PRINCETON, N.J. -- For no one knows quite how long, new members at the Tiger Inn have participated in an induction ceremony unlike that at any other Princeton University eating club.
Initiates, once sufficiently sloshed, are hoisted into the air and passed hand to hand down the club's wide wooden staircase. At the bottom, they are presented with a Tiger Inn striped tie, which they immediately put on.
The tie is all they have on.
No wonder there is reluctance to admit women members at the only club on Princeton's stately Prospect Street that has not gone coed.
After a fierce, 11-year legal battle by a Princeton alumna, the inn continues to resist, despite growing condemnation on campus and a state Supreme Court decision last July mandating that membership rolls be opened.
The presidents of the Tiger Inn and the Ivy Club, which admitted women for the first time this fall, insist that the clubs are private and entitled to the constitutional right to free association, the same contention that has been made by country clubs that exclude minorities. Tiger Inn's request for review by the Supreme Court is pending.
Despite principled talk about the Constitution, what appears to be at stake is whether a group of Ivy League gents must change traditions that include running around naked, fighting with plastic clubs and Viking swords, degrading each other's female friends and drinking themselves sick. The only aspect of their clubby ways that Tiger Inn members seem to take seriously is the vow to keep their rituals so secret that most went unrevealed until a student's anthropology thesis told all.
"At a school like Princeton, part of what makes Tiger Inn great is there are no academic or intellectual activities here," said Stockton Williams, club president and a senior from Baltimore majoring in religion. "Really it's a bunch of guys getting drunk, and it's stupid and sophomoric. It's an excuse to do some sort of male-bonding sort of thing."
In the club's upstairs "checkerboard room" -- black and white linoleum hopelessly sticky from spilled beer, walls lined with group membership portraits dating to 1892 -- Williams hinted he personally would not mind changing the policy toward women. But he was as secretive as a spy about what Tiger Inn's 110 members do here that makes excluding women so important.
Princeton's 12 eating clubs provide meals for about three-fourths of juniors and seniors, and annual membership fees are in the $3,500 range. Some have open admission, but others, like Tiger Inn, require applicants to endure "the bicker," a nerve-wracking interview and selection process.
The clubs are housed in handsome Tudor and colonial mansions lining a street adjacent to the university and, in addition to serving as cafeterias, are the campus's social center in this otherwise sedate suburban town.
At the campus Women's Center around the corner from the eating clubs, students Jeniffer Weiner and Melissa Hardin contended that the clubs should be coed because they are vital institutions at Princeton, which began admitting women in 1969.
"It's as if Princeton said, 'This part of the dining hall is for men only, or this part of the library is,' " said Weiner, an English major from Simsbury, Conn. "It's a real outrage that such discrimination still persists in 1990."
In 1978, Sally Frank, then a sophomore, was denied admission to the male-only Cottage Club and filed suit against that club, the Ivy Club and the Tiger Inn. Now an assistant professor of law at Drake University, Frank has served as defendant and co-counsel in the case against Ivy and Tiger. The Cottage Club went coed in 1986.
"Princeton alumni tend to . . . take positions of importance in government or industry," Frank said. "College years are very formative years, and students should not be taught the lesson that discrimination is acceptable and legitimate. It's important to stop the lesson by stopping the behavior."
Defining that "behavior" proves difficult. Williams spoke vaguely of the "intangible atmosphere" and "single-sex bonding experience" that the club is fighting to maintain. For those interested in something more concrete, however, there exists an extraordinary document -- the senior anthropology thesis of Nelson Hancock, submitted last April and titled "Archaic Traditions: Ritual and Politics at Tiger Inn."
Hancock, with the permission of Tiger Inn members, some of whom once were his friends, documented activities at several members-only "club nights." He took black-and-white photographs subsequently displayed on campus until parents of some members threatened to sue.
Traditions that have evolved from one Tiger Inn generation to the next include "Viking Night," "Trees and Trolls" and "Tequila Sprints." Hancock's photographs show, for example, young men in togas or ripped T-shirts chugging beer and vomiting collectively. They also are seen using indelible markers to write profanity on each other's buttocks and chests, some of it lewd insults about the Ivy Club.
That institution, just across the street from Tiger Inn, was the other longtime male-only holdout among the clubs until this fall. However, Tiger Inn members consider it too snooty and smug over at Ivy, where candelabra light dining tables each evening and "club nights" are black-tie affairs replete with cigar smokers. The Ivy Club accepted 14 women this fall.
"It's been almost anticlimactic in a sense," said Blair Haarlow, Ivy Club president and a senior from Hinsdale, Ill., majoring in political economy. "We conducted our 'bicker' the same way we did before. There's a club tie we give to our members, but all the women who joined said they wanted the tie."
Lawyers for the two clubs have continued the legal battle, Tiger to the Supreme Court appeal and Ivy to a federal appeals court. However, both club presidents acknowledge that the appeals are unlikely to succeed and that the era of male-only clubs at Princeton probably has come to an end.
"The writing is pretty much on the wall that come winter, we're going to be bickering women," Williams said, revealing just a trace of a smile.