Most universities have a strip of drinking establishments where students drink to excess right out in the open. 

Not Princeton.

Here, a remarkable amount of drinking happens in secret, behind the doors of an insular network of clubs that are far wilder than regular bars.

Inside these eating clubs, students who are under the legal drinking age regularly do things that would never be allowed in traditional bars.

Some have gotten so drunk they had to be hospitalized for alcohol poisoning.

Others have slipped on beer-soaked dance floors and broken their legs.

Still others have become so out of control that they have gotten into fights with police officers and bouncers.

None of the risky behavior leads to serious consequences for the clubs or the University.

In fact, the University is benefitting from the silence surrounding the eating clubs. While most students drink hard liquor during pre-games on campus, the clubs are the site from which these students get transported to the hospital. Because the clubs are officially not part of the University campus, the University is able to avoid any blame or responsibility for risky behavior in the clubs.

To peel back the veil of secrecy with which the University is surrounding Princeton’s hidden bar district, I interviewed a dozen students, club officers, and University spokespeople and reviewed hundreds of pages of police records and news articles and found a number of troubling statistics:  

  • In the past five years, police have been called to the clubs more than 200 times, for incidents ranging from alcohol poisoning to assault.
  • Serious injuries are commonplace. Since 2013, there have been 11 reported cases in which a student, a bouncer, or a police officer got hurt in a fight. One student had his pinky amputated when his hand got caught in a club’s fire escape as he was trying to leave the club in an unconventional way.
  • The clubs are the scene of bizarre and violent hazing rituals. In one club, new club members had to undress to their underwear and were showered with ketchup and mustard. In another, students were slapped on their backs until they bled.
  • What happens in the clubs often stays in the clubs. The cycle of risky behavior is perpetuated by a strict code of secrecy. Members who do talk risk being ostracized.
  • Incidents are documented in public records, but the University does not regularly make checks of them, preferring instead to look the other way.

Princeton administrators stress that the clubs are not part of the University and maintain that they do not regulate what happens in them.

“The clubs are independent of the University but interdependent,” said W. Rochelle Calhoun, the Vice-President for Campus Life of the University as well as the chair of the University’s Eating Club task force. She acknowledged, though, that the clubs are relying more and more on University resources such as the University’s sexual harassment advising peers.

But Calhoun also said the University rarely learns about incidents that happen in the clubs.  

In 2014, for example, a drunk student officer at Tiger Inn jokingly placed another student in a headlock until he lost consciousness. The student fell to the floor on which he struck his face, injuring his nose.   

“To my knowledge, that could be something we never know about,” Calhoun said, explaining that the borough police are under no obligation to make reports to the University.  

Instead, Tiger Inn handled the case internally and relieved the student of her officer position.  

Over the past few months, I emailed club presidents of all eleven clubs and house managers of five. One house manager agreed to an interview. One president declined to comment. The rest remained silent.

The University administration declined to give an in-person interview, giving instead a three-sentence reply explaining that eating clubs are private organizations.

In one interview, the chair of the eating clubs’ Graduate Interclub Council Tom Fleming ‘89 acknowledged problems, but defended the clubs’ safety measures, listing liability insurances, security teams, and trainings for club officers.

“There is no higher priority for the eating clubs than the health and safety of our members and guests,” Fleming said. “Not only is this essential for the well-being of our members, but it is also essential for our survival.”

Students binge-drink at many universities. But Princeton is unique in that it is largely kept secret, maintaining the University’s good reputation while exposing students to extra risks.

In an email, University spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss said that “The University’s Department of Public Safety (PSafe) maintains a strong working relationship with the Princeton Police Department that includes open communication about any serious incidents at the clubs.”

What Hotchkiss didn’t say is that many clubs ask their members not to call the police. Even in cases of severe intoxication or injury, they are supposed to call club officers for help first, which means that most incidents never get reported to the police.

“During our first sophomore dinner, the club president told us that if anything were to happen, find a club officer first and help can be better sought than by just dialing 911,” said a member of Cap and Gown Club who doesn’t want to be identified for fear of being kicked out.  

This response is indicative of a system in which students fear social exclusion if a club finds out that a member has talked with non-members about what’s going on inside the club.

“We get sanctioned if we talk with non-members about what happens in the club,” he said.

Eating Clubs Are Hubs of Unsafe Behavior

In the past five years, scores of students have suffered severe injuries at the clubs.

I reviewed more than 200 pages of police reports and found that party-related injuries happen on average twice a month during the semester. Students left a club in an ambulance on 50 occasions from 2013 until now.

Many students were injured because of wet dance floors in the clubs. At Ivy Club alone there have been four reported incidents of students breaking their legs or falling on their heads because of slipping on the wet dance floor since 2013.

In other clubs, students have been hospitalized for drinking too much. On 11 occasions, students broke a bone or lost consciousness during a night out in an eating club.

