Public and Private: A Look at Princeton and Yale's Exclusive Clubs

Standing at the corner at 2 a.m., a glance down the long roadway is an exercise in stoic symmetry. Ten
By Susana E. Canseco

Standing at the corner at 2 a.m., a glance down the long roadway is an exercise in stoic symmetry. Ten impressive clubhouses, guarding Prospect Avenue on either side like guards on the bridge over the castle's moat. There's something else, though, something looming thunderously in the background. Getting closer and closer, the thunder inside these castle-guards becomes more apparent. Thumping hip-hop beats; free-flowing beer from the tap; inebriated and unabashed social banter and excitement. It's college nightlife at its best. It's "The Street" in full swing. It's Princeton on a Saturday night.

With so much attention paid recently to the status of final clubs at Harvard and students' dissatisfaction with campus social life, the weekend jaunt down I-95 and the Garden State Parkway to central New Jersey provides a startling contrast in elitist--or at least-elitist inspired --fraternizing. The center of most students' social life is "The Street," which, funny enough, is actually an avenue--Prospect Avenue, adjacent to the central campus quadrangle. On The Street are the 11 eating clubs, which serve as dining halls, study centers, small classrooms and, of course, social outlets.

"We are where the majority of upperclass students eat all their meals," says Ryan Gardner, a president of Campus Club, one of the privately owned and operated clubs. "Most of the students' friends are in the same eating club as they are."

The eating clubs are most akin to a combination of final clubs and the housing system at Harvard. Though Princeton has a college system similar to Harvard's house system and Yale's college structure, students are placed in colleges before their first year, not their sophomore campaigns. Also, students most often enter their chosen club with a group of friends. Though the club system may seem highly elitist and pretentious, in actuality, with nearly every upperclassmen enjoying the benefits of a club, it manages to combine the benefits of a final club with a sense of community of Harvard's Houses.

Students choose their eating club at the beginning of the spring semester of their sophomore year. Each club has its own character, and students choose which club they want to belong to by visiting them during their freshman and sophomore years. Then, in March of the sophomore year, linking up with their friends, they enter their chosen club. Two genres of clubs subsist. In the six "sign-in" clubs, students place their name on a list and gain entrance. If too many students show interest, the sign-in clubs hold lotteries. Whether or not prospective members get their first choice or not--in lottery situations they can place their name on the lists of several clubs--students are guaranteed to get into a club with up to 12 of their friends. At the other five "bicker" clubs, selective policies are implemented; students "punch" and look to be chosen for admittance. All 11 clubs are co-educational.

The clubs play a tremendous role in the lives of Princeton students. Their main function is to provide meals to upperclassmen. A professional chef manages each club's dining facilities, and about three-quarters of the junior and senior classes gather daily for meals at the clubs. Those who choose not to be part of the eating club system can opt for placement in an on-campus suite with a kitchen, or "co-ops," or they can eat in one of the dining halls. Very few upperclassmen choose to continue their previous dining plan.

But students who opt against an eating club are missing more than food. The clubs provide students with libraries and computer facilities and host small classes for the university. Through them, students participate in intramurals and community service as well as interact with faculty. And, of course, as Gardner remarks, "We are where many students choose to spend their weekend nights." Tower Club president John W. Staples echoes the sentiment, claiming that "with the exception of room parties and a few minor fraternity/sorority parties, the eating clubs are the social world. Most students choose to come out to the clubs on Prospect Avenue rather than staying in dorm rooms." The clubs have parties almost every weekend night "They are a melting pot of students on any weekend night, where parties occur up and down the street," Gardner says.

As if to dispel any elitist myths, the eating clubs are open to most students nearly all of the time. Exceptions may arise when clubs--usually bicker clubs--have "pass-only" events in which students must present passes obtained from members of the clubs. Bicker clubs usually require passes for special entertainment such as bands and theme parties. Students say that members usually hang out in their own club since they each have a special character. From Terrace, the artsy, diverse club, to the more pretentious, selective clubs to the more frat-like beer oriented clubs like Tiger Inn (TI), there are options for almost everyone. In addition, each club has a unique atmosphere and history. A popular TI anecdote tells how members destroyed an expensive tree at Cottage, another club, and were going to be held financially responsible. To pay for the tree, they had the choice of going off tap or eating hot dogs for every meal. The TI-ers chose the hot dogs.

