Expedition to Australia

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Introduction

Wind, water, plants, heat, and gravity are constantly pounding, splitting, cracking, and pulling rocks. Little by little, they break down the rock into smaller pieces called “sediments.” They are transported away to varying distances and deposited in calm environments. Sediments pile on top of each other — layer after layer — as time progresses. Eventually, the pressure from subsequent layers is sufficiently strong to turn lower sediment layers into rock. The type of sediments, nature in which they were deposited, and chemical signatures that they record can provide information about the Earth’s climate at the time of deposition.

Sediments are the primary source of climate data for the years before 1960. Most famously, ice cores provide the best climatic records. Snowflakes fall onto glaciers. Their irregular shapes create gaps between individual flakes, thus trapping a small chamber of air from when they fell. Climatologists drill ice cores and analyze these air pockets to determine the state of Earth’s climate in the past.

But the oldest ice cores go back only 5 million years. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Deep sea cores of ocean sediments reach 130 million years before present. Tectonic activity destroys oceanic plates via subduction that are older. To see even further back in the Earth’s climate history, geologists study rocks made of the chemical compound carbonate (CO3).

Repetitive sequences of carbonate rock layers are scattered throughout the rock record. Geologist have interpreted these layers to represent fluctuations in sea level. But few study how carbonate rocks are forming in the present to understand if these layers actually record sea level change.

These issues form the basis of my sedimentology class. For spring break, we traveled to western Australia to study the preservation of sea level in sedimentary rocks.

Field Trip

Day 1-2— I left my dorm at 4:30 AM. The campus was dead quiet. My class lined up on Ivy Lane to take a bus to John F. Kennedy International Airport. We flew for 12 hours on an Emirates flight to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Emirates is renowned for satisfying customers, and it didn’t disappoint. It provided good food, frequent refills on drinks, cushy seats with slightly more room, a high-tech entertainment system, and a packet with socks and a sleeping mask. There’s no way that any of the American airlines can compare with their amenities. None of the crew were American, and all of the flight attendants were women.

As we were descending into Dubai, I saw the Burj Khalifa — the tallest building in the world — rise out of the brown desert haze. It was a shiny needle shooting 2,700 feet into the sky, four times taller than the other buildings around it. Several manmade islands dotted the city’s coast.

We rushed to our next flight because our first one had landed late. The airport was more of a shopping mall than an airport. Stores from the finest European brands lined the walls next to globalized American chainstores. The vaulted ceiling was three stories high. Upper levels had lounges and crew quarters. Fifty-foot tall windows arced to a central ridge, providing a full view of the city skyline. There were people from across the Afro-Eurasian landmass: Europeans, Indians, Chinese, Arabs, and east Africans.

Our second flight lasted ten hours as it traversed the Indian Ocean toward Perth, Australia. The flight line from New York City to Perth is one of the longest in the world because the Australian city is near New York’s antipodes — the point on the opposite side of the Earth from another point. We arrived in Australia after midnight and stayed in a hotel north of Perth. Our room had a magnificent view of an Ikea warehouse across the street.

Day 3— We left the hotel and ate breakfast at a nearby café. Australians drive on the left side of the road, so our driver — a woman who was recently admitted to Princeton’s graduate school — had to adjust herself to the new rules of the road. Then, our nine-hour drive northward to Shark Bay began. Wide open Mediterranean scrubland soon turned into barren red desert. Dead kangaroos laid at the roadside every ten miles or less. Eventually, we drove parallel to the Indian Ocean. Its azure waves lapped up to the sparkling sandy shores. Towering white sand dunes were one half mile inland, slowly marching to the sea under the wind.

We stopped to shop for food in Geraldton, a town that is halfway between Perth and Shark Bay. It was small and industrial. There was a Hungry Jack’s next to a Target. “Hungry Jack’s” is the official name of Burger King in Australia. When the hamburger chain moved to the continent in the 1970s, another store had already trademarked the name “Burger King,” so the Australian franchisee chose another name. Hungry Jack’s is the second largest Burger King franchise in the world.

We arrived at Shark Bay around 8:00 PM. Our campsite was located on a beach within the Carbla homestead. Shark Bay is a national park, but several families were grandfathered into conditions that permit them to hold land on centurylong leases.

The Milky Way glowed above us as we set up our tents. The wind was warm and the waves gentle.

Day 4— I awoke by accident at 3:30 AM and saw a fantastic spectacle. Summer constellations had risen above the horizon. The brilliant white galactic core in Sagittarius was approaching the zenith. All was quiet. Not even the wind blew. The yellow eyes of quarter-sized spiders glittered on the hillside under my headlamp. I took some pictures and went back to bed.

Once the sun rose, the air warmed quickly. The ocean turned from plain blue to a sparkling turquoise. Small black flies swarmed around my head. They didn’t bite, but they were very annoying.

Our professor gave us a tour of the landscape. We first descended down several terraces of 1-2 meters in height that marked past shorelines when the sea level was higher. We then waded into the water to make additional observations. The water felt frigid. But, in reality, we were just really hot from being in the sun, and the water was cooling us down significantly. Our professor then showed us the stromatolites.

Stromatolites are one of the oldest forms of life. The earliest stromatolite fossils, found in Greenland, date back to 3.7 billion years ago. They form when a certain kind of cyanobacteria — bacteria that photosynthesize — form clumps and start retaining mud layers. Stromatolites dominated reefs for the first 3.5 billion years of Earth’s history but have been declining for the past 1 billion years. They were succeeded by sponges, rudists, and corals. Their fall was fueled by the rise of animals, which like to eat them. Today, they are limited to very saline water in environments that are too harsh for most animals. These locations include: Shark Bay, several other beaches and lakes in western Australia, Exuma Cays in the Bahamas, Lago Salgada in Brazil, Cuatro Ciénegas and Lake Alchichica in Mexico, and Pampa del Tamarugal National Reserve in Chile.

Stromatolites come in all shapes and sizes — called “morphologies” — but geologists don’t know what they signify. Hamelin Pool in Shark Bay has the largest remaining colony of stromatolites in the world, so our research projects would focus on understanding how their morphologies changed with water depth.

After walking in the water for some time, we headed inland to examine sand dunes. The temperature soared above 40ºC, and the flies intensified. Sand dunes’ shapes provide information about the environment in which they formed. Crescentic barchan dunes form when there’s little surrounding sand and one predominant wind direction. Transverse dunes occur in vast sand seas, and their crests are perpendicular to the wind.  Longitude dunes are created by multiple wind directions. The dunes on the shore were parabolic dunes: barchan dunes that reversed as plants secured their edges and their central arches buckled under the wind. They indicate that the climate is temperate with sufficient precipitation to support vegetation.

We stopped to study the cross-bedding in the sandstone of fossilized sand dunes. Sand grains are pushed up the front side of a sand dune by the wind. After they cross its crest, the grains fall down the backside and are deposited in layers. As the wind pushes the dune back, successive layers are deposited on top of one another. Eventually, the land subsides, and these layers are preserved as cross-bedding in sandstone. By measuring the cross-bedding’s direction of inclination, we can determine the types of dunes that existed in the past and the general climate at the time of formation. The two cross-bedded rocks in front of us indicated that there was once a westward-oriented parabolic dune. This information tells us that the climate had enough rain to support plants and that the wind came from a seaward direction.

While the Sun was approaching high noon, the flies were getting worse. There was a never-ending buzz in my ears. They covered all of one student’s lips. For another, they were crawling on his neck. Three kangaroos rested under the shade of some rock bluffs no more than 100 meters from camp. We returned for lunch. The cheese in my box had melted onto my sandwich. Liquified peanut butter oozed out from between two slices of bread. Our water tasted like warm tea from being in the sunlight. In the morning, the land breeze had picked up and knocked over some tents. Now, it was calm.

For the rest of the day, I waded in the water with one of the stromatolite research teams. We walked along transects — straight lines that a person walks and periodically stops to take measurements or collect samples — that were perpendicular to the shore. The waves grew larger as the tide rolled in. It was new Moon, so we were experiencing the strongest spring tide of the synodic month.

Evening came as a relief. There were no flies after sunset. The air cooled to a comfortable 22ºC with a sea breeze. We ate dinner while watching the stars.

Day 5— The sunlight woke me up around 6:00 AM. Flies buzzed by my head as soon as I left my tent. I began the day by walking several transects parallel to the shore with an advanced GPS to record accurate elevation measurements.

By mid-morning, the stromatolite research team had decided to switch the focus of their project. I was paired with the student who I worked for in the Bahamas, and we went into a section of shallow water near camp to survey stromatolites.

The water was perfectly clear. Small fish darted away from us as we walked around. Their dark scales juxtaposed the white sand beneath them. The Sun’s rays scorched us with increasing intensity as its yellow disk rose higher into the sky. Reflections from the water were just as harmful.

I had learned my lesson after receiving terrible sunburn in the Bahamas. This time, I was much more prepared by wearing long sleeves, pants, gloves, sunglasses, a buff and hat. No one else was so fortunate. By the end of the day, they looked like tomatoes.

For the evening, I digitized the data that we had collected. For a few minutes, we stopped to watch the Sun sink below the horizon. The orange crescentic Moon followed it an hour later.

Day 6— I repeated the previous day’s activities. Our survey area shifted southward. After lunch, a sea snake — longer than an arm span in length — slithered out from behind a stromatolite. There’s a saying that goes, “everything in Australia is trying to kill you.” Sea snakes are no different. All sea snakes are deadly, but the worst ones can kill eight adult humans with three drops of venom. The snake that we saw was not as dangerous.

Shark Bay is also home to stonefish. They have spines on their back that inject venom into feet when stepped upon. If not treated immediately, the venom will kill a person. As the most venomous fish in the world, their sting has been described as one of the worst pains that a human can feel. We never saw any. But neither have the people who stepped on them.

We abandoned the stromatolite survey and collected grain samples along the beach for two kilometers during the final hours of the afternoon. The Sun was low by the time we returned to camp. Everyone ate dinner under the stars again.

Day 7— A sheen of cirrus clouds blanketed the morning sky. They reduced the day’s heat by a noticeable degree. My partner and I continued surveying stromatolites in a quadrangle one kilometer from camp. Since it was the final day of field work at Shark Bay, we rushed to collect as much data as possible. In the evening, I helped several students build a fire for roasting sweet potatoes. The clouds cleared to reveal the stars. ‘

Day 8— Thick clouds blocked the Sun. We packed up camp and drove out over Carbla’s wide red plains. There wasn’t much new for the first few hours of our southward drive. Green shrubs grew on desert pavement. Slowly, the scenery transformed into rolling hills and mesas below a pale blue sky. We continued to pass dead kangaroos. The class stopped for lunch at a Subway in Geraldton. After seeing  several construction workers come in for lunch, one English classmate said, “Every Australian that I have seen has looked like a stereotype of an Australian.”

We arrived in Jurien Bay by mid-afternoon. Half of the class went to our rental bungalow, and the other half went to scout our next work site.

Situated only two hours north of Perth, Numbung National Park is the crown jewel of western Australia. Tourists flock to it during the cooler winter months. Thousands of limestone pinnacles rise up to five meters above the sand sea surrounding them. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some look like tree trunks. Others are tombstones. Obtuse caps make pinnacles resemble mushrooms. A few are similar to candlesticks. Despite being one of western Australia’s icons, relatively little is known about the pinnacles’ origin. The signs in the visitor’s center say that they formed from a petrified forest or the remnants of plant roots.

