Origins of High Table

The origin of "High Table" goes back to the physical layout of the dining halls of English colleges at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. In those colleges, undergraduates in their commoners or scholars gown would sit at long refectory tables. At the far end of the hall, on a raised platform or dais, a table was set for the master and fellows of the college who sat above the undergraduates - at the High Table.

This arrangement visually reinforced the hierarchy of masters and fellows above students. The undergraduates perhaps wondered what witty conversation was taking place, what profound insights were being discussed. But perhaps they knew that most often the conversations were about college and academic politics and just plain gossip.

At Princeton, the tradition of High Table developed in a completely opposite manner. After the Graduate School was founded in 1900, but before the Graduate College and its magnificent dining room, Procter Hall was built, Dean West wanted quickly to create a residential facility for graduate students. West himself was living at 90 Bayard Lane, and he prevailed upon his longtime friend and supporter, Moses Taylor Pyne, to purchase Merwick House, just across the street. (Merwick and a new extension is now the physical rehabilitation unit of the Princeton Medical Center. At Merwick, Dean West installed a dozen graduate students and appointed Professor Howard Crosby Butler, archeologist and professor of architecture to be the Resident Master. This was in 1905.

With Butler at Merwick, the "graduate house", then, grew the notion, again borrowed distantly from English colleges, that students in residence would be presided over by a Master. But with a difference. Merwick was meant to be a little community of scholars. Butler presided, but he and the students, the twelve residents plus another eight to twelve graduate students who lived in town, ate together and formed a senior colleague - junior colleague relationship. Graduate students invited faculty and other graduate students not resident at Merwick to dinner and to other social and intellectual gatherings.

When the Graduate College was dedicated in 1913, Princeton possessed one of the finest academic Gothic dining halls outside of England - stained glass window, fine wood paneling, an organ loft, intricately carved fireplace, and a towering hammerbeam ceiling. In short, Procter Hall was ready for use.

Until the early 1970's dinner in Procter Hall was served at a set time and opened with an appropriate Latin grace spoken either by the Master of the Graduate College (a senior faculty member), the Dean, or a designated student. Graduate students were required to wear academic gowns to supper. (The GC gowns appear from contemporary photographs to have been a compromise between the short, vest-like commoners' gown and the longer, fully-sleeved scholars' gown from English collegiate tradition).

High Table in Procter Hall, however, was - and is - a much more democratic affair than it ever was at Oxford or Cambridge. With the Master or Dean presiding, High Table brought together selected students and faculty and administrative guests. The whole idea was not to separate faculty from graduate students but rather to provide an additional opportunity to bring them together.

High Table is now a monthly occurrence. The Dean of the Graduate School invites faculty members and students to attend. The evening begins with drinks and hors d'oeuvres at Wyman House, the Dean's residence. After a talk from the honored guest, the group moves down to Procter Hall and seats itself at the High Table. The Dean of the Graduate School sits at the middle of the table just below the portrait of Dean West. After dinner is over, the Dean leads the party back to Wyman House for dessert and coffee.

High Table has changed dramatically even in the last fifteen years. High Table will surely change again, but its function should continue to bring faculty and graduate students together in closer community. 

This historical account of "High Table" at Princeton was penned by David N. Redman, former associate dean for academic affairs at the Graduate School.