Four-year colleges promise a different Princeton experience for many

Mealtimes were the worst.

Rob Biederman ’08, president of the Undergraduate Student Government, lived as an independent in upperclass housing this year, taking his meals wherever he could find them: sometimes as a guest at an eating club, often at the Frist Campus Center or a Nassau Street restaurant, occasionally in his dorm room, heating noodles using hot water drawn from the bathroom taps. Then, in January, he was invited to tour the still-under-construction Whitman College with other student leaders.

“I got a sense of the excitement,” Biederman says. “It seemed like a chance to do something new.”

And — no small thing — he would eat better, he decided, after learning of Whitman’s elaborate dining hall, with its promised restaurant-trained chefs, brick pizza ovens, made-to-order omelettes, and daily provision of kosher and halal food. “[N]on-institutional, welcoming, restaurant-like, and distinctive,” the residential-college Web site calls it, but Biederman calls it heaven. Not surprisingly, he says his expectations for the food at Whitman are “exceptionally high.”

Come September, Biederman will be one of about 1,000 undergraduates embarking on Princeton’s most radical social experiment since coeducation — an experiment likely to do much more than just improve the food. Once established, the four-year colleges could alter the relationships between upper- and underclassmen, undergraduates, and graduate students, and between the University and the eating clubs, transforming what generations of students have known as the Princeton experience. The colleges also are viewed as a means to address the persistent dissatisfaction among minority students, particularly African-Americans, with a social life that has been centered along The Street, and even to raise the level of intellectual life on campus.

W. Barksdale Maynard ’88, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University who is working on a book about Woodrow Wilson 1879, thinks the college plan very much enacts Wilson’s 1907 Quad plan and the vision of a unified academic community that it presented for Princeton. James Axtell, a professor at the College of William and Mary and author of The Making of Princeton University, also thinks that the plan would please Wilson, who “wanted the upper classes to be a good influence on the [under] classes.” But while Wilson saw his Quad plan in intellectual and academic terms, Axtell says, today’s four-year-college idea is “more of a culinary and social deal with a lot of academic integration.”

Starting in September, Whitman College will house approximately 200 freshmen, 100 sophomores, and 200 juniors and seniors, while Mathey will expand from a two-year to a four-year college with approximately 200 freshmen, 200 sophomores, and 100 juniors and seniors. For the time being, Butler will remain a two-year college (though somewhat smaller as several of the dormitories in the New New Quad are being demolished), but will re-emerge in 2009 as a third four-year college. Rockefeller, Forbes, and Wilson colleges will remain two-year colleges, but each will be paired with a four-year college — increasing the connections and ensuring that all upperclass students (who will retain their college affiliations) have access to the same college-based advising, cultural, and social options. For the first time, each residential college also will house 10 graduate students. Against this backdrop is an ongoing increase in the size of the undergraduate student body, from about 4,700 in 2005 to 5,200 by 2012.

Whitman, which is almost finished, only can be described as palatial and — at 255,000 square feet, comprising eight buildings — massive. Designed by Demetri Porphyrios *80 to match the collegiate gothic style of the surrounding campus, it is completely modern inside yet reassuringly familiar outside. Among its many amenities will be a theater seating 65, a ballet studio with a mirror, barre, and sprung floor, and a large common room with fireplaces and overstuffed easy chairs, à la Gryffindor House at Hogwarts. (The 2005–06 Treasurer’s Report puts the construction cost of Whitman at $134 million; additionally, the University is improving the din- ing facilities at all the colleges and demolishing and rebuilding the New New Quad, which is part of Butler College.)

Despite the cranes and scaffolding so visible on campus during the spring, much of the engineering taking place was of the social kind. Activities are being improved at all the colleges in an effort to make them more attractive to students; venues such as Wilson College’s Black Box theater will be imitated. Student councils will be in place at each college to create programs to increase intellectual, recreational, and social vigor.

From early indications, students are greeting the new colleges with guarded enthusiasm. Underclass spaces in Whitman and Mathey filled quickly, creating a waiting list. In all, 282 freshmen applied to transfer to Whitman from Butler or Mathey, and 106 were accepted. All upperclass spaces in Whitman also were filled, and all but six in Mathey were taken. As has long been the case, incoming freshmen will be assigned randomly to a college.

Ever since Wilson’s Quad plan, attempts to create a residential college system that fully integrated upper- and underclassmen treated undergraduate life as a zero-sum game in which social options on campus could be expanded only if the options off campus — the clubs — were curtailed. But this time, the four-year colleges are being promoted as a way to complement Prospect Avenue, not replace it. Indeed, the clubs have been engaged as partners and say, at least publicly, that they support the new experiment, which came with a large sweetener.

Last fall, the University announced that juniors and seniors on financial aid will receive additional funds to help cover the average cost of a club membership, which is as much as $2,000 per year more than the standard board rate used in financial aid calculations. It is expected that the program will cost the University more than $2 million a year. Increased financial aid “helps level the playing field for students who heretofore had not had the opportunity to join a club,” says Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson. And that, Dickerson adds, means “there will be students who will be more likely to make contacts across boundaries.”