But don’t let the signs fool you. Basic qualitative observations negate these hypotheses. The pinnacles contain several stratigraphic units — rock layers. In certain areas, the pinnacles have cross-bedding, and in another they feature paleosols, preserved ancient soils. Australian researchers conducted series of surveys in 2014-2017 and claimed that the pinnacles formed as the remnants of solution pipes. They are created when water dissolves holes in limestone. The researchers also said that the pinnacles contained climate data from Late Quaternary times.

Our car passed an emu as we drove into Nambung National Park. Dull yellow sand dunes greeted us at the entrance to the park’s road. We went to the central observation deck, and then walked around for an hour. The sheer number of pinnacles was remarkable. They littered the desert for at least three kilometers in one direction. At the top of a dune, I could see portion of the desert that contained only white sand. To the west, the Indian Ocean sparkled in the late afternoon sunlight. In the opposite direction, the red Australian outback stretched to the horizon.

We drove back to our house around 4:00 PM. My team spent much of the evening planning our research project for the next two days. After Shark Bay’s heat, it was nice to be in air conditioning.

Day 9— Following a quick breakfast, we set out for the Pinnacles Desert. Eight emus walked through the shrubs within ten feet of our car as we drove in. Our research permits gave us carte blanche to do almost whatever we wanted in the park. My group started the day by teaching the other students how to analyze individual pinnacles.

Then, we split up into teams. I worked with a Chinese graduate student on one central section. Our goal was to determine how the height of a paleosol layer in the pinnacles varied. One by one, I measured pinnacle after pinnacle for the entire day. Two tourists from Germany talked to us for a few minutes. Cars drove past us the entire day. In the late afternoon, thunder rumbled over the desert. Luckily, it didn’t rain. We left the park 30 minutes before sunset.

Day 10— We returned to the pinnacles for a final time. Blue clouds covered the sky. I worked with my partner on measuring the cross-bedding inclinations and their directions, called the “dip” and “dip direction” by geologists. At lunch, another graduate student drove us to the visitors’ center. We read about the park’s history, scoffed at the incorrect geology signs, and got ice cream. Then, we returned to work. The flies were as bad as ever. In the distance, the Indian Ocean turned dark blue. The class rendezvoused at the observation deck at the day’s end. A kangaroo hopped through the pinnacles.

Day 11— We left the rental house after breakfast. The hours blended together as we drove southward. Desert pavement turned back into green farmland. It became rainy when Perth’s skyscrapers came into view. Our drive ended at the far southern end of Australia’s western coast.

For the final day, we stayed in a beach house near Quindalup along Geographe Bay. It was a very nice house, and Princeton paid for it. The interior was airy. There were walk-in closets, glass bathrooms, king-sized beds, granite countertops, and a large television.

The class played frisbee and football on the nearby beach. I couldn’t believe that classes were starting at Princeton — which was 12 time zones behind us — while we were still playing around on the opposite side of the planet at the edge of the Australian continent. The vast expanse of the Indian Ocean stretched toward the horizon.

Our professor cooked a wonderful vegan dinner of mock shepard’s pie, salad, and chocolate covered fruits.

Day 12— Around mid-morning, we left the house and went to Ngilgi Cave. It had been used for shelter by local wildlife and the indigenous people for centuries. Aborigines thought that Ngilgi was a spirit for good who fought against the evil spirit Wolgine. In 1899, a local settler, named Edward Dawson, found the cave while looking for stray horses. He opened it for tours and was its tour guide during 1900-1937. It used to take an overnight train ride and two days of wagon travel to reach the cave. Visitors would follow the trail of empty beer bottles to get there. “That’s the Australian way of navigation,” said one of the cave’s current employees. In 1965, a woman from Perth stayed in the cave for 90 days to break the world record for cave sitting. During her stay, she excavated the skeleton of a 2.28 meter-tall megafauna kangaroo from earlier in the Pleistocene. Today, the cave remains a popular tourist attraction. Occasionally, there are concerts in one of its chambers.

We walked into the cave and looked at its dizzying array of stalactites, stalagmites, fins, and crystals. A thick red paleosol was visible in the walls of some sections. Ngilgi was the most impressive cave that I’ve seen yet. For lunch, we stopped at a bakery in the nearby Cave House.

Next, we went to the Petra Olive Oil Estate. Olive trees were lined in neat rows. A house was in the center of the property, and a pond was located 100 meters away from it. Kangaroos and wallabies lounged under the trees. The weather was mild thanks to a gentle breeze. It was paradise.

The owners temporarily opened their shop to us. They showed us how they made olive oil and let us sample some as it was falling straight out of the machine. Its smooth texture had a strong pang at the back of the throat after swallowing.

For the remainder of the day, we drove back to Perth. Around 10:00 PM, we boarded our Emirates flight to Dubai. I had vegemite during the in-flight breakfast. It was disgusting.

Day 13— Our airplane landed in Dubai at 4:30 AM. The airport was bustling in spite of the early hour. The class got smoothies and then dispersed. I walked around the airport for a few hours. My initial assessment of the place was still correct. I didn’t hear anyone with an American accent the entire time. Everyone appeared to be from the eastern hemisphere or western Europe. Most of the menial workers were Indian. Businessmen in suits were European and Chinese. The Burj Khalifa loomed in the distance behind a thick haze. If the UAE plays its cards correctly, Dubai will become the hub of the world.

I boarded our final flight around 8:00 AM. The airplane flew straight northward over the Caucasus Mountains, turned westward to cross Scandinavia, passed Greenland, and finally went south to New York City. Getting through customs was easy, and a bus brought us back to Princeton. I went to 30 Burgers for dinner.

Conclusion

Australia is a vast continent of untamed desert wilderness. For those who are unprepared, its relentless heat, intense dryness, and rocky terrain can be unforgiving. Although our trip covered two thirds of the distance along its western coast, there was much more that we didn’t see. Australia contains some of the oldest rocks in the world. But it also has some of the newest, most interesting geological developments.

As human-driven climate change advances, additional information about the Earth’s climate and its processes will be needed to understand its effects. Advancements in sedimentology will continue to provide new insights about how climate change occurred in the past. To study the natural processes that record these shifts and cycles, geologists will keep exploring the Land Down Under.

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Weeks in Review 3/5-16/18

Monday— Mary Norris, a former copy editor for The New Yorker, visited my creative nonfiction class and discussed the editor’s role in the writing process.

Wednesday— A blizzard hit Princeton, and there was thundersnow.

Thursday— Some entrepreneurial students started making sweaters with the label “Princetagonia” in a spoof of Patagonia, the renowned outdoor clothing company. The shirts are wildly popular and can be seen across campus.

Monday— I had an article published in the Daily Princetonian.

Tuesday— A far-right Christian group protested at Princeton. There’s usually two conservative Christian protests per semester (often around Frist) that condemn atheism or general disbelief in God. But this group was different. It was more extreme than the others and generated a counter-protest.

 

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Weeks in Review 2/18-3/4/18

Monday— New Yorker writers Sandy Frazier and Mark Singer visited my creative nonfiction class. The students asked them questions, and they talked about how they started in writing as a career and their processes for drafting articles. Singer has written several books and gone on dozens of assignments for the magazine. Frazier has written numerous travel pieces and humorous essays.

Wednesday— Whig-Clio held a debate on the subject of, “Professor Rosen should not have been able to use the n-word.” It was one of the most heavily attended debates that I’ve ever seen. Professor Rosen, department chair Rouse, and Dean of Undergraduates Dolan were all there in addition to over 50 students. Student sentiment was generally against Rosen. They argued that the utterance of racial slurs equated to physical injury. There were few conservatives in the room, but some said that Rosen’s academic freedom allows him to say whatever he wants. This was an issue that I didn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole, so I just watched and didn’t vote.

My series on Bicker was published in the Daily Princetonian. Article 1, Article 2, Article 3

Thursday— Bob Murley ’72 spoke at a private dinner in Whitman College. He is the chairman of investment banking at Credit Suisse and chairman of Educational Testing Services. He and his wife, a graduate of the Class of 1976, donated $2 million for the construction of the Murley-Pivirotto Family Tower; it has the most popular rooms in Whitman.

Murley was a very polished speaker. His talk focused on ten life lessons that he thought all college students should know. He mentioned that he was an Eagle Scout and had been encouraged to apply to Princeton by one of the Boy Scouts of America’s international representatives.

Saturday— I went to a jazz concert to watch a friend. It featured Danilo Pérez, a prominent Panamanian pianist who played with Dizzy Gillespie’s band and won a Grammy.

Wednesday— I attended a James Madison Program dinner at the Prospect House for a talk by Professor Andrew Porwancher from the University of Oklahoma. He’s a historian who specializes in early American history and the Constitution. Currently, he’s writing a book titled The Jewish Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life. Porwancher tracked down primary documents across Europe and the Caribbean about Hamilton’s early life. The evidence led him to conclude that Hamilton was originally Jewish but later converted to Christianity in the United States out of political necessity. He remained close to the Jewish community while working as a lawyer. One by one, Porwancher went down the list of counterarguments to his position and explained how the evidence contradicted them. His book will be published within the next year.

Thursday— Brad Smith ’81, president of Microsoft, gave a lecture about the impact of computers’ artificial intelligence (A.I.) on humans’ lives in the future. He predicted that almost every piece of technology will eventually have some form of A.I. integrated into it. Smith warned that jobs involving decision-making and visual or speech analysis will probably be replaced by computers. Jobs that require ingenuity, entrepreneurship, empathy, innovation, or teaching will not be replaced. But A.I. will also create new jobs. He said that 65 percent of today’s high school seniors will work in jobs that do not currently exist.

Friday— My biweekly article for my creative nonfiction class required that I gather new interview material. I went to the Scheide Library in Firestone. The Library’s collection of rare books is worth $300 million. It includes the Gutenberg Bible and an original printing of the Declaration of Independence. The librarians showed me a copy of Ptolemy’s Geographia, a book from 1482.

Saturday— For the weekend, I went to a debate tournament at The College of New Jersey. The debate topics were:

  • This House regrets Prohibition. (opposition, lost)
  • This House would end flood insurance subsidies. (government, won)
  • This House would establish segregated economic zones in developing nations. (government, lost)
  • This House believes that it is competitively advantageous for the government team to not deliver a Prime Minister Constructive speech in APDA debates. (opposition, lost)
  • This House, as the Muslim Brotherhood, would take Egyptian President Mubarak’s deal for a peaceful transition of power. (government, lost)

My partner was another sophomore who had recently joined the team. I received a paper award for placing tenth out of the junior varsity debaters.

 

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Bicker

“You can talk, you can bicker, you can bicker, you can talk. You can talk all you want to but it’s different than it was.” “No it ain’t, but you gotta know the territory!”

— Meredith Willson, “The Music Man”

Overview

At the start of every spring semester — like clockwork — Princeton’s sophomores venture down Prospect Avenue to join social organizations called “eating clubs.” As groups of students walk down narrow sidewalks, a few peel away at each successive opulent mansion. It’s been this way since F. Scott Fitzgerald was a student, and it hasn’t changed much.

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Eating clubs past and present.

Princeton — unlike most other colleges — doesn’t have any recognized fraternities or sororities, so the eating clubs serve as the hub of social life. Three quarters of upperclassmen are in them.

