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Woodrow Wilson and the Eating Clubs

Written by Anna Rubin ’15

We are pleased to announce another newly digitized collection: the Woodrow Wilson Correspondence in the Office of the President Records. Wilson was president of Princeton University from 1902-1910, Governor of New Jersey 1911-1913, and U.S. President 1913-1921. This collection contains correspondence between Wilson and University faculty, administrators, alumni, and parents, as well as departmental records and information on University projects that were taking place during his term, such as the construction of the Graduate College. Wilson’s Princeton presidency presented him with many challenges, the most ultimately significant of which was conflict over campus social life. In the first of a two-part series, we take a look at Wilson’s battle with the eating clubs.

Woodrow Wilson as Princeton’s president. Papers of Woodrow Wilson Project Records (MC178) Box 445.

Wilson was no great fan of the eating club system, which had begun in the mid-nineteenth century. He felt it drew energy, attention, and interest away from academics toward the social life of the college, and had a certain “snobbish” character about it. The clubs, then numbering 14, were the hub of the upperclassman’s life, providing a place for their members to eat, drink, and be merry in houses just off campus. Current members of clubs selected new members from the sophomore class, a process that would eventually become known as “bicker.” Wilson felt that the clubs’ allure overshadowed the college experience, as “it absorbs the attention and all the planning faculties of the undergraduate because all social ambitions turn upon it…His thought is constantly fixed upon that object throughout the first two years of his university course with a great intensity and uneasiness whenever he thinks either of his social standing, his comradeships or his general social consideration among his fellows. About a third of each class would not obtain membership to a club. As Wilson saw it, “their lot is little less than deplorable” because they were then, for their remaining two years, excluded from the central social life of campus. (Office of the President Records (AC117), Box 63, Folder 13)

As seen here in this excerpt from the 1878 Bric-a-Brac, Wilson was himself a member of an eating club during his Princeton years; however, the clubs of Wilson’s undergraduate days were a far cry from the elite social groups they became at the time of his Princeton presidency.

In December 1906, Wilson presented a report to the Board of Trustees on the school’s current social conditions, expressing his hope to divide Princeton into residential quads, with members of all four classes in each quad and a faculty advisor overseeing each. Students would live and eat in their quads all four years, eliminating the necessity of the eating clubs entirely. Wilson thought this plan was “an indispensable accompaniment and completion of the preceptorial system,” another of Wilson’s innovations, reports of which can also be found in the records. (Office of the President Records (AC117), Box 63, Folder 13)

While the report claimed to be focused positively towards the intellectual growth of the University, rather than negatively towards the eating clubs, Wilson did make his feelings clear:

But, in spite of their admirable spirit and of every watchful effort they have made to the contrary, and by a process which neither they nor we could successfully control, a system of social life has grown up in the University by reason of their existence which divides classes, creates artificial groups for social purposes, and renders a wholesome university spirit impossible. Circumstances created, not by design, but by the inevitable operation of human nature, render a radical reorganization of our life imperative, if the main ends for which that life is meant to be attained.

The report was published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, June 12, 1907, a copy of which is in Wilson’s files.

Colonial Club, 1905. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP152, Item No. 4170.

A sub-committee of the Board of Trustees responded in a report on social conditions on March 3, 1908. The committee agreed with Wilson’s assessment of the “evils” of the social life at Princeton:

Without attempting to detail these evils, or to emphasize them by citation of individual instances, it seems that the most important can be classified and summarized under the following heads:

1. The segregation of sophomores from other undergraduates;

2. The unfortunate position of upper classmen failing election to any club;

3. The distraction of undergraduates from their academic pursuits at times of, and incident to club elections, and because of the social demands upon their time;

4. The under classmen’s temptation to seek social advancement by choice of associates, tending toward snobbishness and incident extravagance.

(Office of the President Records (AC117), Box 63, Folder 1)


But they diverged from Wilson here and did not propose to begin a residential quad or college system. Instead they moved to reform the club system, suggesting that no more clubs be created, that a small number of sophomores be admitted to the clubs at the beginning and middle of the year, and that faculty and the clubs “encourage closer relations and a better understanding.” Additionally, they suggested creating a University Club with open membership. They felt their proposed reforms would have the sufficient effect of mitigating the social evils of the university as they outlined, without revolutionizing campus culture or getting rid of “a system which contains much that is good and around which centre (sic) traditions and, to many, fondly cherished associations which should not lightly be done away with.”

Wilson’s reforms were not put in place to any lasting effect, but he remained interested in the issue long after his time at Princeton. He wrote to V. Lansing Collins, Secretary in the Office of the President at Princeton, in November 1923: “The subject matter of the report still interests me if for no other reason than because it led to the Trustees in their sagacity to kick me upstairs into the Governorship and Presidency.” (Office of the President Records (AC117), Box 63, Folder 13)

Concern for maintaining proper balance of social and academic life was a strain that ran throughout Wilson’s tenure as president. The debate also arose during discussions surrounding the construction of the new Graduate College. In the next installment in this series, we will take a look at Wilson’s loss in that fight over its location. Look for the second installment in this series in March.

Anna Rubin ’15 worked as an archives assistant at the front desk here at Mudd while completing her senior year at Princeton. She was heavily involved in the digitization of this collection.

Thanks to Julian Dean, a graduate student in Politics, who alerted us to an error in the caption for the photo of Colonial Club. We believe this photo was taken in 1905, not in 1906 as was originally stated.


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