Opinion » Editorial | Sept. 26
The successful (or unsuccessful) conclusion of fall bicker reminds us that the central element of Princeton’s social experience is defined by our communal eating options. Whether on the Street or elsewhere, meal times offer us a break from our work, a chance to see friends and time to meet new people. For the first two years on campus, the required meal plan allows students to foster friendships within their residential college. However, come junior year, the dining model changes — students join eating clubs, co-ops or become independent. Students who can afford the added cost of eating clubs are able to continue this traditional communal mealtime experience. However, this benefit is not extended to every student: the roughly 30 percent of students who do not or can not join eating clubs are missing out on an integral part of the Princeton experience; they often do not have the same opportunity to expand their social horizons.
In order to bridge this dining-option schism, the University should strive to make the residential college dining options more accessible to upperclassmen. As an effort to lessen the socially stratifying effects of the eating clubs, the University should encourage upperclassmen to utilize the residential college dining halls. This can be achieved by making the meal plan options more flexible and by better developing a sense of identity within the colleges. To be clear, we are not advocating the people abandon their eating clubs or condemning the club system; we are merely suggesting that the clubs be complemented by more extensive dining options.
As it stands, upperclassmen without a meal plan are given two swipes a week at residential dining halls. This very limited access makes the residential dining halls seem uninviting to upperclassmen — it is clearly not designed to encourage exploration or intermixing of individuals from different classes and tends to be used now by groups of friends for reasons of simple expedience. If upperclassmen were offered the chance to purchase — or exchange for — more swipes a week, this would make the dining halls more upperclassman-friendly. This would also make it easier for independent/non-eating club members to interact with their classmates more regularly and without extensive deliberate planning. At present, Dining Services makes this scenario impossible with an inflexible meal plan set of options; the cheapest dining option is the 95-block-plan, which costs $3,225. Shared meal plans — which offer upperclassmen more dining hall meals in exchange for eating club meals — are in very limited supply and are usually only available for seniors. There should be, for example, a meal plan that gives upperclassmen 5 meals a week, for a reasonable extra fee. Recently, the University announced a plan that allows upperclassmen the ability to convert their 2 extra meal swipes into a flexible block of 30 meals for $200 a semester. While this represents a step in the right direction, it is inadequate to seriously encourage upperclassmen to make more frequent use of dining halls.
In addition to making the dining options more flexible, the university should seek to use meal times as an opportunity to expand the sense of identity within residential colleges. For example, following a model used frequently by Whitman College, all residential colleges should institute semi-frequent “college nights” in which dining halls are restricted to current or former members of the college. In order to attract upperclassmen, the colleges should further consider making these meals of a higher quality than typical nights. The sense of shared identity derived from this type of initiative, perhaps integrated with a “theme” of celebration or shared activity, would encourage relationships across classes and social groups. Such a change in University policy would incur minimal cost, allow currently disenfranchised independents some context for a broader shared experience, and in general serve as a first step to unify a campus that continues to be perceived by some as fragmented and isolating. More communal, less restricted dining options within the residential colleges could only broaden Princeton’s social experience without dampening the small-community feel created in many eating clubs.