There are eleven eating clubs: Ivy Club, Tiger Inn, Colonial Club, Charter Club, Cloister Inn, Cottage Club, Terrace Club, Quadrangle Club, Princeton Tower Club, Cannon Dial Elm Club, and Cap and Gown Club. All of them are located on Prospect Avenue, colloquially called “the Street.” Each club has a popularly-ingrained stereotype:

  • Tiger Inn– known as the “Animal House” of Princeton, mostly people who like to drink a lot, sexual debauchery, raucous parties, loud and proud, (Though in a strange twist of fate, more women bicker and get into T.I. than men. Female students have said that the fratty life appeals to them because gender roles are relaxed.)
  • Colonial– a mix of everyone, significantly Asian by proportion, overall nice people
  • Charter– the endearing engineers, Princeton University Band
  • Cloister– “floaters and boaters” who are the members of the rowing, swimming, and diving teams
  • Cottage– the southern élite, students from unrecognized fraternities and sororities, heavily white
  • Ivy– students from the upper class who may be children of celebrities, captains of industry, or world leaders, international students, also Greek-heavy
  • Terrace– the alternative type, artistic people, students who do drugs, hippies, free love, all-inclusive, anti-establishment
  • Quadrangle– STEM majors, a mix people from anything and everything, some of the smartest people on campus
  • Tower– all of the politicos, artistic people, writers, a small engineering contingent, (a friend once quipped, “Ivy is for the people who will own the world, and Tower is for the people who will run the world.”)
  • Cannon– almost entirely athletes
  • Cap– a diverse and chill set of people, a mix of everyone

One could ask any student at Princeton about the eating clubs, and she would probably give an answer like this. But don’t take my word for it. There are dozens of online articles on this subject. Not everyone in a club perfectly matches its description, however the stereotypes persist nevertheless.

Students can join five of the eating clubs — Colonial, Terrace, Cloister, Charter, and Quadrangle — through a process called “Sign-in.” They rank the five clubs in order of preference and an algorithm sorts them into a club. Most students get their top choice. But the other six clubs require students to undergo a selective admissions process named “Bicker.” It’s a Princeton tradition that’s shrouded in mystery and the angst of high school seniors on College Confidential.

Introduction

During the late nineteenth century, Princeton’s student body was growing, but the school couldn’t expand its meal services to meet the increased demand. Its dining hall closed in 1856, so students started to eat meals at local boarding houses in groups that became known as “eating clubs.” The original clubs were only temporary associations until Ivy Club was founded in 1879. At first, it was located in the old Princeton Law School building on Mercer Road and later moved to its present clubhouse on Prospect Avenue.

Other clubs organized in the following decades. By 1912, the eleven eating clubs in existence today had all been established. There were additional eating clubs that opened and closed based on students’ changing desires.

Woodrow Wilson was the president of Princeton at the turn of the century. He tried to kill the eating clubs and integrate them into his residential college plan. Wilson met opposition from alumni. His failed plan contributed to the distaste that caused his ousting — and onto the path toward the presidency.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of the eating clubs in This Side of Paradise:

“Ivy, detached and breathlessly aristocratic; Cottage, an impressive melange of brilliant adventurers and well-dressed philanderers; Tiger Inn, broad-shouldered and athletic, vitalized by an honest elaboration of prep-school standards; Cap and Gown, anti-alcoholic, faintly religious and politically powerful; flamboyant Colonial; literary Quadrangle; and the dozen others varying in age and position.”

These descriptions still hold some iota of truth today.

By 1914, Bicker had been established. It was defined as, “any talk, argument or discussion designed to induce any man to join any club.” A club representative visited students in their rooms and had short conversations with them. Then, clubs offered bids to them. If he was a big man on campus, he received upwards of six bids. The most competitive bids were usually from the Big Five: Ivy, Colonial, Cottage, Tiger Inn, and Cap and Gown. Students who performed poorly in Bicker received 1-3 bids from bottom-tier clubs on the social hierarchy. A writer for the The Harvard Crimson said after visiting Princeton, “Bicker is a frightening and trivial experience.” Protests to abolish it began in the 1920s.

People who are rejected from a club are colloquially said to get “hosed.” For some people, getting hosed is difficult. As the Yale Daily News reported, “Senior Grace Labatt said a friend who was rejected from a bicker club actually took the next semester off. Being rejected from a club, Labatt said, can be especially difficult when students bicker with friends or when they have a parent who was a member.”

To mitigate the degree to which students felt rejected, the eating club presidents instated a “100 percent Bicker” policy in the 1950s, meaning that anyone who bickered was guaranteed to get into at least one club. Princeton became the center of a national scandal in 1958 when 23 students — over half of whom were Jewish — did not receive any club bids. The “Dirty Bicker,” as it became known, showed the nation how anti-semitic prejudices were at play in the Ivy League.

Protests against Bicker continued. In 1967, there was a “Gentlemanly Revolt” where the leaders of Princeton’s most influential extracurricular clubs distributed a pamphlet outlining ways to improve the clubs, including a plan to end Bicker. The revolt failed. Alumni control and campus apathy prevented anything from changing. It was the seventh protest in the system’s history. During the affair, one alumnus graduate board chairman told The Harvard Crimson, “You can’t sleep with every girl you’d like to. Why do you think you should get into every club you want to?”

The following year, the administration opened a school-sponsored social club called “Adlai Stevenson Hall” in honor of the former U.S. diplomat. It was housed in the mansion of the former Court Club, which closed in 1964. At the same time, eighty four club members posted in advertisement in the Daily Princetonian that said they were resigning from their clubs to protest Bicker.

Princeton gradually provided alternatives to the eating clubs by instituting residential colleges — dorm clusters with shared dining halls. But the clubs remained the most popular dining option for upperclassmen.

Terrace abandoned Bicker in favor of sign-in in 1967, and others soon followed. Most of the clubs became co-ed when Princeton began admitting women; however, Ivy and T.I. were forced to accept women in 1990 following a high-profile lawsuit filed by student Sally Frank in 1980.

Three hundred fifty students protested Bicker in 1978. They supported the Social Alternatives Coalition, a club that sought new dining options for those who didn’t want to bicker. The chairman of the Coalition was a former Ivy member who resigned from the club to protest Bicker. He said to The New York Times, “I was so unhappy and disturbed by the spectacle of my friends and schoolmates being sucked into a system that they were unhappy with.”

In the late 1980s, Bicker evolved such that sophomores applied to only one club. Clubs wanted evidence that they were students’ first choice. In 2013, the Interclub Council reintroduced “Double Bicker,” which allowed students to Bicker two eating clubs. By 2017, all six of the selective clubs had adopted this policy.

In 2015, undergraduates voted on a referendum that would have called on the eating clubs to end Bicker by 2019 and directed the Undergraduate Student Government to form a committee that would facilitate the process. Nearly two thousand students voted, of which over half rebuked the “Hose Bicker” referendum.

The referendum’s sponsor told the Daily Princetonian, “if you were in a Bicker club, you couldn’t oppose Bicker because then you’re being hypocritical, if you got hosed you couldn’t be hypocritical because then you’re just being salty, if you’re never bickered then you can’t be opposed because you don’t understand the process.”

As my winter break drew to a close, I started receiving e-mails from the eating clubs about Bicker and Sign-In. I had not yet given much thought about which eating club I would join if I even joined one at all. After some deliberation, I decided to jump in headfirst to get a closer look at this peculiar Princeton tradition. I registered to bicker Ivy and Tower. I deliberately picked these two clubs as part of a social experiment. I know a lot of people that I know in Tower through Whig-Clio and debate. By contrast, I hardly know anyone in Ivy.

Prior to Bicker, I studied the clubs for nearly 90 minutes each in preparation for the interviews. I poured through their websites, past newsletters, Daily Princetonian articles, and anything else I could get my hands on. I brainstormed potential question, prepared answers, and practiced giving them in an empty room. If I was going to Bicker, I was going in with guns a’blazing.

Princeton Tower Club

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At 11:50 AM on Sunday, February 4, a mob of Princeton students spilled out of Frist Campus Center. Some of them shouted into the air, and others chatted loudly amongst themselves. The first Bicker session for the eating clubs was going to begin in 10 minutes.

Although sharp gusts of wind brought snow flurries tumbling down, the group remained cheerful. I tagged along in the back. After crossing Nassau Street, students left the main group as they passed each eating club. Tower is the closest club to campus, so I departed early.

Once in line outside of the club’s glossy wooden doors, I talked to friends and eavesdropped on some nearby conversations. Everyone sounded nervous. The tension could be cut with a knife.

Two Tower members emerged from the door, introduced themselves as members of the Bicker committee, and gave us directions. I walked inside, relieved to be in a heated room. Tower’s interior is cozy. Its light beige paint and dark carved wood-paneled walls are classy but not stiff. I submitted an online form with basic contact information. The final question asked if I preferred to be hosed in person or by online notification. I chose the latter. In retrospect, I wish I had chosen the former.

I walked over to a table and filled out a notecard with standard information: name, hometown, major, extracurricular activities, and a fun fact about yourself (infamously known on campus as the “Tower Fun Fact”). My fun fact was that I swam with piranhas in the Amazon rainforest. Once completed, someone took my picture, and I handed my notecard to a member of the Bicker committee who was standing on top of a table.

Tower’s Bicker was an anthill. Twenty or more students huddled around the Bicker committee member. She flipped through the notecards and handed them out to club members. When members approached the committeeman, she asked them if they knew the person on the card. If the answer was negative, she handed the member the notecard, and the member whisked away the bickeree to a corner of the clubhouse for an interview. Members are not allowed to interview people that they already know; that is known as “dirty bicker.” Once the interview ended, bickerees gave their card back to the committee member, and the process repeated itself ad nauseam.

Over three Bicker sessions of two hours each, I had approximately twenty interviews. Some of them were conducted jointly with another student, a practice known as “double bicker.” Most interviews were simple discussions around a table. One interview occurred while playing a game of 8-ball. Another interview had very few questions from some bored club members and involved playing “Heads Up!” for ten minutes.

Below are all of the interview questions that club members asked me. The frequency at which they were asked is in parentheses.

  • Tell me about your fun fact. (15)
  • Why did you choose that as your major? (8)
  • Would you rather live life as normal or receive $1 million and have a death snail constantly crawling toward you from anywhere in the world. It can travel across water and through walls at a snail’s pace, and you can identify it. But it will kill you if it touches you. (2) (A Tower Classic)
  • Where is your ideal napping spot on campus? (1)
  • Why do you want to join Tower? (10)
  • What is your favorite aspect of Tower? (3)
  • If you were not a college student, what would you be and read it off as if it were your Wikipedia page? (1)
  • Where is your dream vacation destination? (3)
  • How did you get into your hobbies? (4)
  • What is it like being in (insert one of your extracurricular clubs)? (13)
  • If you had a punk band, what would its name be? (1)
  • Does a cylinder have one hole or two holes? (1)
  • Guess what our (the interviewers’) hometowns and majors are. (1)
  • What are your two favorite movies, television shows, and musical artists? (1)
  • Tell us your favorite joke. (1)
  • What is your opinion on candy corn? (1)
  • Is a hot dog a sandwich? (1) (A Tower Classic)
  • What is one skill that you will never have but want to learn? (1)
  • What is your favorite Tower memory? (5)
  • What is your favorite class in your department? (2)
  • What would you show me in your hometown if I were to visit it? (1)
  • What are your top three favorite movies? (3)
  • What are you going to do with your degree? (2)
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A Sesame Street parody of Rembrandt‘s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.”

