At this time a year ago, 23 Princeton sophomores--15 of them Jewish--failed to gain admission to undergraduate eating clubs, and set off a wave of rancorous controversy and unfavorable publicity that rocked the Princeton community for several months. Now, just a year later, Bicker, the election period for the eating clubs, has been completed as smoothly as anyone can remember. There has been no "cage" on the back porch of Ivy Club, no unhappy group of "one hundred percenters", no charges of religious discrimination.
The situation at Princeton has changed in the past year--it has changed enough for people there to adopt an attitude of cautious optimism, but not enough for critics of the club system to believe that Bicker represents anything but an extremely undesirable system. For, while last February's fiasco may well have overemphasized certain aspects of the Bicker problem, the current superficial success cannot help obscuring the many remaining defects.
Even this successful Bicker can hardly be called a smooth, non-disruptive process. Until the bids are out and until most people have decided which club they are going to join, there is little sleep, little relaxation, and--throughout the period--no thought of academic matters. And, in this as in any Bicker, the sad spectacle of those "in trouble"--without bids, or with bids to clubs lower on the hierarchy than those their friends have received--existed.
For these people, the potential "hundred percenters" the recent Bicker was a vast improvement. An efficient sophomore Bicker Committee was in operation, looking out for their interests.
This Committee, installed in spacious headquarters on the third floor of Pyne Administration Building, had on the walls of one of its rooms a huge chart, tracing the status of each sophomore with each club. A glance at this chart could tell the Committee who was "in trouble," who was not likely to receive a bid, and for these unfortunates the Committee performed near-miraculous service.
The last two afternoons of Bicker are devoted to an institutionalized series of orgies (or "horror shows," as most sophomores called them) at Holder Court. At about 1 p.m. the sophomores began milling around in the muddy courtyard; by 2, the clubs had shepherded most of them into their respective headquarters, in nearby dormitory suites, where they sat, each clutching a can of beer, either content with their bids in hand or desperately trying to negotiate their way into a club.
Members of the soph Committee darted back and forth between these headquarters, making deals, getting ten men with first-list bids to Court to march up to Prospect Street together in order to pull three others into the club with them.
This method worked--worked so well that by Open House Night, only 20 sophomores were on the class president's list as potential trouble spots. The Committee was active here again, patrolling Prospect Street, wearing white armbands for identification and equipped with walkie-talkies ("Hello, Tommy, this is Phil--do you read me? Over. Jones and Smith just signed in at Terrace. Over. We're down to seven. Over and Out."). Gradually, the list of men "in trouble" was pared down; shortly before the 10 o'clock deadline, everyone was accounted for; "100% was achieved.
The role of the sophomore Bicker Committee is nothing extra-ordinarily new; the group just operated more smoothly. There was better co-ordination, and the clubs--chastened no doubt by last year's fiasco--co-operated by sending in their bid lists promptly. "100%" was achieved, but not without anxious moments for the officials in charge and not without heartache and ruptured friendships for the sophomores. Success by Bicker's standards, in short, does not make Bicker a wholly desirable thing, and most Princetonians, from Interclub Committee Chairman David J. Callard on down, will readily admit it.
Most people agree that Bicker is at best an imperfect system, but few refuse to participate in it. Those who chose this course found a refuge in the Woodrow Wilson Lodge, the so-called "alternate facility" set up by the University in 1956. Until this year, the "facility" was considered a dumping ground, and only a handful was willing to join. It did not matter that the handful was an intelligent and congenial group; its numbers were too small to be significant.
But this year, before Bicker ever got under way, what Dean of Students William D'O. Lippincott has termed "a surprisingly large number" rejected the club system and Bicker to join the the Lodge. The treasurer of the sophomore class, Darwin S. Labarthe, was among the first to take the step; his presence, and that of other men whose success at Bicker was more or less assured, made the Lodge much more than a dumping ground for club rejects (for people with "green skin and three heads," as Labarthe put it). This spontaneous action of about forty sophomores had made the alternative a real and attractive one.
Wilson--which no longer likes the sobriquet "facility"--was an oasis of reason and calmness last week. Where conversation at Commons and in the clubs hinged on "bids," "sections" and "preferentials," Lodge members could talk of anything from world affairs to classes and even--and this is a crime in club circles--grades. One Lodge member contends that this difference exists all year round; in the clubs, he says, no-one discusses anything but weekends, dates and dances; at the Lodge, it is possible to discuss literature, philosophy and politics.
The distinction is certainly marked during Bicker, and it probably holds a good deal of truth the rest of the year. The charge of "anti-intellectualism on the Street" is one that finds increasing currency at Princeton. Professor James Ward Smith of the Philosophy Department, in an article for The Daily Princetonian, stated the case for those who reject not the club system but what the club system now does:
"The quickest way in which I can convey a sense of what is lacking in the clubs is to ask you to perform the following imaginative feat.... Suppose that Club A announced for Tuesday evening a faculty-student discussion of American policy toward Red China; that club B announced for Wednesday evening a musical recital; that Club C announced for Friday night a panel discussion of the university's admission policy. . . . If you will simply suppose all this you will see at once the main thing which in my opinion is now lacking on Prospect Street. . . . In general the undergraduates' attitude toward the Street is an attitude that bifurcates it from the serious intellectual life of the university."
Wilson Lodge, which has not accepted a sharp dichotomy between academic and social pursuits, has provided a haven for those who subscribe to Smith's indictment of the clubs. It encourages faculty members to dine there as often as possible, and has invited eight "faculty fellows" to become a kind of honorary member. By contrast, only two or three of the seventeen clubs have any "intellectual activities;" one of these, Cloister Inn, has invited Professor Stephen Bailey of the Politics Department to a discussion next week, but cases like this are sparse, and Princeton's clubs are a long way from the frequent speeches, panels and discussion that characterize Harvard Houses.