In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s breakthrough novel, This Side of Paradise, his protagonist, Amory Blaine, faces a stressful decision. Where should he go the following fall? Attracted by nothing but prestige, Amory tells a family friend, "I don't know why, but I think of all Harvard men as sissies." He looks more favorably on Yale, which has “ a romance and glamor from the tales of Minneapolis and St. Regis’ men who had been tapped for Skull and Bones.” Ultimately, though, he settles on Princeton, which he famously describes as “the pleasantest country club in America.”
Fitzgerald goes on to describe Princeton's eating clubs in lyrically snobbish phrases: one club is "detached and breathlessly aristocratic," another is "an impressive mélange of brilliant adventurers and well-dressed philanderers," a third is "broad-shouldered and athletic," and a fourth is "anti-alcoholic, faintly religious and politically powerful."
Over the past hundred years, all three of these colleges have attempted to shed their elitist reputations. They've been coed for long enough that their single-sex pasts are mostly documented in black and white photographs. They've championed affirmative action and established generous need-based financial aid programs. Yet among the Ivies, Princeton is still seen as a bastion of white, upper-class privilege, due in large part to its eating clubs.
When I was at Princeton, nearly a century after Amory's time, I belonged to a club called Cap and Gown. Like all the other eating clubs, it was housed in an on-campus mansion unaffiliated with the university but run by students and alumni. The interior was darkly wooded and well-maintained, evoking grandeur. There are 11 of these clubs today, and they dominate Princeton's social scene. Today, they're most famous for Lawnparties, a twice-yearly event where live bands play and students drink and dance on every lawn, fountain, and balcony available.
Each of Princeton's eating clubs has its own distinct reputation. Ivy is known for its preppiness and generally draws students from wealth, or those who aspire to it. At the opposite extreme, Terrace draws laid-back hipster types. Between Ivy and Terrace, there are clubs for a range of personality types. Tower draws the theater crowd and the politics majors, whereas heavy-drinking swimmers and rowers flock to Cloister.
In contrast with Fitzgerald’s time, all of these clubs include female students, and they're no longer quite so exclusive. Five of the 11 are open to anyone who can pay the membership dues. Still, Princeton has never quite shed its reputation as "the pleasantest country club in America." To get some context, I decided to explore the social scenes at other Ivy League colleges. What I discovered is that Princeton's social scene is actually strikingly progressive compared to Harvard's. At Harvard, there are eight all-male clubs and five all-female Final Clubs. All of the male clubs own real estate. Just one of the female clubs—the Bee—has a house, which it rents. The all-male clubs have property—mansions in Harvard Square. The men who belong to them are typically athletes or from prominent or affluent families, and they tend to be white.
A recent Harvard graduate, whom I will refer to as Steve, was a member of a Final Club. “You are invited to initial events in a cryptic way,” he explained. “You get a note, often with a waxed seal, and they flip it under your door.” That letter spurs six weeks of courtship between members and prospective members.
Another recent alum, whom I will call Jim, belonged to a different club. Jim explained the “punch process,” which takes place in the fall of a student's sophomore year: “Each club hosts four formal events, usually a cocktail party, an outing, a date event, and a final dinner. At each event, the members invite fewer and fewer folks back. So say maybe 200 to 75 to 35 to 25, or something along those lines.”
Between 10 and 20 percent of male students, and around 5 percent of female students survive punch and are initiated into a club. While the clubs might initially punch 200 students, the paring-down process is often predictable. A recent female graduate, whom I will call Stephanie, was not in a club. She explains, “Athletes have a huge advantage. And a lot of it is based on wealth.” As she tells it, “The only way to get punched without a clear affiliation is if you’re very social or if you had very good older friends.”
Jim paints a more forgiving picture. “The clubs are self-selecting communities. They give preference to friends of current members and sons of graduate members. Older students meet younger students through sports teams and other extracurriculars, so that's certainly one way to get into a club, and if there's a guy from say Andover in the Delphic, he's likely to know younger guys from Andover and punch them. But there's no conspiracy there.”
Conspiracy or not, all but one of the many people I interviewed agreed that athletes and wealthier, typically white, students tend to be selected. As with Eating Clubs, each Final Club draws a certain crowd and has a unique reputation. The Final Club spectrum is purely pastel, however, representing various different shades of preppy. The Porcellian is the most elite club, with Teddy Roosevelt and the Winklevoss twins headlining its alumni corps. Stephanie explains that it is the most formal of the clubs, hosting nothing but invite-only events. Legend has it that the Porcellian tells punches that if they turn 30 and have not yet made a million dollars, the club will give it to them. This myth has been neither confirmed nor denied.
In addition to the Porcellian, there are seven other clubs. Stephanie, Steve, and Jim characterized them in this way: The Spee selects a more international crowd. The Fly is for “guys from New York”. The AD is for “lax bros,” the Pheonix is for “football and waterpolo,” and the Delphic is for “ice hockey, baseball, and captains of several major sports teams.” The Owl is “fratty, fun, lots of rugby players and oarsman, very open.” The only club not known primarily for wealthy or athletic members is the Fox, which Jim describes as “open, fun, friendly, nice guys drawn from a range of Harvard extracurriculars, like The Crimson and sports teams.” Stephanie agrees: “There are some nice guys there.”