  • You own an art gallery. The picture above has been sitting in your gallery for months. No one has wanted to buy it. Now, two wealthy businessmen (the interviewers) are standing in front of you and are interested in it. Sell it to them. Tell the picture’s history, style, and how it makes you feel. (1)

People at Tower were generally friendly. Although the majority of members that I met were politics, economics, or Woodrow Wilson School majors, there were a few engineers, physicists, or writers. Tower’s president-elect interviewed me, and she was very affable.

Later, Tower’s current president gave me an interview. He asked me, “Given your articles about underage drinking in the ‘Prince,’ does bickering an eating club contradict your principles?” The question initially caught me by surprise. Nobody reads the student newspaper. But I should have known better at Tower — the only club whose members care about campus politics. I responded that I thought individuals should be held responsible for their actions and not the club at large. He didn’t seem satisfied by my answer.

In between interviews, I took a few minutes to look at the sophomores in the lobby. They didn’t appear to be happy. There was a look of consternation in many of their eyes. But that melted into a smile when members picked them up for interviews.

To repurpose a Forrest Gump quote, Tower was like a box of chocolates; you never knew what you’d get in its Bicker. Conversation topics ranged from pedestrian to outlandish. Regardless of their nature, I had performed well. While it’s impossible to entirely succeed at some of the bizarre questions, I had delivered my answers swiftly, and my fun fact captured members’ attention.

Ivy Club

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The snow had stopped falling by the time I left Tower on the afternoon of February’s first Sunday. Students were streaming out of the eating clubs after the day’s first Bicker session had ended and were either funneling back to Frist across the street or going to the second eating club for which they were bickering. After having sufficiently held my ground in Tower’s barrage of questions, I knew that I could handle Bicker at another club.

I saw a friend leaning against a post to Ivy’s iron gate.

“What are you doing here?” I asked him.

He replied, “I thought I’d bicker Ivy for the fun of it.

“I guess that makes two of us.”

“If you’re going to Bicker, you should go big.”

We walked into Ivy‘s brick Jacobethan clubhouse. Its interior was dimly lit by cool white light coming from wall-mounted shaded miniature lamps. We followed a line and dropped our coats in a room to the entrance’s right. The room’s walls were painted lime green. A fire place was adorned with white trimming.

My friend and I walked back into the foyer. The bickerees were standing in tattered clumps spaced throughout the room as if it were a cocktail party, but they were concentrated at the base of a magnificent wide wooden staircase. A painting of approximately eight feet long by five feet high hung from the side wall next to the staircase. It showed Medieval monks eating dinner at a long table. Portraits of the club’s notable alumni lined the foyer’s walls; each of their subjects had their own Wikipedia pages.

Ivy’s standardized Bicker process has changed little over the past few decades. Every student is interviewed by exactly ten members, five males and five females (though I had four males and six females). Interviews last 10-30 minutes or longer depending on the student. In 1999, James Q. Griffith ’55 — the president of Ivy’s graduate board at that time — said to The New York Times of the club’s Bicker, “I can’t see any difference between the way it is now and 50 years ago.” He continued, “It’s a Jeffersonian democracy, taking the natural aristocracy, as you were.”

After fifteen minutes, Ivy’s members gathered at the top of the staircase. Despite the lackluster lighting, I noticed some commonalities between the members’ æsthetics. All of them were well dressed. While they were not in suits or gowns, they wore clothes that would make them indistinguishable from the average patron at an upper mid-tier New York City restaurant. Many of them kept an urbane European appearance with sweaters, dresses, scarves, Oxford shirts, close-fitting pants, and stylish shoes. Most were light skinned and had neatly cut hair.

Several students wearing loosely tied green neckties walked down the stairs. One of them started banging a cowbell, and then all went silent when the club’s president yelled, “Everyone shut up!” She told the group how the Bicker process worked.

Then, it began.

One by one, the club’s cosmopolitan members descended down the clubhouse’s grand staircase and called out their bickeree’s name. It was a scene from a modern-day Fitzgerald novel. But sometimes you can’t write fiction that’s stranger than reality.

My first interviewer walked down the stairs with a friend. She had decided to double bicker. The member assigned to me was short with freckled pale skin and shoulder-length orange-brown hair. Her friend was of a similar stature, blonde, and energetic. I recognized her as an actress in one of Princeton’s prominent theatrical groups.

Following an initial exchange of smiles and handshakes, they led us into the club’s new wing. The room was filled with bickering students whose voices filled the cavernous room all the way up to its vaulted wooden ceiling. A carved limestone fireplace was in the center of the left wall and was flanked to the back by two doric columns. We sat at a table in the back for a 15-minute conversation. The club members seemed to be solely interested in partying and hookups. I couldn’t talk much on those subjects compared to the other sophomore who could discuss at length about his experiences getting into exclusive raunchy European nightclubs.

I returned to the foyer, and my second interviewer came after fifteen minutes. She took me into Ivy’s dining room. Six tables in two columns of three were covered in white tablecloths and lined by wood chairs. Each table had silver candelabra. According to tradition, the candles are always lit for meals. Club members are required to take the next open seat at a table when eating. They order from a menu, and waiters serve the food to them.

With shoulder-length brunette hair and a black dress, my second interviewer exuded sophistication. In a measured tone, she asked me questions that registered on the upper-tier of difficulty for job interviews. Her intense stare made it feel as though I was the only person in the room despite the fact that there were at least a dozen bickerees having similar conversations at nearby tables. She said that she was “impressed” by my answer to the question “Why Bicker Ivy?” and commented that I was, “very well spoken.” My preparation had paid off.

My next interview was another double bicker with a sophomore from Westchester County, New York. The club members took us down into the “crypt,” Ivy’s newly constructed library. Whitewashed columns held up curved ceiling panels amongst light brown bookcases. The other sophomore and I sat on a table while our interviewers rested in a window seat.

The interviewer on the left had chest-length brown hair and thin pink lips on her pale face. The other interviewer’s bright eyes juxtaposed her soft black skin. She remained enthusiastic; her smile never waned. When describing her upbringing, she said, “I went to boarding school at the Lawrenceville School. A lot of people in Ivy went to Lawrenceville.” The Lawrenceville School’s total annual cost is $65,920.

By the time my third interview finished, the Bicker session had ended. I returned at 9:15 PM the next evening after leaving Tower. Ivy’s Bicker started all over again with the officers banging a cowbell and members traipsing down the staircase.

My fourth interviewer took me to a window seat in Ivy’s taproom. She was of middle height and light complexion. Her face was dotted with freckles, and she sported a dark dress. She had a propensity to ask questions about my childhood. I haven’t the slightest idea as to what that subject has to do with the assessment of my personality as a prospective Ivy member.

The subsequent interviewer was a short female with shoulder-length brown hair, wide open eyes, and a level of energy matched only by a cheerleader after a shot of espresso. As we watched members playing 8-ball, she peppered me with questions about love. I thought it was a rather odd topic to discuss with a complete stranger, so I pivoted the conversation to a different subject. At the end of the conversation, she said, “You’re very eloquent. You should go into politics.”

I was taken back to the “crypt” for my sixth interview. A blonde British male of average height in a gray henley shirt sat next to me on a couch. He exhaled clouds of vapor from his e-cigarette when he thought that I wasn’t looking. Of all of the conversations that I had, his was the most fascinating. He told exotic stories of venturing around eastern Africa for his senior thesis research. When the interview was finished, we stood up. I saw something on the couch and said, “I think you dropped your wallet.” He picked it up and responded, “Thanks. I left it there to see if you would steal it.”

As we were walking back to the foyer, he mentioned that 210 students were bickering for approximately 60 openings. In total, the club had to hold 2,100 Bicker conversations within three nights.

The last interview of the night was conducted by a dark blonde male from Philadelphia. A thin mustache covered his upper lip below his strong blue eyes. He asked only one direct question during the interview: “What are you interested in studying?” The rest of our conversation consisted of discussing economic solutions to climate change. He didn’t have the veneer of a fake personality; instead, he seemed to be genuinely interested in learning and just wanted to use Bicker as an opportunity to hear new ideas.

I arrived at Ivy for the third and final time on Tuesday evening. My first interview of the night occurred in the pool room. A muscular British man in a white shirt sat on the wooden booth perpendicular to me. He was tall with fierce blue eyes, dark eyebrows, and a broad-shouldered athletic build. Our conversation went like this:

“Who was your favorite interviewer?”

“The second interviewer stands out in my memory. She had a very intense stare. That was different from everyone else. It felt like she was hanging on your every word.”

“What kind of stare was it?”

“It felt like she was staring at my brain or something.”

“Do you want to look into people’s brains?”

“What?”

“Do you want to look into people’s brains?”

“Not really.”

“Why not?”

“Sometimes there are things that I would rather not know about other people.”

“What kind of things do you not want to know about them?”

This exchange carried on — back and forth — for the next 15 minutes like a Socratic dialogue. It was the most peculiar conversation that I’ve had at Princeton. Eventually, we arrived at public speaking as a topic, and he interrogated me about the best tips that I had for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Then, I had another double bicker interview in the “crypt.” One member, an Iraqi, spoke with a British accent. His hair was short on the sides and longer on top, and he wore a denim jacket with a sherpa fleece-lined collar that gave him the aura of an adventurer. The other member was a burly man from Nigeria whose handshake nearly crushed my meager palm. They spent most of the time joking with each other.

At last, I arrived at my final interview. An Asian female escorted me to the taproom. She asked me questions about world events, specifically those concerning Tibet and Taiwan’s relationships to China. Following my response to the question “Why Ivy?” she said, “That was a good answer. I’m tired of people saying, ‘because of the people.'”

Unfortunately, for me, as former Ivy member Sheon Han recently wrote in the Nassau Weekly, “Many interviews end with this question, ‘Why do you want to join Ivy?’ Having a good answer wouldn’t help much. Just like the Princeton admissions interview, the question exists only to filter out potential serial killers.”

In all, I was asked the following questions during my interviews:

  • Tell me about yourself. (8)
  • Why bicker Ivy? (9)
  • Why do you like your major? (4)
  • How did you get into your hobbies? (2)
  • Pitch a new party idea for Ivy in 30 seconds. (1)
  • If you could have dinner with anyone throughout history, who would it be and why? (1)
  • What has been your favorite class at Princeton and why? (2)
  • If you died tonight with no other communication with the outside world, what would you want people to know? (1)
  • What is one thing people misunderstand about you and why? What is the truth? (1)
  • What is the most extreme thing that you have done? (1)
  • Of your previous interviewers, who was your favorite and why? (5)
  • What is one question that I should ask you that has not already been asked? Now answer it. (2)
  • How would your friends describe you? (1)
  • Have you ever been in love before? If so, with whom? If not, do you plan to fall in love? (1)
  • Describe your ideal first date. (1)
  • Tell me about your childhood and high school. (1)
  • Who do you know in Ivy? (4)
  • Who are your friends? (2)
  • Have you been to any Ivy parties? (4)
  • How would you solve climate change? (1)
  • What career will you pursue? (3)
  • What did you do during Intersession? (3)
  • What thing makes you the happiest in the world, and what makes you the angriest? (1)
  • Would you want to be able to read other people’s minds? (1)
  • Give me your three best public speaking tips. (2)
  • What were your responsibilities for your summer job? (2)
  • Do you know who the Dalai Lama is? Tell me about the conflict between China and Tibet. (1)
  • Do you play sports? (1)
  • What would you contribute to Ivy? (2)
  • Tell me about your life on campus. (3)
  • What is your favorite book? (1)
  • What is your favorite movie? (1)
  • What is your dream vacation? (3)

I crushed Ivy’s Bicker. I had accurately predicted over half of its questions in advance. My responses were unique and surprised several interviewers.