And still other students were victimized by thieves among the heavy drinking. 32 students were victims of thieves who have stolen more than $19,000 worth over the past five years.

A student from the class of 2018 lost not only his balance when he tried to leave Cap and Gown Club through the fire escape. “He slipped, his hand got caught in between the iron spindles, and his pinky was amputated,” said a 2017 police report. The injury occurred even though club rules said that he wasn’t allowed to be out there. Neither the student nor Cap responded to requests for comment.

At Tiger Inn a club officer had to step down after causing a scandal in 2014. He had sent out a photo to the club’s listserv that showed a first-year female student attempting to perform oral sex on a male student, with the headline “Ivy blows, and apparently so does this Asian chick.”

At Cannon Dial Elm Club, police officers confiscated three bags of heroin in 2016. No further action was taken.

And at Colonial Club, the police were called because a student was “screaming that he was on acid and LSD. He was acting wildly and spitting at others,” said a 2017 report. He was transported to Princeton Medical Center (PMC) and later charged with being under the influence and disorderly conduct.

During initiations in one club, the new men were asked to finish a keg and then to undress. Without warning, older club members slapped new members on their backs. One student was slapped so hard, his back started bleeding.

“It was basically physical abuse,” said a student who asked not to be identified for fear of losing his membership.

The University Is Turning a Blind Eye

Princeton administrators have been careful to keep their distance from incidents like these while reaping benefits from what the clubs provide—an outlet for student stress that allows for hard drinking but does not harm the University’s reputation.

Sophomore Aleesha Ye ’20 badly sprained her ankle on a night out at Cloister Inn in September 2017. For the following weeks, she was forced to rent an expensive scooter in order to get to her classes. The University never followed up with her after the incident or offered assistance, and Aleesha learned that she isn’t the only one who was hurt at Cloister Inn.

“The amount of people who have told me they had the same experience at Cloister was insane,” Aleesha said. “People have been complaining about the mosh pit for years.”

But the University took no action.

Without close supervision, club leaders are left on their own to make questionable decisions.

They have hired bouncers who have allegedly assaulted and harassed students. A police report from 2014 showed that four of the bouncers at Tiger Inn had criminal histories ranging from aggravated assault to drug offenses. At Cap and Gown Club, security employee Ralph Williams threatened to “cut up” two non-members who tried to seek shelter from the cold in 2016, according to police records. Williams denied the allegations.

There are other signs that club leaders are not capable of keeping their fellow students safe.

Tiger Inn has a few members “on safety” on nights when the club is open to all students. Members on safety are supposed to stay sober and help other students. But instead some chug beers and become more drunk than the students they are supposed to keep an eye on.

One student on safety had to be brought to the infirmary for alcohol intoxication in 2017.

This would never happen in a traditional bar, where contracts require that bouncers and staff not drink while at work. Students on safety at The Street, however, do not have to sign such a contract.

(I have since learned that, after the 2017 incident, Tiger Inn did introduce a new rule, saying that members on safety have to stay absolutely sober. Furthermore, every student does sign a contract when they become members of Tiger Inn.)

Even though the information above was confirmed to me by several members of the Tiger Inn, I was not able to get confirmation by the previous or current president, as none of them responded to my requests for comments.

For Decades, the University Has Ignored Serious Safety Concerns at the Eating Clubs

The eating clubs are intimately linked with Princeton, but in a way that enables the University administration to escape blame for unsafe behavior that happens inside the clubs.

The first eating club, The Ivy Club, was formed by students in 1879, because the University had admitted more students than it could feed. Each club that followed was built with the University’s permission, and the University controlled how many parties could be held in a year.

More recently, the University has turned several of the eating clubs into official campus spaces after they went bankrupt, thereby acquiring a formal presence on Prospect Avenue. In 2009, the University bought Elm Club and turned it into the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding.

There are other connections.

The University both pays for each club’s wifi and provides free snow and ice removal services for the sidewalks outside the clubs.

Lawnparties, an event that happens on The Street twice a year, is organized by the University’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) in close collaboration with the Princeton administration.

The University increases financial aid for upperclassmen to help them cover the cost for eating club membership.

Former president of Ivy Folasade Runcie ’18 acknowledged the connection between eating clubs and University, explaining that it keeps students safe.

“Even though eating clubs are technically private institutions, disassociated with the University, they are practically on campus and are even interspersed with buildings where some students take classes, for example Bobst Hall,” she said. “This is safer because students will not risk drunk driving and are close to their dorms meaning they don’t have to travel far in the dark after a night out. 

But despite the overlap between the University and eating clubs, the University has maintained for years that the two have nothing to do with one another. Administrators have pointed to the separation every time a major drinking-related accident occurs.

And it has occurred a lot.  

