Princeton Has a Shadow Fraternity System Nobody Controls

Princeton University is facing unwanted attention for misogynistic and potentially criminal behavior at Tiger Inn, one of its social clubs
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New graduates walking with the processional into the chapel before their commencement in June at Princeton University

Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

Clarifies in fifth paragraph that only some clubs weren't accepting women when Sally Frank won the lawsuit.

When Princeton University officials learned that a student had mass-e-mailed a photo of a woman performing oral sex at one of its 11 eating clubs (social clubs that resemble fraternities), it quietly began investigating the matter. Despite the fact that passing around a photo of a sex act without the consent of those pictured is a crime in New Jersey, the university did not inform local police. The school’s squeamish approach to the incident raises questions about how it can discipline its students—and abide by stricter government guidelines for handling sexual assault—when so much social life at the institution lives outside campus confines.

On Oct. 12, Adam Krop, a vice president at the Tiger Inn, one of Princeton's oldest eating clubs, sent an e-mail to all members that included a "crude joke" and a description of an "Asian chick," along with the photo, according to the New York Times. “Our investigation began as soon as we received a report, just days after the alleged incident,” says Martin Mbugua, a University spokesman. The Princeton Police Department only found out about the e-mail three weeks later, when an anonymous third party notified the police chief. Any misbehavior at the Tiger Inn, headquartered in a stately mansion on a street just off the main campus, technically falls under the jurisdiction of local police.

In November, the Department of Education found that Princeton botched its response to reports of sexual assault and the university formally agreed to tighten its handling of alleged sexual crimes. New guidelines implemented by the government require schools to investigate sexual violence reports that occur outside school grounds if the incident has “continuing effects on campus.” While no violence was alleged in this case, the new statutes send the message that a school's responsibility for protecting students doesn't end when they step off the quad.

It would be hard to overstate the role of the eating clubs at Princeton, where bars and other opportunities for relaxing human interaction are scarce. The clubs, which were started by students in the mid-19th century after the school banned fraternities, are where junior and senior members are served meals and everyone else drinks heavily and dances to Journey on weekends. Club members, who in some cases have to be selected to join a club and in others can just sign up, elect a slate of officers who live in the houses and take formal charge of planning weekly debaucheries. (Fraternities and sororities exist but are practically a hobby, compared to the influence of eating clubs on the student body.)

Like fraternities, eating clubs have a history of being hostile to women. Some of Princeton's eating clubs did not accept women until Sally Frank, a Princeton alumna, successfully sued them for discrimination. Tiger Inn was the last to relent, which came only in 1991, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear its appeal. 

Krop, the senior who circulated the photo, and Andrew Hoffenberg, a club officer who sent a note the same evening encouraging fellow members to heckle Sally Frank, who gave a lecture at the University on Oct. 13, were forced out of their leadership roles last week by Tiger Inn’s governing board.

“Ever wonder who we have to thank (blame) for gender equality,” read Hoffenberg’s e-mail, according to the Times. “Looking for someone to blame for the influx of girls? Come tomorrow and help boo Sally Frank.” 

The men have not been disciplined by the university and are not being investigated by the police. The Princeton police concede that the e-mail with the picture may have broken the law—“At the very minimum, it’s harassment,” says Steve Riccitello, the department’s public information officer—but haven’t launched an investigation because the victim hasn’t come forward.

The Tiger Inn board surveyed members about the environment for women in the group, and it has vowed to tackle the club’s bro culture, in part by putting more women in positions of power.

“We are going to be working with the undergraduate membership on a very complete and thorough set of changes,” says Eric Pedersen, the board’s chief financial officer. “There is a lot in press about fraternities. We want to make sure we don’t go down that road.”