With all of my Bicker interviews completed, I returned to my dorm for some repose. Bicker’s results were to be posted on Friday morning. I shoved any worries that I had about them to the back of my mind. There were more pressing matters that I had to deal with.

St. Archibald’s League

On Thursday, I received an e-mail inviting me to, “Princeton’s newest, coolest, and most exclusive club St. Archibald’s League” with the line, “All invited, few welcome.”

St. Archibald’s League premiered in February 2017 as a live performance protest against Bicker. Unlike prior protests, it didn’t involve the circulation of pamphlets or picketing of eating clubs. Instead, students were welcomed into Campus Club — a former eating club that was bought by the University — and underwent an exaggerated mock Bicker.

Looking for some entertainment, I returned to St. Archibald’s for its second admissions event. Outside of Campus Club, two “protesters” waived signs warning students not to go inside because of St. Archibald’s elitism. They distributed a copy of the Daily Princetonian from 1966 in which its writers penned an editorial saying, “Like you, we are tired of talking about Bicker. But, we are more tired of Bicker itself. We no longer want to wade ankle-deep in its hypocrisy and knee-deep in its bathos. Bicker is tiresome. It is trite. It is unnecessary. It should be abolished.”

I entered Campus Club anyways. Inside, a “bouncer” wearing circular mirrored sunglasses and a black tie beneath a gray jacket greeted us. The “bouncer” led us upstairs to a waiting area where he said that few, if any, of us would be admitted. “The benefits of getting in are infinite. But there are no benefits for getting rejected. We won’t smile when passing by you in the hallways, and we won’t talk to you at the dining hall tables,” he said.

He led us into the club’s library. A woman sat the far row of a long table. One by one, we were called up to sit in a seat next to her and answer the following questions:

  • What is your name and hometown?
  • On a scale from 1 to 10, how cool are you?
  • How racially diverse is your friend group?
  • What is your favorite thing about this club?
  • Rank the other eating clubs from coolest to weirdest.
  • How much do you drink?
  • When was the last time you smoked?
  • Based on my appearance, how many people do you think I have hooked up with?
  • Who in the room do you think comes from the richest family?

When it was my term, the “bouncer” entered the room because I was of “special interest” to the club. I gave a fake name, and he called me out on it. I was promptly escorted out. In the stairwell, the “bouncer” removed his sunglasses and said, “thanks for playing along.”

That bouncer was Kyle Berlin, a senior and renowned campus thespian. Standing at over six feet tall with shaggy long blonde hair, he’s a hard person to miss. His motivations for staging St. Archibald’s League are rooted in his desire for a more inclusive campus. After writing two articles in the “Prince” against Bicker, he received much praise from students and administrators. His most daring move occurred in 2017 when he snuck into Cap and Cottage to interrupt their deliberations and give an announcement asking them to end Bicker. In Cap, a big member kicked him out.

I’ve heard some criticism of Berlin’s work from Bicker’s defenders, who mostly reside in the eating clubs. While such vitriol tries to cast his arguments as a “snowflake,” he’s just another student — in a long line of Princetonians — who’s continuing a protest movement that’s been occurring for nearly a century.

St. Archibald’s League was even more fun after having underwent Bicker. Its faux interviews are outrageous but not too far-fetched. Occasionally, it’s hard to differentiate fact from fiction at Princeton.

The Chosen Ones

For entertainment, I also talked to some friends who bickered. These are some other Bicker questions that I heard about:

  • Who in the club do you think should be reverse hosed?
  • Of your previous interviewers, who would you fuck, marry, and kill?
  • There is a baby in a microwave. You don’t know whose it is. You get $10,000 for every second that you leave the microwave on. How long would you microwave it?
  • Which Princeton libraries would you fuck, marry, and kill?
  • Would you rather invest in copper or copper futures?
  • Here’s a Wikipedia page on Otto von Bismarck. Get to Mitt Romney in as few links as possible. (Apparently, the record was three.)
  • Who is your Cottage crush?
  • What is your favorite Cap memory?

Once Bicker is complete, club members meet during the subsequent nights to determine who is worthy of admittance to their respective clubs. The process varies slightly between clubs, but all require pulling several consecutive all-nighters. For most clubs, members gather in a single room. Bickerees’ names and pictures are projected onto a screen. Members can then discuss the social merits and shortfalls of each bickeree. During this time, they have carte blanche to say whatever they want about a sophomore no matter how significant, trivial, petty, or false it may be.

Tower has a “positive Bicker” policy, meaning that members can assess bickerees solely based on their positive traits. Ivy’s process is unique. After members interview sophomores, they write a paragraph about their experience and rank them on a scale of 1-5. A committee analyzes all of the reports to decide the club’s new membership. Current club members can also submit letters recommending that the committee accept certain people. But these are — allegedly — worth much less than the interviewers’ reports. I later heard a story about someone who received 11 recommendation letters and was still hosed while someone with none was accepted. I also heard that the average score for this year’s admitted students was 44-45, meaning that they received 4s and 5s for all interviews. Han wrote, “From what I’ve observed, if Ivy bicker is a democratic process, it’s as democratic as the Electoral College—it’s technically not a fraud, but often things don’t quite add up.”

Bicker is often compared to fraternity and sorority “rush.” But such a comparison isn’t accurate. It’s a uniquely Princeton institution. The greatest difference between them is that Bicker occurs during the spring of sophomore year instead of the fall of freshman year. In rush, fraternity members have to base their selections on superficial personality characteristics because there is nothing else on which to judge. Contrastingly, Princeton students have already been in college for eighteen months by the time that they undergo Bicker. Many people in a particular club probably already know them. Consequently, this can hurt or help certain sophomores.

For the former, students may have already gained a bad reputation at a particular eating club for their conduct during a party or their prior actions in clubs, classes, and discussions. When these students enter Bicker, they’re dead in the water before they even step through the mansion’s lacquered doors. The club members already have their minds made up, and they will sink their candidacy during Bicker deliberations regardless of how well they performed during Bicker. Most famously, Ted Cruz was thrice hosed by Tower. No matter how hard he tried, the club didn’t want him.

For the latter, having the right affiliations can practically guarantee admission to certain eating clubs. A 2010 University report stated, “Student comments also focused on the role fraternities and sororities have developed as feeder mechanisms to particular selective clubs, to the point where students who enter Princeton with an interest in a particular club may join the fraternity or sorority associated with that club primarily to increase the likelihood that they will be admitted to the club.” This mentality has been acknowledged by club members themselves. In 2007, a Cottage member said to the Observer, “This club cares about affiliations.”

But there are also more subtle ways in which affiliations help with admissions to certain clubs. Cannon, for example, is known for being dominated by athletes. While students don’t play sports for the sake of getting into Cannon, the fact that their teammates are already in the club definitely helps their prospects for getting admitted.

Three years ago, a sophomore in the Department of Geosciences was frustrated by the number of his friends who were hosed. He created a survey with questions about the affiliation of newly selected eating club members and sent it to six clubs’ e-mail groups. Almost 500 students took the survey out of the approximately 1,300 students in the class of 2015. Although the survey wasn’t statistical perfection, the trends that it revealed shined a light on an otherwise murky subject.

At Ivy, 100 percent of the responding students who were members of Greek organizations got into the club and composed at least 25 percent of the newly chosen membership. At Cottage, 17/18 accepted responders reported playing a sport or being involved in Greek life. At Tower, Students in arts or political groups had higher acceptance rates than those in other activities.

Despite Bicker’s appearance as a social meritocracy, data and reports overwhelmingly indicate that it’s not. In other words, one’s performance in Bicker has little bearing on admission to a club. While this evidence doesn’t mean that there have never been students without affiliations who were admitted to a Bicker club, it does show that it’s not a process at which the average Joe off the street can “win.” One’s admission is often predestined long before choosing to Bicker.

In short, Bicker is a microcosm of the social dynamics — openly and tacitly — present on the Street.

Conclusion

The 2:15 PM New Jersey Transit line from Princeton Junction was rolling through the slums of Trenton on Friday afternoon. It was deserted. I couldn’t see a person in either car beside me. The Interclub Council had posted eating club placements at 9:00 AM, but I hadn’t looked.

I pulled out my phone and checked the results. The admissions page said in boldface at the top “Congratulations!” I scrolled down further to a table that listed the clubs’ names in the left column and the answer to the question “Am I a member?” in the right column. Ivy Club: No. Tower Club: No. I had been double hosed. And I didn’t care.

I laughed and starred out the window. Dilapidated houses and abandoned factories passed by. There are bigger problems in the world than not getting into your mansion of choice at Princeton University.

Prince Article 1, Prince Article 2, Prince Article 3

Photo Gallery

Weeks in Review 2/4-17/18

Sunday— I returned from Florida around 1:30 AM. Eleven hours later, I was at the Princeton Tower Club for Bicker, and that evening I went to the Ivy Club for the same.

Monday— In the afternoon, I started my creative nonfiction class that is taught by John McPhee.  He has it nailed down to a script (really, he reads from a script). Every example has been refined after decades of teaching, and each quote from famous writers perfectly fits into the day’s lesson. The class is very technical in that we go into writing’s nitty gritty details, but it is very insightful.

I returned to Tower and Ivy for Bicker.

Tuesday— My sedimentology class began in the afternoon. We are going to western Australia during spring break to do research on the formation of carbonate parasequences. The research will be similar to what I did in the Bahamas during the previous summer. In the meantime, the homework for this class will be killer.

I had entered several pictures that I had taken during geoscience trips into the Office of International Program’s annual photo contest. My picture of Zumaia, Spain’s sunny beach was one of 36 photos on display that were selected from +400 entries. It is on display near OIP’s office. I went to the contest’s reception. A friend from my last geoscience class won third place in the landscape category for his picture of Erg Chebbi‘s sand dunes during a Moroccan night.

In the evening, I returned to Tower and Ivy for the final Bicker sessions.

Wednesday— I had an article published in the “Prince.”

The campus was unexpectedly blanketed in snow.

Thursday— I went to the Graduate College for dinner with a friend. Its chef station offered custom crepes. They were outstanding. While it is a long walk away from the rest of campus, the Graduate College never disappoints.

St. Archibald’s League held their second annual protest of Bicker. I was in attendance again, but the club’s “bouncer” recognized me from last year and promptly kicked me out.

Tuesday— Anthropology professor Lawrence Rosen used a racial slur during a lecture for his class on hate speech, blasphemy, and pornography. Several students were offended and walked out of the class. News of this incident soon reached national media, and the “Prince’s” opinion pages were quickly engulfed in an op-ed war. Generally, faculty were supportive of Rosen’s academic decision while students were not. Rosen eventually canceled the class due to several death threats that he received. The students then complained about having to scramble to find other classes to take before the add/drop deadline.

Whitman College had a Mardi Gras-themed dinner. There were purple tablecloths, confetti, masks, cajun foods, and staff in costumes. It was a fun event.

Wednesday— One undergraduate started a dating app solely for Princeton students called “Prospect: Find Your Tiger,” and everyone already has a profile on it. He collected information from the residential college’s facebooks to create the profiles, though he did not write a biography for anyone. The app is similar to Tinder in that users mark all of the profiles in which they are interested. It currently has 287 active users and has made 194 matches.

