I live about an hour outside of New York City. Every winter for the past few years I’ve taken a train to Manhattan and attended an annual networking event hosted by the St Andrews Alumni Club of New York—what’s our largest alumni club outside of London. These events are a great opportunity to engage with fellow students and alumni of our university while also enjoying some nice hors d’oeuvres. What interests me most about these events, however, is not the opportunity to hear my successful alma mater present themselves (nor to see my classmates suck up to them), but rather the venue. My first year, the event was held in a banquet room of the old Lehman Brothers building, a now defunct bank at the epicentre of the financial crisis. The next year the venue changed to the headquarters of the Women’s National Republican Club in Rockefeller centre and was held there again this year. Not only is this club in a highly coveted part of town, but it boasts both an impressive history and a swanky interior.
Neo-Georgian in style, the clubhouse was built in 1934 on the site of a home owned by Fife native and robber baron Andrew Carnegie. Since then, it has offered several guest rooms and private dining rooms to its members as well as lectures and debates. They also have an impressive collection of artwork, books, and pieces of furniture owned by famous republicans male and female alike—I should know, considering I spent a good deal of the networking event exploring the place.
Other than the beautiful building, air of elitism, and history of questionable policies, that’s about there is to the club.
So you may be asking yourself, Luke, what does this longwinded anecdote have to do with global networks? Well this week I was reading about the St Andrews Alumni Club in advance of my position as union alumni officer for next year and noticed a peculiar offer. St Andrews alumni, along with those from other select universities, have recently been granted the eligibility to apply for membership to the Princeton Club and the Penn Club. The clubs are fancy and operate out of large buildings in midtown Manhattan, offering many members only guest rooms, libraries, restaurants, and bars as well as private gym, pool, massage, and squash access. Not only must you be an alumni of an affiliated school, but you must pass the application process, be able to afford the membership, and adhere to a strict dress code. Both of these clubs, however, offer extensive ‘reciprocal’ memberships to similar clubs all over the world. This means that while traveling to another state or country you can present a membership to your home club and be offered often all the same amenities. While the Women’s National Republican Club has dozens of reciprocal clubs in nine US states and nine countries, the Penn has over 150 and Princeton has over 200.
What’s more is that these two ‘university clubs’ (which are not operated by the university and scarcely affiliated with them) share a majority of their reciprocals, meaning that once you become a member of one of these clubs, you become a member of many. I don’t really understand how this business model functions, especially since often the amenities available are cheaper and nicer than their public alternatives (like £2 pints of beer or hotel room under market price). I asked my brother who works in hospitality and he theorized that they probably make a great deal of their money through more invisible deals like donations, endowments, or data mining (in which a club might sell their members email and mailing addresses to purveyors of luxury cars, for instance). Suspiciously, these clubs are almost all registered charities (as they often do philanthropic things) so they also are tax exempt. This same sort of network is open to golf and yachting clubs which present perhaps an even worse case of discrimination as their membership isn’t bound to university—this topic is explored well in the famous 1952 film The Gentlemen’s Agreement in which an investigative journalist Gregory Peck pretends to be Jewish to investigate private members clubs in metro New York. Many of these clubs, like the women’s republicans, also have political affiliations and influence while also existing in places of influence such as Washington DC or Westminster—making their tax exempt status even more questionable.
It’s crazy to think that by being a member of one of these clubs you can find access to good lodging, wellness equipment, and work spaces all while surrounded by people from a similar educational and class background to you. And even those from less elite backgrounds who obtain membership are encouraged to act posh by through the dress code, club rules, and social norms. A Princeton Club member could travel to Bahrain, Scotland, Vietnam, Kenya, or Chile and find similar accommodations and similar people. What’s more is that this global network and community of elite people who dine, exercise, socialize, and travel all within their own little world. We can also probably assume that many of these people send their children to private schools and that they do business in private environments, making their lives as a whole both elite and gated (literally and metaphorically).
St Andrews has always been posh, but it’s interesting to see that their affiliation with the Princeton and Penn clubs is as new as 2015. I have to wonder if this is part of some scheme to help further our university’s brand as a home for the global elite.