Self-selecting communities exist everywhere. Few people, for instance, are bothered by the fact that A.E. Pi is a predominantly Jewish fraternity. White, wealthy country clubs might offend people, but unless you live across the street from them, they are also easy to ignore.
Final Clubs are more difficult to ignore. In a 2013 survey on the effects of Final Clubs at Harvard, The Crimson concludes that “while female clubs are not perceived to have a significant impact on today’s campus social scene, male clubs are perceived to have an impact.” The article goes on to report, “A majority of respondents—54 percent—said they believe the male clubs have negative or very negative social effects on campus. Twenty-five percent characterized the social impact of male clubs as positive or very positive, and just 21 percent of respondents said they believe the male clubs have a neutral social impact on campus.”
One reason for this controversy is the tight control the club’s male leaders issue over their parties’ guest lists. According to Stephanie, “freshman guys are never let in, and older non-member guys are very rarely let in.” Girls, on the other hand, are usually allowed inside—especially younger ones. Stephanie estimates that attendance at Harvard's final club parties is 3-to-1 female.
What gives Harvard's final clubs so much power, even though only 25 percent of students see them as a positive force on campus? The clubs have a monopoly on spaces where underage students can consume alcohol without fear of legal repercussions. This is true of Princeton's eating clubs as well: Because the clubs are distinct from both their universities and their townships, police need probable cause to enter their properties. Knowing this, the clubs take major precautions to keep their parties from getting out of hand. They hire security firms and bartenders, and assign members to act as sober safety monitors. As Jim puts it, “Why would you serve alcohol to people you don't know when it carries a legal risk?" This caution, he argues, is a lot of what drives the perceived "exclusivity" of these parties.
What Harvard lacks are appealing and accessible alternatives to these exclusive groups. At Princeton, by comparison, only six of the 11 eating clubs still clubs still choose their members through the selection process known as "bicker." In the late 1960s, after Princeton President Robert F. Goheen called the bicker system "brutal and unsatisfactory," student leaders worked to make the process more open and inclusive. Over the next decade, many of the clubs gave up on bicker altogether. Today, five of Princeton's eating clubs accept members on a "sign-in" basis. A student might not get into his club of choice, but no student who can pay the fee is excluded from the eating club experience. (Because of the fee, Princeton's clubs, like Harvard's, do favor wealthy students, though the eating clubs offer some amount of financial aid to those who need it.)
In another progressive coup, a 1990 court order forced Princeton to integrate women into its eating clubs. (Harvard's final clubs got around the court order by moving off-campus.) In 2011, my senior year at Princeton, my club, Cap and Gown, had a female president, and most of the clubs had at least one female officer. At Princeton, women have real power and sway in the social system.
Moreover, apart from “members only” nights, any non-member at Princeton can attend a party at any eating club so long as a member gives him or her a pass. The frontiers are fairly fluid, as members are typically generous about giving away passes to both close friends and loose connections.
If the Princeton social structure represents the next stage in Harvard’s evolution, Yale's represents its final one. At Yale, no single entity dominates the scene. Students might position themselves to get “tapped” for a secret society such as Skull and Bones, but those groups rarely impact the lives of students who aren't in them.
A recent Yale graduate, whom I will call George, explains: “Secret Societies are groups of around 15 to 20 students who have mandatory hang-out time every Thursday and Sunday evening during their senior year at Yale. In other words, they are random groups of individuals brought together to get to know each other better.” Everyone I spoke to agreed with George, confirming that the main point of a Secret Society is for members to spend quality time together. At group meetings, one member will present his autobiography to his peers while everyone eats and drinks.
As with final clubs and eating clubs, though, family wealth and prominence plays a role in the selection process at Yale. George, who was not in a club, says, “Given that one of the goals of societies in general is to develop a network of highly connected and powerful individuals, students who came from ‘elite’ families may have gotten selected as members for that reason. This only plays a role in the most prestigious societies, though.”
Another Yale alum, who I will call Chris, was in a club and says, “The big ones target personalities on campus. For example, the captain of the football team and the editor in chief of Yale Daily News get automatic bids to Skulls. So it’s less about white, wealthy, and elite than reputation on campus.”
A student might get sore about knowing the societies exist and not being in one—especially if a good friend is conspicuously busy on Thursday and Sunday evening. But that this is as far as most complaints go at Yale. Most of the societies, and all of the most prestigious ones, have an equal number of male and female members. The “landed” ones have buildings on campus, but they do not use them for throwing exclusive parties. Their selection process may be elitist, but the clubs don't play a significant role in nightlife or non-members' overall university experience.
In fact, no particular group dominates Yale's social life. A recent Yale graduate whom I will call Gary estimates that the Greek scene accounts for 20 percent of students. The major hubs are the natural communities that form on sports teams, the newspaper, or Model UN, for example. The 12 residential colleges, to which students are randomly assigned at the beginning of their freshman year, also become epicenters of social life.
In Fitzgerald’s time, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale really did resemble exclusive country clubs; admission itself was essentially open only to those from upper-class families. Today, the three universities go to great lengths to welcome and support students from diverse backgrounds. Though the social scenes at Princeton and Yale do, in some circumstances, favor students from wealthy backgrounds, Harvard’s system stands out as particularly antiquated. At a time when the university is welcoming its most diverse class in history, and offering financial aid to nearly 60 percent of students, its exclusive, male-dominated social scene continues to send a mixed message.