Former NASA administrator and astronaut Charles Bolden gave a lecture at the Woodrow Wilson School. He talked about the U.S’s current space program and how international cooperation will be integral to future endeavors. Bolden is confident that humans will reach Mars by the 2030s.

 

Photo Gallery

Into the Southern Forests

Every September, several hundred incoming freshmen participate in Princeton’s Outdoor Action (OA) program. They spend a week in the woods learning about their peers. Each group has 2-3 older students leading them.

Last spring, I took a series of classes in preparation for becoming an OA leader. The final part of the training consists of a weeklong backpacking trip to test one’s outdoor and leadership skills called a Leader Training Trip (LTT). I signed up to take this LTT during Intersession. To avoid the north’s cold weather, OA takes students to Ocala National Forest in Florida.

Day 1 (1/27)— My group met in one of the leaders’ dorms in the early afternoon. We gathered some group equipment, packed our gear, and then had Mehek for dinner. Everyone crammed into a small dorm room to sleep for the night.

Day 2 (1/28)— Our leaders woke us at 4:00 am. We marched over to Campus Club for breakfast and hopped on a bus bound for the Newark airport. Upon arrival, we passed through security for our flight to Orlando, Florida.

We took a bus from the Orlando airport to Ocala National Forest. Established in 1908, Ocala protects 607 square miles of the southernmost forest in the continental U.S. Two Princeton groups were dropped off at southern points, and my group was placed at the Salt Springs campground in the north.

After we set up our tents, a torrential downpour began. We took shelter in a nearby bathroom. For the next few hours, we ate food and practiced outdoor skills. I was appointed as the leader of the group for the following day along with another student. As we went to sleep that night, the rain continued to pelt our tents.

Day 3 (1/29)— My co-leader and I awoke at 5:30 am to prepare breakfast. But — after rummaging through everyone’s backpacks — we discovered that the group hadn’t packed stoves. Consequently, we ate a cold breakfast in the bathroom again.

After consulting with my co-leader, we decided to walk an additional four miles past the day’s scheduled destination to arrive at another campground with an OA rental car that had stoves. Fortunately, the rain ended in the morning, and we had a clear hike down to Hopkins Prairie. It was a wide open field of tall brown grass. Our campsite was located on a hummock sheltered by overarching trees. Spanish moss blanketed their branches. All of us settled in for a chilly night as the Sun set below the horizon.

Day 4 (1/30)— Since we were one day ahead of schedule, the leaders of the day decided to stay at the same camp and do a day hike. In the morning, we practiced first aid skills. By 11:00 am, we hit the trail to walk around Hopkins Prairie. Following lunch, we practiced missing person protocols.

We returned to camp just before dusk. Steam rose from the swamp as cold air fell upon its warm water. I was again appointed to be the leader of the day along with two other students.

Day 5 (1/31)— We departed from Hopkins Prairie for Pat’s Island in the morning. The OA program coordinator had told us that she left three full water jugs in the campground’s parking lot. When we arrived at 1:30 pm, we found that other people had already taken most of the water. I consulted with the other leaders of the day, and we decided to hike three miles further to a campsite that would put us within six miles of a water source that we could reach the next day.

We arrived at the Hidden Pond campground by nightfall. While we were eating dinner, we heard the other Princeton group — who also happened to be in a nearby campsite — start to make loud noises to scare off a bear. I later learned that they had been eating dinner when a bear walked up to their kitchen area and dragged away a backpack with food. After hearing there noises, we quickly packed our food and hoisted it up into bear bags.

Day 6 (2/1)— The bear had reached several of our bear bags and ate half of our remaining food. It left trash littered everywhere. We cleaned up the mess before leaving for the Juniper Springs campground. Our water reserves were depleted halfway through the hike, but we arrived at our destination in time.

Day 7 (2/2)— We left camp late in the day after several classes on technical skills. Our day hike went a couple of miles northward on the trail. One of our leaders had bought some more food the previous night, so we had a hearty dinner and s’mores for dessert.

Day 8 (2/3)— The group packed up camp and went to our departure point. Several of us, myself included, swam in Juniper Springs. A circular stone wall surrounded the spring to form a swimming pool. Although the air temperature was 60ºF, the spring stays 74ºF year-round. In the late afternoon, we took a bus to the airport, and our flight brought us back to Princeton by 1:30 am.

 

Photo Gallery

Weeks in Review 1/7-19/18

Thursday— As I walked back to Whitman College from Lewis Library, warm rain fell on the snow and frozen ground. This interaction created a mysterious fog that blanketed the campus around the gothic buildings. It looked like a scene from a movie.

Saturday— I played with the Princeton Band at the Cornell vs. Princeton basketball game, staying for the men’s and women’s games. Princeton clobbered Cornell in both matches. It wasn’t even close.

Monday— I played with the Band at the semiannual Dean’s Date Eve performance. We marched through the Frist Campus Center, and into the Firestone, J-Street, and Marquand Libraries. Most students seemed receptive of us, except for those in J-Street; that’s where fun goes to die.

An hour later, I stopped by Whitman’s late night breakfast for a plate full of tater tots. Afterward, I walked up to Holder Hall to watch the “Holder Howl.” At least 75 students gathered in the center of Holder courtyard to scream for one minute. It was the largest one that I have seen yet.

Tuesday— I joined the band for the third time for the Dean’s Date celebratory performance. We played some popular songs and started the final countdown until 5:00 pm when all semesterly assignments are due. There were some booths for giving away free food, but there were significantly fewer students attending this Dean’s Date celebration than the one in the spring.

USG organized a first-ever glow party in Dillon Gym at 10:00 pm – 1:00 am. There was a DJ, free food, and glow sticks. I went for a few minutes and laughed. It was the saddest party I have seen at Princeton. Like the Orange and Black Ball (OBB), there was a DJ at the back of the gym, and the food was at the front near the entrance. But, unlike OBB, everyone was clustered near the front away from the DJ. Everyone had exams in the next few days and didn’t want to celebrate too much, lest they are too tired to take their exams. Although USG gets an +A for effort and creative thinking, I think that the event fell flat.

Wednesday— The sophomore class government organized a panel to discuss upperclassmen dining options. It included a financial aid officer, representative from the housing department, co-op president, and the Interclub Council president, an student who coordinates rules and events between the eating clubs.

At the end of the event, a student in the back asked the ICC president, “It seems like eating clubs are very expensive and going independent is very cheap. In fact, you can even make money by getting a partial refund on your bill, if you receive a lot of financial aid, for going independent. Given that there’s a choice between making money by going independent and paying a lot of money to join an eating club, are eating clubs really worth it.” Everyone immediately quieted. The ICC president slowly said that the eating clubs are worth the cost for the food, community, and social events. I was dying on the inside. While his question was a very good one, it’s the Princeton social equivalent of me asking a Goldman Sachs recruiter about job security during a recession (which I did). It was the perfect cringeworthy question with a predictable reply from the ICC president.

Sunday— The ad-hoc committee on calendar reform sent a survey to undergraduates about the appearance of a possible new calendar. It included moving exams before winter break and a shortened exam period.

 

Photo Gallery

Rejected!: On Politics and Princeton Part IX

The prophets from Honor Code referenda opposition were gifted with incredible foresight. In their op-eds to the Daily Princetonian, the current Honor Committee chair and clerk argued that the faculty have the ultimate authority on disciplinary changes, and the first referendum’s lowering of the standard penalty for cheating because it would create a discrepancy between the punishments given by the Honor Committee and Committee on Discipline for similar violations. They further stated that reforming the Honor System requires input from faculty, students, and administrators.

An Academics Committee member also said in an op-ed that, “As someone who has sat on two different faculty committees over the past three years, I can tell you that the faculty will not react well to the student body dictating that they should support a more lenient penalty for cheating.”

They were right. The faculty and administration didn’t react well.

Today, Princeton’s top administrators sent an e-mail to all undergraduate students in which they rebuked the first three referenda. Here’s the e-mail:

Dear Students,

In the December Undergraduate Student Government election, four referenda on the Honor Constitution passed by a three-fourths majority.  The changes contemplated by three of the four referenda would fundamentally alter the University’s disciplinary penalties and standards for assessing violations of the Honor Code during in-class examinations.

Since changes this significant cannot be implemented without the engagement and support of the faculty, we write to let you know that they cannot take effect at this time.

The referenda on which students voted last month appeared quite suddenly on the USG docket.  The accelerated timetable for voting on the referenda preempted a thorough review by the University administration, which we believe was necessary before such significant changes in the Honor System constitution could be considered.  We have now completed that review.

By longstanding practice and by resolution of the Board of Trustees, oversight of student life and discipline, including the formulation of rules of conduct, has been delegated to the president and faculty of the University.  The Honor System was established under an agreement between the faculty and the student body, memorialized in a resolution the faculty adopted in 1893, which provided that “until due notice [is] given to the contrary” there would be no further supervision of in-class examinations, which students would take on their honor.

Under this agreement, the student body was entrusted with responsibility for adjudicating violations of academic integrity during in-class examinations.  The faculty, however, retained its ultimate authority over all academic matters, including those aspects of discipline it entrusted to the Honor Committee.

           The Honor System has only been amended in fundamental ways a handful of times since it was established.  The first constitution of the Honor System provided that if a student were found guilty of a violation, the committee would recommend to the faculty the student’s permanent separation from the college.  In 1921, the constitution was amended to authorize the committee to recommend leniency in exceptional cases.  In 1975, the constitution was amended to provide the possibility of a one-year separation as well as permanent separation from the University.

In contrast to these prior changes to the Honor Constitution, which were adopted with the support of the faculty, three of the referenda the student body approved last month propose to change longstanding aspects of the Honor System without faculty input.  Specifically, these referenda aim to reduce the standard penalties for certain violations; to require at least two separate pieces of evidence before cases can proceed to a hearing; and to enable instructors to control the outcome of proceedings by stating that the alleged violation complied with class policy.

These proposals represent a significant departure from prior practice and exceed the scope of the responsibility delegated to the student body by the faculty concerning the Honor System.  The proposals would also place the penalties for violating the Honor Code for in-class examinations out of alignment with academic integrity violations adjudicated by the faculty-student Committee on Discipline in cases of plagiarism and other out-of-class academic infractions. 

Accordingly, the changes proposed by the first, second, and third referenda cannot take effect at this time.  President Eisgruber has asked that these proposals be remanded for consideration to the faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing, whose responsibilities include “the administration of all regulations which concern the program of study and the scholastic standing of undergraduate students.” (See Rules and Procedures of the Faculty, II. D. 2.g.)

The Committee on Examinations and Standing will evaluate the amendments recommended by the referenda.  The faculty-student Honor System Review Committee appointed last November by Dean Dolan, Dean Kulkarni, and Vice President Calhoun to review the Honor System will be asked to include the three referenda in its review and to report its findings and recommendations to the Committee on Examinations and Standing.

As it makes its determinations, the Committee on Examinations and Standing also will consider the findings of a committee chaired by Dean Deignan that was appointed last year to review other standards and procedures governing the work of the Committee on Discipline and the Residential College Discipline Board.

The Committee on Examinations and Standing will decide whether the referenda’s amendments are consistent with the faculty’s delegation of responsibility and whether the penalties for academic integrity violations should remain aligned across both systems.  If the committee believes that changes to the Honor System or the Committee on Discipline’s penalties and procedures are warranted, it will present a proposal to the full faculty for its consideration.