At the same time — and after months of negotiations with the clubs — the University is initiating a shared meal plan, in which a limited number of upperclassmen may join an eating club while living in a four-year college. Each of the 10 eating clubs decided how many shared contracts would be offered, ranging from two per class at Ivy to 15 per class at Colonial. So far, demand for the joint memberships has far outstripped supply. In addition, all club members may now eat a few meals in college dining halls, as upperclassmen will receive two free meals per week whether or not they purchased a dining hall meal plan. These plans, Executive Vice President Mark Burstein believes, will “potentially increase the connection” between upperclassmen and underclassmen.

University administrators insist that the four-year college will increase students’ alternatives — not weaken the clubs. “As our student population has become more diverse,” Burstein explains, “our survey data showed that students engaged in eating clubs or varsity teams rated their Princeton experience higher than students who chose an independent option. What we’re trying to change in the Princeton experience is to provide more options for students, so it is not an either/or [choice], but a spectrum of choices for an undergraduate that will hopefully make more of them really feel the richness of what it means to be a Princeton student.”

“I think [the four-year college plan] is an absolutely positive thing,” says Mike Jackman ’92, graduate board chairman of Cloister Inn, adding that the financial aid offering will mean that more students might “join our club because they can find an option that suits them.” Wyatt Rockefeller ’07, who recently stepped down as president of Ivy, recalls that clubs initially were wary of the idea of joint memberships, but the setup of the program, combined with the financial aid, has convinced many club members that the clubs will become better integrated into other aspects of Princeton life. Nonetheless, the clubs still are testing the waters: Participation in the shared meal program varies greatly, with bicker clubs tending to offer fewer than the nonselective clubs. Rockefeller explains that Ivy, with only its two joint memberships per class, is “looking for someone who wants to be here and contribute,” suggesting that those with one foot in the club and the other in a residential college might have trouble making that commitment.

One club member who is taking the residential-college plunge is Peter Trentman ’08, who will be one of Biederman’s roommates in a lavish Whitman quad while enjoying a shared meal plan at Cottage Club. “It seemed like the best option, if I could get it,” says Trentman, who anticipates eating lunches and dinners on Prospect while taking advantage of the shorter walk to Whitman’s dining hall for breakfast. But rising senior Chris Breen chose to opt out, and will continue to take his meals at Cloister Inn. “It was a matter of wanting to be with my friends,” he explains. “I had already moved out [of the residential college] and it was hard to move back in.”

For those who have not been interested in the clubs — or who have felt excluded from them — the range of activities in the new colleges may be a large draw. Although Burstein says the colleges will broaden options for all students and “were not directly tailored to any particular group,” administrators long have acknowledged that many students, particularly African-Americans, felt left out of the club system. (Burstein says he has no data on the racial composition of either the four-year colleges or participants in the shared meal plans.)

Davion Chisim ’09, a politics major from Los Angeles and vice president of the Black Student Union, recently joined Cap and Gown because several of her friends did. Neverthe-less, at times she has felt excluded from social life at Prince-ton and calls the club scene “not something I love, but something I live with.” She’ll be living at Whitman next year, though she applied unsuccessfully for a joint meal plan (without a shared plan, living in a college as a club member requires some balancing, as a student must purchase at least 95 University meals per semester).

Many African-American students choose to go independent, an option that may remain attractive even after the four-year colleges establish themselves. Ezinne Emeruwa ’10, a freshman in Rockefeller College, says she probably will choose that route next year rather than apply to Whitman or Mathey. It’s fine to be in a residential college as an underclassman, she thinks, but “in the upper classes [we] want to move more into living our own lives.” Although she believes the four-year colleges will prove attractive to some minority students, she wonders whether the system might actually harm campus social relations by making it harder for the clubs to attract a more diverse membership and reducing the incentive for them to try.

While many administrators see the colleges as a way to make the social scene less alienating, some faculty members consider them a means to broaden Princeton’s intellectual conversations. Pursuits of the mind will be emphasized: In addition to having a faculty master and faculty fellows, each college will have a dean and director of studies who will serve as academic advisers. That means that nondepartmental academic advising will move from West College to the colleges: Beginning in the fall, all juniors and seniors will be assigned an adviser in one of the colleges, whether they live there or not. The colleges plan to offer expanded services in writing assistance, fellowship advising, and career advising. Whitman and Mathey will have classrooms and seminar rooms, and resident masters will provide daily informal contact with the faculty while the 60 resident graduate students spread among the six colleges are expected to help tie together undergraduate and graduate life. According to Burstein, more than twice that many graduate students applied for the spots.

Harvey Rosen, the John L. Weinberg Professor of Econom-ics and Business Policy and the new master of Whitman College, says the four-year colleges will improve the intellectual climate in several ways. “First,” he writes in an e-mail, “the colleges will facilitate early exposure of freshmen and sophomores to the distinctive features of upperclass intellectual life. Second, there will be better integration of academic life and residential life. ... Our faculty fellows will do some of their teaching and advising in the college. Third, the fact that teaching and advising are taking place in the college will lead to more informal interactions among students and faculty members, particularly over meals.”

