During my first year at Princeton, a rumor circulated Wilcox Dining Hall: the architecture of certain Wilson buildings was part of an attempt by the administration to limit the ability of students to organize and protest at a time when a wave of student protests was sweeping across the nation. The winding hallways and lack of real common spaces in 1939, 1937, and Dodge-Osborn, features that make the creation of a cohesive community difficult, gave the rumor credibility.
The rumors were unfounded; although, it is still difficult to believe that a reasonable architect would consider the architecture of 1939 suitable for a residential community.
I have lived in Wilson dorms for four years now—soon to be five, thanks to my spontaneous gap year. For me, an RCA and an outspoken opponent of the social exclusivity of the eating clubs, community building has been the defining problem of my junior and senior years. During my year off, taken partly out of frustration with the degree of social exclusivity on campus, I have had a chance to visit other universities and participate in their created communities.
Over the past five months, I visited friends, former teammates, and acquaintances at the University of Chicago, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, William and Mary, Georgetown, and George Mason University. I have interviewed students, both athletes and non-athletes, participants and non-participants of Greek life, and I have partaken in a variety of social events. These efforts are unscientific, and I would do my argument injustice if I didn’t acknowledge my own bias. The results are revealing nonetheless: Princeton’s degree of social exclusivity is abnormal. Whether compared to colleges whose social lives are dominated by bar culture, or colleges with extensive Greek life, Princeton stood out in the extent of its social hierarchy and in the lack of truly inclusive late-night social spaces. Charter Friday and Terrace, exceptions on Princeton’s campus, are the norm at other universities. No community I encountered had a system of exclusion as pervasive as Princeton’s bicker.
As Sheon Han points out in his article “A Tale of Two Clubs,” every year, shortly after intersession, campus engages in a brief period of introspection and protest regarding bicker. I commend campus activists and student movements opposing bicker—I myself took on a marginal role in the “hose bicker” referendum in my first year, and the St. Archibald’s League protests of the previous two years—but these attempts will be unsuccessful until we reform the physical aspects of campus that make true social inclusivity difficult.
The image was the same during many late evenings my junior year: as I entered my floor in 1937 after a long night, I found a handful of my Zees sitting in the hallway. Whether engaged in personal conversations or drunken banter, my Zees had claimed the hallway as their hangout spot. Where else could they go? Frist and Wilcox Commons didn’t provide them with the privacy of the third floor of 1937, my room was my personal space to sleep, and their own roommates had long gone to bed, dreaming of early morning crew practice or Sunday brunch.
While alumni and prospective students are dazzled on tours through the new Lewis Center for the Arts, students are banished to dorms with hallways reminiscent of that of hospitals. Fire safety codes prevent any sort of artistic expression or personalization, doors must always remain locked, and the lighting gives Wilson dorms a sterilized feeling. The trend of naming dorms after class years doesn’t do much to alleviate this atmosphere (“Where do you live? 1938? 1939? 1937? 1927?”). At other universities, it is precisely these hallways in which dorm communities are created. At UVA, posters clutter the hallways, dorm doors are always ajar (you are met with curious glances, greetings, and offers of food when you walk through). Plants, shoes, and sports equipment strewn across the floor make you feel at home. At Virginia Tech, a pillow fort had overtaken one hallway I found myself in. At Manhattan College, students skateboard through the halls.
During frosh week, deans point to their residential college as the “home away from home.” Walking through 1939, it doesn’t feel that way. The decision to join an eating club halfway through sophomore year makes sense: students crave a space to hangout in and make their own. Sure, while residents of other residential colleges have greater access to common rooms, these are still spaces designed to be studied in, not spaces intended for late-night shenanigans.
Given these physical restrictions, RCAs are made complicit in the far-reaching indoctrination and normalization of the eating clubs: at midnight, RCAs are instructed to direct pregame attendees to the Street. “Out of sight, out of mind,” the deans think to themselves as they enforce the quiet hours.
I’ve been careful not to artificially inflate my criticism of administrative decisions surrounding dorm life with the specific architectural limitations of Wilson’s aging dorms. Residential colleges built recently fail in many similar ways. Whitman dorms, although the architecture successfully conveys a feeling of grandeur, are largely ineffective at creating usable social spaces. The hallways of Forbes are still only the hallways of a hotel. The vertical structure of Rocky and Mathey dorms restricts a neighborly community.