The eating clubs furnish a resource for students every weekend, but Princeton students aren't always appreciative of that outlet. "At Harvard, you have Boston, and you don't have to stay on campus. But here, if you don't go to eating clubs, there is nowhere else," complains Mario A. Moya '01. "Drinking beer is the only option."

On weekends, the clubs specialize in drinking; the university's drinking policy is considered to be very lenient. Practice at the clubs is to stamp the hand of any student who shows Princeton ID. The stamp officially means the student is 21 and able to drink, whether they are really of age or not. But students think teh university's drinking policy may become more restricted. This year, the university enforced a no-alcohol policy for the bicker clubs' initiation of their new members due to problems experienced during the bicker of some of the clubs last year. As Gardner explains, "If a freshman gets really drunk at my club and gets hit by a car in the street after that, I can get sued." With regards to relations with the university, Gardner says, "The University isn't a big fan of parties, but the clubs are privately owned and can't be under control." He goes on to explain that the university tends to "look the other way" about parties because they know having cheap beer in a supervised location is better than students driving to bars or sitting in their rooms with hard liquor.

Not all students choose to partake in eating club life. For some, the higher price of an eating cub over a dining hall meal plan is reason enough to choose the latter. The extra few thousand dollars members pay to a club goes to maintenance of the house, a social fee and administrative costs. But besides the cost, not all students agree that the atmosphere of the clubs is community building. John Kent-Uritam, a member of Brown Co-op, feels that although bicker clubs have some sense of community, the sign-in clubs tend to contain students that aren't necessarily united by any common bond, especially if not all students got their first choice of club. For Kent-Uritam himself, the price was an important deterrent, considering that an eating club can cost more than five thousand dollars and the Co-op costs only about a thousand. There are two official Co-ops, Brown and 2D, a vegetarian Co-op. Brown says that he likes the diversity of membership in the organization, and though the group isn't social in the party sense, socializing does result when members share meals.

For eating club officers, the clubs play an even bigger role. The Tower Club Web site explains, "Club members gain another important benefit in learning leadership through the experience of managing these modestly sized independent organizations." Or, put more colloquially, Staples declares, "Dude, my eating club is my life. I wake up in the morning, come here for breakfast, go about my day, and go home to sleep. Being the president of an eating club is a full-time activity." Many club officers live at the clubs, making them not only places to eat and socialize but homes as well.

Despite lingering elitist reputations, Princeton's eating clubs prove more egalitarian than other controversial institutions. Virtually democratic open doors and flowing taps inspire Princeton students to head to The Street most weekend nights.

Yale's secret societies are a strange, subdued version of Harvard's final clubs. They serve as a contact network and bonding group for members without including a social aspect. The societies contain only seniors. There are five societies which own "tombs," or buildings of their own, and these are the oldest and most prestigious. Recently, though, students have begun to form their own new societies, sometimes renting apartments as space for their activities.

Each year, senior members of the societies "tap" 15 members of the junior class to be members for the following year. Considering there are only five societies with tombs and they only tap 15 new members each year, charges of elitism are well-founded. However, the goal in choosing new members is to assemble a diverse group of students from different backgrounds of different races, and of both sexes. "Kind of the opposite of final clubs," says one Harvard freshman proctor who was a member of a secret society. The group of 15 is simply chosen--there is no "rush" or initiation process. They pay no dues or fees during their year as members; all funding comes from alumni of the societies.

The central activity of four of the five societies (Skull and Bones, Wolf's Head, Brazelius, and Book and Snake) is something called the "audit" which goes on all year. Members share their life story with the group. In Scroll and Key, the other of the five societies, the experience is one of debating issues, instead of the audit. The point of the societies is not social but rather to get to know a group of people intensely and learn about yourself in the process. Though the proctor claims the societies can be considered elitist because of the incredibly small number of students who have the opportunity to be members, he claims the principle of the organization is possible anywhere.