The fourth referendum proposes a procedural change—requiring the Honor Committee to tell students, at the time of initial contact, whether they are witnesses or are accused of a violation.  This change can be implemented without faculty review, and we expect the Honor Committee will now institute this change in its procedures.

Otherwise, in the interim and until further notice, the Honor System will continue to operate as it did prior to the vote on the referenda.

Academic integrity is one of the hallmarks of a Princeton education.  The Honor System entrusts students to play a critical role in ensuring that academic integrity is respected and sustained.  We respect your desire to ensure that the system remains fair and we understand that the vote on these referenda represent a serious engagement with our academic integrity adjudication process.

But we must also make sure that penalties across both of our disciplinary bodies remain appropriate and equitable and that they convey the seriousness with which the University regards violations of our bedrock academic values.  And we must follow longstanding procedure that gives faculty input and oversight regarding these vital decisions.

We appreciate the import of the recent vote and we will urge the Honor System Review Committee and the Committee on Examinations and Standing to work efficiently and effectively to complete their reviews and make their recommendations.

With our best wishes,

Jill Dolan, Dean of the College

W. Rochelle Calhoun, Vice President for Campus Life

Sanjeev Kulkarni, Dean of the Faculty

In short, Princeton had already created groups to analyze reforms to the Honor System, and the administrators don’t like being preempted. While the referenda are not completely dead, they’ve been relegated to collegiate committees, groups that make changes at a glacial pace.

 

UPDATE (1/12/18)— USG President Myesha Jemison ’18 sent an e-mail to all undergraduates in response:

Dear Princetonians,
 
On the afternoon of January 4th, you all received an email from VP Calhoun, Dean Dolan, and Dean Kulkarni regarding the four Honor Constitution referenda that passed in the USG Winter Elections with 64% of students voting. Of those 64% of students, the turn-out in support of each of the referenda was 87%, 90%, 89%, and 94%, respectively.
In this email, these administrators informed us that the amendments proposed by the first, second, and third referenda will not be implemented at this time and will instead be delegated to two university committees–the first being the faculty-student Honor System Review Committee appointed November 2017, and the second being the Committee on Examinations and Standing.
 
As your elected student representatives, our duty is to represent your view and to pursue your best interests. As such, we are looking at the precedent of administration overriding a vote from the student body and actively pursuing other avenues of action available to us.
We are incredibly grateful for your engagement in the Winter Elections and Referenda cycle. How you all took time to engage in public debates, present at USG Senate meetings, write articles in The Daily Princetonian, post on Facebook, and engage with your peers was truly inspiring. We hope to never lose this momentum.
 
Wishing you all the best with Dean’s Date assignments and Final Exams.

Signed,

Your Undergraduate Student Government Executive Committee

 

Myesha Jemison, President

Daniel Qian, Vice President

Alison Shim, Treasurer

Pooja Patel, U-Council Chair

Miranda Rosen, U-Council Chair

Tania Bore, University Student Life Committee Chair

Patrick Flanigan, Academics Chair

Lavinia Liang, Social Chair

Christine Jeong, Campus & Community Affairs Chair

Tales from the Crypt: On Politics and Princeton Part VIII

The winter 2017 election wasn’t the only Princeton USG election to spark controversy or draw national attention. It’s just carrying on a tradition that extends back at least 30 years.

Will of the People

In winter 2014, three candidates vied for the USG presidency. Sophomore Will Gansa faced off against juniors Ella Cheng and Molly Stoneman. Cheng had previously served as a Class of 2016 Senator and Stoneman was the current USG Vice President. In contrast, Gansa had no prior experience in USG. He hadn’t even planned to run for the presidency until some friends heavily prodded him. As his “press secretary” Nicholas Horvath said, “We basically took our friend and made him a campus celebrity.”

Cheng and Stoneman ran on traditional campaign platforms that involved enacting policy reforms and making USG more accountable. But Gansa had a joke platform. He promised to implement “bike reform” and bring riper fruit and more waffle fries to campus dining halls. Decrying the tyranny of the “government club,” as he called USG, Gansa claimed to represent the “#willofthepeople.” He also posted strange campaign videos online. One video simply showed him doing nothing but eating waffle fries for seven minutes.

Gansa’s campaign drew more attention than expected. People constantly posted about him on Yik Yak, a now defunct social media platform. For much of the campaign, he refused to speak to the Daily Princetonian. He never answered the Editorial Board’s e-mails, so it endorsed Cheng. Near the end of the election, he granted the “Prince” one interview.

By the end of the race, Gansa had transformed into a cult figure. He won 44 percent of the vote — more than Cheng (32 percent) and Stoneman (25 percent) — and forced a run-off election between him and Cheng. This caused an uproar among his opponents. They said that sexism was at play because students were willing to elect a male joke candidate with zero prior leadership experience over two highly qualified female candidates.

An even greater number of students voted in the run-off election. This time, Cheng was overwhelmingly elected to the USG presidency. The odd nature of this student government election gained national attention, and the New York Times devoted two articles to it.

The winter 2014 USG election also featured a vote on the referendum, “Shall the undergraduates urge the administration to reestablish a campus pub?” Princeton once had a school-sponsored pub in Chancellor Green where students and faculty could meet. The University closed it in 1984 when New Jersey raised the minimum legal drinking age to 21. A 2010 task force unanimously recommended that the University reopen the campus pub in 2012, but no subsequent action was taken. The referendum passed 698 to 32.

Bottoms Up

In 2008, Conor Diemand-Yauman ran unopposed for the USG presidency. He had been accused of serving alcohol to minors. The top issue of his platform was addressing the discrepancy between legal and University punishments for underage drinking.

Outgoing USG president Josh Weinstein sent an e-mail at 1:00 am to the entire student body saying that he endorsed his fraternity brother Mike Weinberg for the USG vice presidency. Weinstein also said that Diemand-Yauman supported Weinberg. But Diemand-Yauman sent an e-mail back saying that he never supported Weinberg and had no intentions of doing so. Weinstein sent another e-mail to apologize, and then Diemand-Yauman said that the apology was not enough. He told the “Prince” that, “This apology is essentially worthless because he is trying to justify his implication” and, “It’s analogous to someone saying ‘I apologize that I am implying because you are drinking in the morning, afternoon and evening — you are an alcoholic.’”

That same year, the conservative-backed “Coalition for Intellectual Integrity” introduced a referendum that would have banned the University from taking stances on social issues, like California’s Proposition 8 to allow same-sex marriage.

Spitzer’s Spitting Image

Thirty years earlier, Eliot Spitzer was the chairman of USG (a prior equivalent of the USG president). Even in college, Spitzer displayed strong political skills by getting numerous mentions in the “Prince.” His ego and overinflated sense of USG’s importance deeply irritated students. For the next election, a group of physics students formed a party against Spitzer and other USG future politicians called the “Antarctic Liberation Front” (ALF). As one alumnus wrote of the ALF:

I wish I had saved their brochures, but their proposals included things like imposing a dawn to dusk curfew on the school and funding school parties by annexing the mineral rights between the double yellow lines of the US highways.  All of this was under the banner of starting jihad to free Antarctica. The ALF swept the USG election. This immensely annoyed Spitzer and other USG stalwarts, who decried the trivialization of such an august body. The pained and pompous wailing from the traditional student council weenies…only amused the general student population even further. After a few student-council-meetings-as-performance-art, the ALF resigned en mass and life went back to being just a little bit more boring.

Other ALF details included the promise to appoint the “Four Fs” — friends, flunkies, fictional characters, and functional illiterates — to political offices. The ALF also planned to, “heat dorms only during the summer, when it’s economical.” Their dawn–dusk curfew had a premise that allowed it to be suspended for up to one hour, “for witnessing public executions.”

The ALF even passed a proposal for, “every building on campus over 5′ 5” tall and not USG chairman shall be renamed Daniel P. Arovas Hall.” The only building that the USG did not rename was the Department of Geoscience’s Rock Magnetism Laboratory because, being partially buried underground, it was less than 5′ 5”. Daniel Arovas was the ALF’s leader and ran for the USG chairmanship. He lost by six votes — of 1,400 cast — after a recount. Arovas is now a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego where he is studying, “theories of strongly correlated quantum systems, particularly in low dimensions where quantum fluctuations can lead to interesting and exotic new states of matter.”

Years later, Spitzer was still upset about this event. But he put a twist to the story. He told The New Yorker:

Princeton at the start of the nineteen-eighties was hardly a hotbed of political activism. Candidates for office included a ‘Jihad Party,’ made up of hard-partying frat boys who wore towels and face masks. ‘It wasn’t an office that I recall many people fighting for,’ one of Spitzer’s fellow-students said. ‘Even without Jihad, the slate would have been pretty thin.

Another Princeton alumnus wrote back:

Sorry, Eliot. I’m sure the New Yorker audience thinks it’s just terrible the way the big, bad frat boys mocked your noble sense of public service. The truth–that a bunch of hyperintellectuals with a sense of humor incited a student revolt against Spitzer-style self-importance–is a lot more embarrassing.

Spitzer went on to allegedly earn a perfect score on the LSAT, attend Harvard Law School, and become a lawyer at the international law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. He was elected the Attorney General of New York in 1998 as a Democrat and reelected in 2002. In 2006, he was elected Governor of New York. Two years later, the New York Times reported that Spitzer had paid thousands of dollars to high-end prostitutes in his time since being elected Attorney General. His governorship — similar to his USG chairmanship — ended in disgrace as he resigned from office.

Conclusion

Regardless of whether it’s Spitzer or Gansa running for the USG presidency, the outcome is usually the same. For better or (probably) for worse, Princetonians don’t take their student government too seriously no matter how hard its members try to make it relevant to their lives.

But sometimes this also happens because of how USG officials treat their jobs. As one 2009 USG memo leaked by the “Prince” stated, “We can’t run it like a business or take ourselves too seriously.” The official concluded, “usg [sic] is constantly talking about giving students a voice, but this promise is meaningless without realistic, practical ways to exercise that voice.”

Power to the People: On Politics and Princeton Part VII

Princeton’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) held its annual winter elections in the weeks leading up to winter break. Usually, these elections are marked by student apathy, low voter turnout, and empty promises for better student representation. But not this time. Unlike previous elections, this one featured a volatile three-way presidential race and referenda for sweeping reforms of Princeton’s century-old Honor Code.

Hail to the Chief

The presidential race foreshadowed drama before it even began. All prospective USG candidates for elected office had to submit petitions by 12:00 pm on November 28. Ryan Ozminkowski ’19 turned in his petition ~30 minutes late and appealed for acceptance to the USG Senate. He claimed that he thought the deadline was 12:00 pm Pacific Standard Time instead of Eastern Standard Time. The election rules never specified the time zone. Few, if any, on the USG Senate believed his excuse, though Ozminkowski argued that lawyers, with whom his campaign team consulted, said that it would be a valid excuse in any court of law. USG approved his petition.

Several days later, current USG president Myesha Jemison released the list of candidates with their campaign statements. Three students had declared their candidacy for the presidency: Matt Miller ’19, Ryan Ozminkowski ’19, and Rachel Yee ’19. Many of the other positions were uncontested, and nobody ran for the social committee chairmanship.

Miller was the only candidate who was a member of USG during the previous year. He worked on the communications committee. As a former athlete, he wanted to improve relations between student athletes and non-athletes in addition to getting better acts for Lawnparties.