For the past 50 years, the clubs have been hubs of bad drinking and bad behavior. In 1987, The Associated Press wrote a story about the staggeringly high number of sixteen Princeton students who were admitted to the infirmary with alcohol intoxication and alcohol-related injuries after initiations at several eating cubs. In 1988, two club officers at Charter Club were arrested and ultimately sentenced to 30 days in jail each for having served alcohol at an event that caused 39 students to require treatment at the University infirmary. Six were taken to a local hospital and one of those six remained in a coma for 24 hours.

The University defended the students, calling the sentence “disproportionate and excessive.”

From 2000 to 2009, 13 eating club officers were arrested on charges of serving alcohol to minors, according to a 2018 article in the Daily Princetonian.

Four Tiger Inn officers resigned in 2014 after hosting a secret 21 Club party in which 21 juniors and 21 seniors had to drink 21 beers in 42 minutes each.

And in December 2017, Tiger Inn’s safety officer Divya Mehta ’18 had to step down after not hiring enough safety personnel for the club’s semi-formals. As stated in a Daily Princetonian article, this oversight led to an unsafe environment with “excessive levels of alcohol, vomiting, and physicality.”

Through it all, the University administration has been hands-off. Vice-President for Campus Life Calhoun stated: “We don’t really regulate what they’re doing in the clubs.”

Hiding Incidents from the Public

Against this permissive backdrop, students keep getting injured.

This year, due to the heavy drinking during frosh-week, the first week before the new academic year begins, all eating clubs were closed to first-years after the first night.

According to a Daily Princetonian article, 28 students were brought either to the local hospital or to the University health center during the weekend of frosh-week.

Yet there are suspiciously few police reports pertaining to this weekend.

There are no records mentioning first-year Henry Wietfeldt ’22 who was transported to the emergency room at PMC after dislocating his knee on the wet floor at Quadrangle Club on Sunday night of frosh-week. For weeks, he suffered from his injury and was forced to wear a brace.

On weekends, PSafe stations an officer on The Street, even though the clubs officially fall under the jurisdiction of the borough police. As a result, PSafe handles most calls on The Street in lieu of the town police, thereby keeping most incidents quiet from the public.  

PSafe doesn’t have publicly accessible records, so it is in the interest of both the clubs and the University to have PSafe handle incidents on The Street. The Princeton Police Department, on the other hand, has to make their records public under the Open Public Records Act (which is how I accessed the police records for this article).

But officially, PSafe is not responsible for handling incidents on The Street.

“The Eating Clubs are in the Princeton Police Department’s jurisdiction, although DPS (the Department of Public Safety) will assist with intoxication and injury calls for service,” said Stephanie Karp, Director of Operations at PSafe.

The University seems to benefit from PSafe’s involvement on The Street, keeping the number of official records low.

The Veil of Secrecy Persists

There are serious safety risks on The Street. But, to the best of their abilities, it seems the student-run eating clubs are generally trying to keep students as safe as they can.

It is the University that is showing a lack of responsibility toward its students. By claiming that the clubs and the University are independent from each other, the University is able to look the other way when students are hurt on The Street.

Most of the incidents such as injuries or violent behavior that happen on The Street occur due to high levels of intoxication. But the eating clubs (with the infrequent exception of Quad’s mixed drink nights) only serve light beer and water to the general public on normal nights out.

“We do not serve any hard alcohol to anyone on a night out,” said Terrace officer Joe Collins ’20.

This suggests that most students who leave The Street in an ambulance due to alcohol poisoning get drunk with hard liquor before, at pre-games on campus.

According to a March 2018 police record, a student was found vomiting due to high intoxication at Quad. His friends said that he had drunk Everclear Vodka along with Smirnoff Vodka. The student was brought to PMC.

Yet Quad didn’t serve Vodka that night, again suggesting that most students get dangerously drunk on campus and not at The Street. Thus, it becomes impossible for the University to claim that they have nothing to do with what happens in the eating clubs.

By turning a blind eye to what happens on The Street, the University is able to evade responsibility for unsafe behavior that occurs as a result of alcohol-related social events on or immediately adjacent to University grounds.

But the University benefits from the veil of secrecy that the eating clubs surround themselves with.

I reached out to 19 former and current eating club presidents and officers in all eleven clubs, asking them to confirm that heavy drinking does not occur in the clubs. By the time of this article’s publication, only Collins ’20 was willing to give a statement. Six presidents declined comment. The rest remained silent.

The first step to keeping more students safe on The Street is for the clubs to lift their veil of secrecy and allow their members to speak publicly about the unsafe situations they witness, instead of ostracizing students who speak out.  

But most importantly, the University has to acknowledge that eating clubs and University are not completely separate institutions and that most students who leave The Street in an ambulance started their night with heavy drinking right on campus grounds.

** For the sake of transparency, I think it is important to mention that I am a member of the Terrace Club. I would like to emphasize that, in my investigation, I have tried to give equal weight to each police record, disregarding my eating club affiliation.

*** This article has been edited and updated to more accurately reflect the most recent information acquired by Anna Wolcke. The photo has also been changed to be less misleading.