Societies eat meals together and meet twice a week. Students claim that though the societies--because they are so secret--play a small role on student life, for members they are a large time commitment.

Certainly, the name doesn't lie: The societies are well contained. Many students interviewed admitted to having no idea what goes on within the societies. Despite the relatively small influence they have on general student life at Yale, the societies are no secret on the Web, especially the most prestigious and oldest of the societies: Skull and Bones. Grouped with such organizations as the Illuminati and the Knights Templar, conspiracy theorists have had a heyday describing just how Skull and Bones rules the world and conceives of further plots to psychologically control and manipulate the human race. An essay found on the Web about Skull and Bones begins: "Everything you wanted to know about Skull and Bones but were afraid to ask: three threads of American social history--espionage, drug smuggling and secret societies--intertwine into one." The essay explains the origins of Yale and Skull and Bones, tying the latter institution to the CIA, the Kennedy assassination, opium trade with China, the Illuminati and Nazi Germany. William Huntington Russell 33 founded Skull and Bones Society, also supposedly called the Russell Trust Association. The secret organization also supposedly spread to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. in the 1870s.

According to this essay, "each initiate is given $15,000 and a grandfather clock. Far from being a campus fun-house, the group is geared more toward the success of its members in the post-collegiate world." This may be true, but judging from students' reaction to questions about the societies, a Harvard reporter would never find out either way.

Early in the society's life, it flourished in spite of occasional squalls of controversy. There was dissension from some professors who didn't like its secrecy and exclusiveness, as well as backlash from students showing concern about the influence "Bones" was having over Yale finances and the favoritism shown to "Bonesmen." The essay explains: In October of 1873, Volume 1, Number 1, of The Iconoclast was published in New Haven. It was only published once and was one of very few openly published articles on the Order of Skull and Bones.

From The Iconoclast:

"We speak through a new publication. Because the college press is closed to those who dare to openly mention 'Bones'.... "Out of every class Skull and Bones takes its men. They have gone out into the world and have become, in many instances, leaders in society. They have obtained control of Yale. Its business is performed by them. Money paid to the college must pass into their hands and be subject to their will. No doubt they are worthy men in themselves, but the many, whom they looked down upon while in college, cannot so far forget as to give money freely into their hands. Men in Wall Street complain that the college comes straight to them for help, instead of asking each graduate for his share. The reason is found in a remark made by one of Yale's and America's first men: 'Few will give but Bones men, and they care far more for their society than they do for the college....' "Year by year the deadly evil is growing. The society was never as obnoxious to the college as it is today, and it is just this ill-feeling that shuts the pockets of non-members. Never before has it shown such arrogance and self-fancied superiority. It grasps the college press and endeavors to rule it all. It does not deign to show its credentials, but clutches at power with the silence of conscious guilt."

Further allegations in the essay involve President George Bush as a player in the Kennedy assassination, head of the CIA and a helper of the China's drug trade during his supposed "war on drugs." Also on the Web is a copy of a 1977 Esquire magazine article making similar accusations-written by a Yale grad investigating the mysterious group. Allegedly, juniors being tapped for the society undergo ordeals such as being immersed in mud and a coffin as well as describing to the members his entire past sex life. However, no member will admit to these trials, and "[the members] are legendary for the lengths to which they'll go to avoid prying interrogation. The mere mention of the words "skull and bones" in the presence of a true-blue Bonesman, such as Blackford Oakes, the fictional hero of Bill Buckley's spy thriller, 'Saving the Queen', will cause him to 'dutifully leave the room, as tradition prescribed.'"

The Esquire article tells of the Skull and Bones aversion to going co-ed, as most the other societies had done by that time--1977. In fact, it's reported that Skull and Bones didn't go co-ed until the early 90s and when it did alumni chained shut the doors out of anger about the change. Women joined the society that year anyway--but the actions of the alumni show how devoted to their old ways the Bones alums are.