None of the students interviewed by PAW suggested that they were hankering for more intellectual stimulation, but Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History who will be one of the Whitman College fellows, argues there is much room for improvement. “One of the real weaknesses of Princeton, especially as compared to Harvard and Yale, is the radical separation of under- and upperclassmen,” he says. “There are a few [extracurricular] activities where that is mitigated, but they are on a small scale, they are fragile, and they are temporary.”

Notwithstanding the outstanding intellectual achievements of individual students, Grafton says, “the general level of conversation on campus is not very high.” So, as a Whitman fellow, Grafton envisions one of his jobs to be to see “what can be done to give undergraduates the sense that it is OK to talk about a book over lunch once a week.” When asked whether undergraduates are simply too busy for deeper discussions outside of class, Grafton retorts, “But everybody eats lunch. I’m not looking for Lake Carnegie to turn to lemonade here. This is not Utopia.” He points out that the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge universities, held by many to be the model of undergraduate life, have been creating intellectually and socially enriching communities for centuries.

Many of the graduate students who have been chosen to live at the colleges share Grafton’s optimism. Juan Nogues, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, says that “a four-year college would help develop a stronger intellectual environment because graduate students and all levels of undergraduates are going to be living together, having at least one thing in common, which is academics.” In addition to serving as sponsors of college social activities, such as a movie club or German-language club, grad students are expected to make their presence felt simply by being around and eating in the same dining hall with the younger students. Participating graduate students also receive meal and housing stipends.

“All our responsibility turns on that integration with the undergraduates,” says Theo Vanderzee, a second-year master-of-fine-arts student who will be living in Butler next year. That means sharing some of their experience and wisdom — “not just in what classes to take, or professors to avoid, but also in things like when to start thinking about summer internships or fellowships,” adds Jeffrey Breunig, a first-year doctoral student in molecular biology who will live in Butler. “Additionally, [we] provide a good role model of how to balance academics and outside hobbies, or school and personal life.”

The colleges already have begun trying to mix what historically has been undergraduate oil with graduate water. Mathey has hosted several Friday afternoon wine-and-cheese mixers with graduate students and faculty members, although Elyse Graham ’07, who served on the Mathey social committee, sardonically attributes their popularity to the availability of wine. At Mathey, plans are being made to introduce a broader range of social activities next year, including an arts night, Sunday brunch, and a string quartet performance. The college also launched a new book club — Harry Potter was a big draw, Graham says — fostering what may become a healthy competition as each college tries to carve its own identity and perhaps outdo the others in order to attract more students. “The primary competition [of the residential colleges] will always be the eating clubs,” Graham says, “but competition tends to make things better.”

Still, as Graham, a PAW student columnist, acknowledges, it still is all speculation. What will happen when a new generation of students does not automatically opt for an eating club because that is where friends are? How will the four-year college system affect the Princeton experience five or 10 years from now?

In an interview with PAW last summer, President Tilghman imagined an ambitious future. “One vision that might be worth thinking about,” she said, “is that all students live in four-year residential colleges and all students have a membership in one of the eating clubs. That might be a scenario we could strive for down the line.” At the moment, no additional four-year colleges are planned, and Burstein declines to predict whether more shared meal plans will be added, saying it depends on student preferences. “Will it grow?” he asks rhetorically. “I wish I could predict what undergraduates will choose. It would make planning much easier.”

Graham is sanguine about the four-year colleges’ chance of success, though she will miss the experience since she just graduated. “There is a sense that when you come to Princeton, there’s going to be spires and gargoyles and sitting in a common room with people who are deeply learned, where you can hash out something over wine and cheese because both of you are on fire about it — and someone else has paid for the wine while you do it,” she says. “There is something about being in a very rich academic environment, and [yet] you’re also being shoved from behind into trying Latin dance. As upperclassmen, you can lose track of that because you’re immersed in your thesis. I think the upperclass plan will succeed because it will enable you to continue living that life even as you are moving out of it.” 

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.

Four-year residential college plans

Under Princeton’s new college plan, three four-year colleges ultimately will be paired with three two-year colleges. Students will retain their college affiliations throughout their time at Princeton, allowing everyone to take advantage of the enhanced advising, social, and cultural programs that are being planned.

Whitman College will open in the fall as a four-year college, while Mathey is being converted from a two-year college to a four-year college. Butler will become the third four-year college in 2009–10, after new dorms are built.

Forbes, Wilson, and Rockefeller will remain two-year colleges — Forbes paired with Whitman, Wilson with Butler, and Rockefeller with Mathey.

The residential colleges as of September 2007. Dorms in the New New Quad, which had been part of Butler College, are scheduled to be demolished during the summer. New dorms, designed by Pei Cobb Freed, will then be built.