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Why Terrace Became the First Club to “Unbicker”

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(from the Spring 2014 Alumni Newsletter)

by Pavithra Vijayakumar ‘15, Alumni Relations Chair

With this article, we begin a new initiative to cover an important event or era in Terrace’s history in each issue of the newsletter. The next one will cover the Club from 1985 to 1990. We welcome your feedback and input—comments on this article, recollections and pictures for the next one, and any suggestions you have for future topics—by e-mail to newsletter@princetonterraceclub.org.

The decision by the Terrace Club graduate board to open the club to any sophomore who wishes to join is the most concrete sign this fall of club willingness to improve the Princeton social system … The action reflects genuine hope on the part of all Terrace members that the inequities Bicker imposes on Princeton students will not continue. Many Terrace members feel that club life will be equally comfortable and enjoyable with the removal of the selection process for joining their club. Their optimistic action comes after several clubs have ignored substantial dissent by their own members over the Bicker issue. We urge all sophomores to consider membership in Terrace Club along with the various other opportunities which are being presented.

“Terrace, too.” Daily Princetonian Editorial, December 11, 1967

In late 1967, just before sign-ins, Terrace became the first club to abandon the Bicker system, in use at Princeton since 1914. Terrace’s leadership seems fitting because even then “Terrace members … were a bit quirky,” as Sam Frank ’69 put it, “and weren’t interested in the Bicker game … which felt pretty silly to a lot of us.” While Terrace was the first, five more clubs became non-selective over the next two years. These shifts highlighted a discomfort with Bicker that had grown over many years.

Issues associated with Bicker first gained prominence in the 1950s. The Class of ’52, prompted by years when 15-20% of sophomores had no access to a club, circulated a petition declaring that none of them would join unless every member of their class received a bid. This action created considerable turmoil on campus and among alumni, but it had its desired effect—100% of participating sophomores received a bid, believed to be the first time that had ever occurred.

The success of this 100% bicker policy was short-lived. In 1958, in the so-called “dirty Bicker,” 23 students, more than half of whom were Jewish, were not chosen by any club. This prompted the University to offer alternatives to the club system: the Woodrow Wilson society in 1961, and then Stevenson Hall in the fall of 1967. While these University-sponsored, often student-led initiatives expanded upperclassman dining options, they did not tackle the fundamentals of the Bicker process itself, with which increasing numbers of students had issues.

The late sixties was a time of momentous change. Bill Stowe ’68 believes this fueled the drive to unbicker. “The Vietnam War was in full swing, the draft was in effect, and anxious club members gathered nightly in the TV room for the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite … We were not in the mood to accept authority or honor tradition for its own sake. Then there was the experience of Bicker itself, which many of us found personally demeaning for both parties and out of keeping with values nurtured by the civil rights and anti-war movements. Being judged and sitting in judgment on our peers was distasteful enough, but the kinds of quick dismissals and pernicious labeling … made it worse. We did not like the roles the process imposed on us and our fellow students.”

Some students resigned rather than participate in a process they did not understand. Alan Blinder ’67 remembers Terrace at that time as “loaded with top students who were heading for medical school, law school, or Ph.D. programs … Often, that meant we were not the coolest guys on campus, and winding up in Terrace meant you didn’t do well in Bicker.” Blinder wrote to us, “I liked the club but nonetheless quit at Bicker time of my senior year rather than devote another week of my life to Bicker, a process I found both stupid and pernicious. I was sure I could make better use of that time, and I did. I was proud when I learned that Terrace was the first club to abandon Bicker.”

Nor were these feelings confined to Terrace. On October 27, 1967, the Daily Princetonian reported that a group of upperclassmen, led by a Campus Club officer, was seeking to organize a large-scale sophomore boycott of Bicker, asking club officers to sign an ad against the practice. The article quotes Len Nalencz ’68 (D), president of Terrace: “we have not decided to sign it yet. I could not say if Terrace would take part.”  Five days later, another article noted that, among others, 12 members of Ivy Club, including the president of the senior class, had committed to become independent.

While this broader campus-wide effort was unsuccessful, things moved quickly at Terrace. Members had been informally discussing how to deal with Bicker all fall and on November 18th, less than three weeks after the article appeared, a majority of Terrans voted to unbicker.  After hearing from members and, perhaps, despite individual feelings in favor of Bicker, the Terrace Board unanimously approved the shift to non-selective status on December 6th. No other club was prepared at that time to commit to a similar change, despite considerable undergraduate interest (Campus voted to drop Bicker only if four other clubs also did so).

Arguments used to support the decision to become non-selective are, in many respects, similar to those used by students today. However, in 1968 Terrace went much further than simply opening its doors to all. Richard Etlin ’69, as Terrace chair of “unbicker,” sought to actively engage sophomores. “Instead of visiting all the bickering sophomores to select them, we went to explain that we were opening our doors so that they and their friends could stay together, rather than be separated by bicker.” This highlights another key argument against Bicker—the unnecessary social pressures it imposes—which was especially important to Etlin:

“From the social point of view, my first two years at Princeton were thrilling: I met and befriended people from all over the country and from all social backgrounds. Then came Bicker, whose entire purpose seemed to be to separate people according to personality types and social distinctions. Bicker separated me from all of my friends; the clubs that gave them bids did not give me a bid. I did not want others to undergo the same experience.”

There were some fears that dropping out of Bicker could endanger the Club’s future—indeed, the first year saw a very low sign-in, exacerbated by Stevenson Hall opening at the same time. However, Stowe recalls that Terrans “believed that the move would serve the Club well in the long term, making Terrace a distinctive and attractive choice for some of the most interesting and exciting students on campus. History has borne this out.” 

Despite, or perhaps because of, the low sign-in after the decision to unbicker, Terrace continued to expand its range of members. Graduate students, faculty members and women in the critical language program were all invited to join as associate members, a new class of membership specifically created to appeal to these groups. The inclusion of women was especially noteworthy, not only because it was the first time that any club had moved to admit them, but also because it occurred more than a year before Princeton admitted women as undergraduates.

Alumni we contacted remain very proud of Terrace’s decision and leadership. Etlin, whose role as unbicker chair is among his most treasured Princeton memories, suggests that the decision allowed Terrace “to offer an alternative paradigm within the context of the club system so that it could continue to live on, albeit with radically revised values.” Stowe is “still proud that the majority of Club members chose not to participate in a system they found morally and/or politically offensive.” The Bicker system continues at Princeton, where it remains a subject of passionate discussion.

Thanks to everyone who contributed their memories to this article.  We hope you enjoyed it. 


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