Last year, I overheard a dean advising a group of first years that in order to make the most of the social opportunities of college, they should only be in their dorm rooms to sleep. The comment underlines the administration’s approach to dorm life and should give us reason to pause. Is that what we want our dorms to be? While I value the wider community of my residential college, I yearn for the feeling of having returned home when entering my hallway.
At Swarthmore, the administration creates spaces for students to socialize late at night. The common spaces on campus are completely inclusive, large enough to host a large get-together (dare I say, a party?), and students are permitted to serve all but hard liquor. Fraternities and other socially exclusive spaces are peripheral to the Swarthmore social life. Social exclusion, contrary to what bicker participants seem to believe, is not inherent on a campus.
And at Princeton? Where do students go at night to get their fix of the college culture promised to them in Animal House? The Street offers the only option.
Where eating clubs dominate Princeton’s social life, bars dominate UVA’s social life. But while no eating club at Princeton offers a representative cross-section of the student body, UVA’s bars unite a diverse community in the common pursuit of fun: no bar is dominated by a group of athletes, by engineering students, or by students from a specific ethnicity. The bars are truly inclusive—the age barrier is easily overcome through fake IDs and friendly bouncers. At UChicago and Harvard, one finds the bars of Good Will Hunting, spaces conducive to random get-togethers and reconnecting with old friends (and come on, have you ever seen a janitor debate a history student in TI?).
While the midnight walk to the Street is a communal experience, students quickly splinter off to their various clubs. I have many memories of going to the Street with a group of friends only to find myself alone as they peeled off to enter clubs I didn’t have the passes (or connections) for.
A bar culture creates a different atmosphere. At UVA a group traveling to Boylan always seems to grow (“Hey dude! We’re going to Boylan, want to join?”). Going out doesn’t require obtaining passes, planning, or connections—you just do it. Decisions are made the way decisions should be: in tipsy spontaneity, not sober arrangement.
I admit, Princeton’s late-night culture has its advantages: Princeton students, by and large, engage in much safer drinking (partly because students watch out for each other) and have a much better notion of consent than at other schools (Charter’s consent pledge is hardly imaginable at a bar in Blacksburg). Yet, the social exclusivity poisoning Princeton’s nightlife should not be a status quo to content with.
Socially inclusive spaces need protectionism to flourish. The bars and common spaces at other universities offer built-in bulwarks against the tendencies of students to carve themselves spaces of exclusion. Once eleven private mansions have established themselves as the social centers of campus, it is only natural that some of these mansions will devolve into tribalism (Tel est l’homme). Thus, the administration cannot be passive. It must actively create the conditions for an inclusive atmosphere to flourish. The argument against bicker must change—bicker will exist until the administration creates a campus on which socially inclusive behavior can be the norm.
At the beginning of the year, a get-together for the Class of 2018 was organized in Triumph Brewery. I found myself surrounded by a strange group of students: my first-year roommate, my junior year love interest, and people I hadn’t seen since Princeton Preview. Once the initial awkwardness was overcome, people had fun. The event was an act of forced community building, as seniors were served with free snacks and free booze, but it serves as an effective proof of concept: Princeton students enjoy inclusive social events, when they are available.
At UChicago, a campus bar offers weekly trivia and a space for students over the age of 21 to socialize at night without forcing them to go through the motions of going out. A more inclusive campus atmosphere depends on such alternatives that target the desires and motivations of students more effectively than events at Campus Club or at the Garden Theatre. The administration has good intentions when providing alternative, non-alcoholic social events on Saturday nights, but such events don’t meet the demands of most college students.
Perhaps the time has come to revisit Princeton’s fire code and reform the way students interact with and in the hallways of their dorms. More importantly, however, are conversations around the experiences of students themselves. How do you feel when walking through your dorm? Where do you feel at home?
During the spring of my first year, after the cohesion of my Zee group had gone to pieces (Wilson architecture is at least partly to blame), I met a girl. While we shared few interests, I always enjoyed spending time with her. After she joined a selective social organization her sophomore spring (was it TI? Or Ivy? Or perhaps Pink House?), I lost contact with her. She was busy becoming part of a new community in which I didn’t fit in, while I was busy grasping at the tatters of a friend-group torn to different clubs. Sometimes I wonder whether we would have stayed in contact if the artificial exclusivity of eating clubs had been replaced by the common destination of a late-night bar.
But you get my point.