125 years that they’ve existed, Princeton’s eating clubs have changed, evolved, and adapted to the changing tastes and mores of their primary constituency, Princeton’s undergraduate body.  Today, some are still selective (bicker) in their admission policies, and most are not.  Much of their governance is in the hands of undergraduate members.  Why can’t we trust the undergraduates to decide for themselves how the system works?  It’s my observation that the arrival of fraternities and sororities on campus and the establishment of residential colleges – both of which occurred after my time at Princeton – arguably deserve more scrutiny, and perhaps obloquy, as potentially negative factors on social life at Princeton.  My own club experience was a happy one during the brief time I was at Princeton, and my associations and friendships with clubmates have been immensely rewarding to me in the many years since.

New York, N.Y.

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A lesson in life

Unless I’m missing something, Princeton’s club life, and life generally, encourage – even teach – networking. That’s obsolete? I think not.

Northeast Harbor, Maine

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A vital part of Princeton

Since the 1890s there have been eating clubs at Princeton, primarily for juniors and seniors.  The participation of these student classes has varied between 85 percent and 50 percent, depending largely upon the current social theory or fad on campus.  But, clearly the eating club food service and social system, in spite of the occasional claims of individual dissatisfaction, has served Princeton remarkably well.  I estimate that at least three-quarters of all undergraduate alumni/ae have been members of eating clubs.

Eating club membership has changed majorly from a relatively exclusive “old boy” bonding of the early 20th century to a largely open admission system that has been in place for more than the past two decades. 

The description of today’s eating clubs seems to imply that they are relatively isolated entities.  How about intermural athletics at Princeton, a recreational sports league that mixes various clubs with each other, with graduate student teams, and others?  How about the parties and social events in which two or three clubs collaborate?  How about the daily meal exchange program for club members and non-club members?  How about the dispersion of “dates” from all four classes at club parties?  And how about the special cultural/language dining tables that mix people from all over the campus?  Club activities are hardly isolated from the college world.

Let’s consider the numbers. The average eating club currently has about 175 members, although there are wide swings in popularity from club to club and year to year.  Within any club there is a roughly 50 percent turnover each year as seniors graduate and sophomores join.  That offers a member the possibility of getting to know, learn from, and develop a long-term bond with about 300 schoolmates, a reasonable objective considering the competing calls of academics, sports and other extracurricular activities.  Is a student going to have greater ease in getting to really know 400 to 500 or more in a homogenized residential college community?

Richard Just ’01 makes the statement that the eating club system “is now blocking, rather than facilitating, the most challenging, educational, and important social capital available to students today. How are they “blocking,” since the eating clubs are independent voluntary associations chosen and run by their members?  Although the residential college system has been in place for a few years already, the eating club system is alive and well.  Are the student participants telling us something?

I offer these challenges to Just’s article on the basis of my 20 years of fundraising experience between 1983 and 2003 for nine of the eating clubs.  During that period, I helped to raise more than $6 million, often achieving up to 50 percent alumni participation.  The alumni/ae supported their eating clubs because they had good times there while at Princeton, and because they developed friendships that have lasted a lifetime.

Don’t sell the eating clubs short.  They are an integral and vital part of the Princeton experience.

New Hope, Pa.

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Failing to meet student needs

I was truly astonished to read that Princeton still doesn’t offer adequate alternative dining facilities to juniors and seniors. By failing to do so, the University has continued a situation in which informed potential applicants had to either be prepared to tolerate the club system or be reconciled to having to forage for their meals during their upperclass years. This didn’t give the clubs a veto over admissions, but it certainly must have weeded out some applicants who did not want a campus that was dominated by clubs.

Apparently, some came anyway. That’s why the survey reported on the President’s Page establishes that a large majority of the present juniors and seniors want an alternative dining system. Based on that survey, it would appear that even Princeton’s planned four-year “colleges” will not offer facilities that are anywhere adequate to meet the demand.

In the last 50 years, Princeton has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on campus construction projects. It has also raised tuition fees to breathtaking new heights. But it still has not addressed the desires of a substantial segment of its customers, the student body, for a dignified alternative to club-based dining.

No business would be proud of a record like this. Princeton shouldn’t be, either.

Phoenix, Ariz.

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