Yee already had strong name recognition. She ran for USG president in 2016 and won a majority of votes in every class except for the senior class. Like the previous year, her statement indicated that she would run a policy-centric campaign with improvements to Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) being the central goal of her administration. Her statement was polished and professional.

Ozminkowski surprised everyone with his candidacy statement. It looked like a parody of a candidate for the U.S. presidency. He wrote:

“In the past year, 6.5 million individuals in the U.S. were reported as unemployed, 783 million people worldwide did not have access to clean and safe water, and 18 million acres of rainforests were destroyed. We, as a people, can do better. We must do better.”

Most students thought that he was a joke candidate and treated him as such. (In full disclosure, Ozminkowski is a friend from my geoscience class that went to Morocco during fall break.) But that all changed when the election began.

On the first day of campaigning, Ozminkowski’s team bought out the domains for his rival candidates’ websites and redirected them to his own in a move that paralleled how a Trump supporter redirected visitors from jebbush.com to donaldjtrump.com. Ozminkowski later returned the domains to the other candidates.

Two days later, the candidates faced off in a debate hosted by the American Whig-Cliosophic Society. Until this point, most students thought that Ozminkowski was in the race as a joke. But he publicly announced that he was a serious candidate and answered the debate’s questions as such. Ozminkowski was the only one who spoke well and had smooth off-the-cuff comments. Unlike the other candidates, he did not look or sound like he was nervous. Objectively, he won the debate.

In the following days, op-eds endorsing various candidates flooded the Daily Princetonian. One of my fellow opinion writers submitted a column that stated that Ozminkowski’s campaign was a joke and students should not vote for him. In response, Ozminkowski’s roommate defended him in an op-ed. One slanderous op-ed was written by an anonymous student who claimed to be a rape victim, and she stated that his campaign insulted victims of sexual assault because he was promoting joke policies instead of CPS reform. Ozminkowski had previously stated in the debate that sexual assault was a serious problem on college campuses that should be properly addressed. Eventually, the Daily Princetonian Editorial Board endorsed Yee. I later wrote a column about the problems with USG elections.

While op-eds were flying through the newspaper, most of the campaigning occurred on Facebook. Yee campaigned on the slogans “Yee for USG” and “See a need fill a need.” But Ozminkowski quickly gained attention with his nebulous slogan “Vote for an ideal not an idea.” He founded Princeton Tonight — the school’s only television show — and consequently was backed by friends with strong cinematography skills. This link between the two garnered attention, as Princeton Tonight aired Ozminkowski’s candidacy announcement. After criticism, the group removed the video and temporarily severed its ties with him.

Ozminkowski’s campaign videos were visually appetizing. He and Yee created ever-improving videos with each successive one outdoing the last. While Ozminkowski promised to run a marathon if elected in his videos, Yee called for CPS and academic advising reforms. Oscar-winning La La Land director Damien Chazelle even made a video that endorsed Ozminkowski.

Then came the strangest twist in the election. Student Ben Sender ’18 started an online group called Liberty Meets All Opportunity (LMAO). It claimed to be the nation’s first collegiate “Super PAQ” (yes, it was spelled with a Q). LMAO said that it was founded at Princeton and Harvard. Further, it stated that it had many followers because there were thousands of college students who believed in the ideals of liberty and opportunity. LMAO attempted to raise interest in the election by promising to donate $500 to the charity of voters’ choosing. This publicity stunt captured the attention of Princeton’s world renowned philosopher Peter Singer. He e-mailed the +200 students in his famous “Practical Ethics” class with a message endorsing LMAO’s effective altruism.

LMAO endorsed Yee and Ozminkowski. The group went even further to campaign on their behalves by buying Facebook ads in support of them. But this created a campaign finance conundrum. USG election rules state that candidates cannot spend more than $50 in an election. Third party spending on behalf of a candidate would count toward that candidate’s overall spending budget. Candidates spending ≥$5 above the limits can be expelled from the race. By campaigning for two candidates, USG did not know to whom the cost of LMAO’s ads should be billed. Neither candidate asked for the endorsement. But LMAO said that it had compulsory support, meaning that it would campaign on behalf of candidates even if they did not ask for its support. LMAO’s entire scheme was ingenious and masterfully orchestrated.

In the final days of the election, all three candidates ramped up their campaigns. My roommate reported that Miller and Yee had stopped by our room for door-to-door campaigning. I was printing papers at those times.

Ozminkowski challenged Miller and Yee to a second debate that would be held during a late meal. Miller accepted but Yee declined. It happened several days later. I stopped by the debate while getting some food. There were at least a hundred students in attendance. Although the questions spanned a variety of topics, Lawnparties received the most interest. Ozminkowski won the debate again.

Just before voting started, the Daily Princetonian exposed a hole in USG’s Helios voting platform. It discovered that non-undergraduate students could also cast votes. USG responded that it would work on ways to filter out fraudulent votes from graduate students.

I Pledge My Honor

Rumblings for Honor Code reform began long the referenda appeared on the ballot. The Honor Code was established as a contract between professors and students in 1893 after a string of cheating scandals. It created procedures for taking tests and punishing cheaters. In the 124 years since its adoption, it has been modified numerous times by students.

Currently, the Honor Code works in this way: Students take exams in a lecture hall and sign a pledge to not cheat on each exam. In turn, professors and teaching assistants do not watch students while taking exams. The Honor Code forces students to report incidents of cheating. Failure to do so could result in punishment. Once a student has been accused of cheating, the Honor Committee questions him and calls in witnesses. If there is sufficient evidence, the Committee proceeds from an investigation to a trial. The Committee acts as the prosecution and judge, finding evidence against the student, determining his guilt, and delivering a sentence. Students found guilty of cheating are suspended for one year. The Honor Committee is comprised of current class presidents, all past class presidents, and students who are selected by current Committee members and confirmed by the USG Senate.

Last spring, the Daily Princetonian Editorial Board published two articles about possible reforms to the Honor Code. They attracted much criticism from students.

Students are fearful of the Honor Committee. They often hesitate to report possible cheating incidents for fear of being responsible for a fellow student’s expulsion. Ignorance of the Committee’s investigation procedures is ubiquitous in the student body. Although these procedures are publicly available, few want to comply with them.

In October, USG Academics Committee chairman Patrick Flanigan ’18 formed a subcommittee to put referenda for reforming the Honor Code on the winter election ballot. He started this subcommittee without consulting Honor Committee chair Carolyn Liziewski ’18. To amend the Honor Code, at least one third of students must vote in the election and three quarters of those voting students must approve a referendum.

Flanigan’s subcommittee introduced four referenda at the start of the USG elections. They immediately caught students’ attention. The referenda would:

  1. Lower the standard penalty for cheating from a one year suspension to academic probation.
  2. A hearing must have at least two pieces of evidence against a student before it proceeds to an investigation.
  3. A professor or teaching assistant can overrule a guilty verdict by the Honor Committee. The burden of proof for a guilty verdict was also raised to requiring, “overwhelmingly convincing evidence.”
  4. The Honor Committee must disclose to students that it calls of their status as a defendant or witness upon initial contact.

These referenda proposed to make the biggest changes to the Honor Code in at least a generation. The Daily Princetonian was inundated with op-eds in the following days.

Supporters of the referenda saw them as necessary measures to check the Honor Committee’s power. They thought that the standard one year suspension was overly harsh. Many also claimed that the Honor Committee was investigating and giving punishment to frivolous cases that had little supporting evidence.

One op-ed was written by an anonymous student who had been investigated by the Honor Committee. The student said that he or she had not cheated, a teaching assistant confirmed her story, and the accuser misidentified her. Despite the strong evidence in support of his or her innocence, the Honor Committee voted to punish him/her.

Opponents said that the referenda would implement irresponsible reform. The opposition was spearheaded by the Honor Committee leadership. They said that reform should occur through a months-long process that involves discussions with administrators, students, faculty, and alumni. The first referendum would make it easier for students to cheat and create a disparity between the standard punishment given by the Honor Committee and the Committee on Discipline, a panel that deals with all other non-cheating violations of the school’s policies.  The third referendum would be subjective to favoritism from professors, as students in a small seminar would have a greater chance of a professor overruling a verdict than those in a large lecture.

Students then put a social justice twist to the referenda. Supporters claimed that the one year standard punishment disproportionately hurt students of color and low income backgrounds. They said that students from wealthy families could afford to travel around the world or take a high status unpaid internship for a year while low income student would likely have to take a minimum wage job.

During the campaign, students, alumni, USG members, and Honor Committee members past and present all weighed in on the discussion. The Daily Princetonian Editorial Board endorsed all four referenda. Nine former Honor Committee chairs wrote an op-ed against the referenda. Their argument was partly supported by the historical claim that the standard punishment had not changed since the Honor Code’s establishment in 1893. This “fact” was false. A former U-Councilor followed up with an op-ed that corrected the record. They original standard punishment was expulsion and then was subsequently lowered to the one year suspension.

The American Whig-Cliosophic Society held a senate debate on reforming the Honor Code. U-Councilor Diego Negrón Reichard and former Honor Committee member Micah Herskind argued against Honor Committee Chair Carolyn Liziewski and USG Academics Committee member Connor Pfeiffer. The Whig Hall senate chamber was packed. It was the most students I had ever seen at a Whig-Clio debate. For 90 minutes, students argued back and forth about the referenda. Liziewski had to defend the status quo as proponents peppered her with questions. Near the end, Academics chairman Patrick Flanigan made some remarks about why he introduced the referenda.

Tensions rose as the election day drew nearer. Flanigan told the “Prince,” “Throughout this process, I have been called sexist, a zealot, undemocratic, unfair, secret, manipulative, and it is beginning to wear on me,” and, “I think it is time the students vote.” The University held its breath as it waited to see the elections’ results.

Results

The results were announced via e-mail. Yee had a landslide victory that garnered 72 percent of votes. All four referenda were passed by overwhelming margins with the narrowest margin being 87 percent approval of the first referendum and the widest margin being 94 percent approval of the fourth referendum. There was a soaring 50 percent turnout for the presidential election and 64 percent for the referenda.

Ozminkowski’s presidential run drew praise and criticism. On one hand, he largely ignored major policy issues in his campaign. On the other, he drew unprecedented popular attention to a USG election that otherwise is hardly noticed. Yee is currently planning her policy objectives for the upcoming year.

Meanwhile, Flanigan and other supporters of the Honor Code referenda are preparing to propose additional reforms this spring. The University created a task force to review the Honor System. Flanigan and Liziewski will both be on it.

The presidential race was interesting but had a predictable outcome. The referenda created newfound interest in the Honor Code that will likely result in further changes.

 

Photo Gallery

 

UPDATE (1/1/18)— Today, I received an e-mail about LMAO’s charity vote result:

Dear USG Voter and EA Enthusiast,

Happy New Year from all of us at Liberty Meets All Opportunity! Thank you for voting in the inaugural Liberty Meets All Opportunity charity project. We received 481 votes, 37% of which were for the Against Malaria Foundation, placing above GiveDirectly which received 18% of votes. Though not an official category, we also received dozens of write-in votes by email for donating to Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, all of which were discarded.
 
On December 17th we donated $500 to AMF which you can track here. AMF is an extremely effective cause and we ask you to consider giving yourself.
 
Thank you again for participating in our charity project and voting in the USG election. The field of candidates was particularly strong this year, and it’s widely accepted that we made them stronger. We are overjoyed to be responsible for Rachel Yee’s win, as well as helping Ryan Ozminkowski and Matt Miller bring their message to voters.
 
Until next time,