The Minnesota Way

Plagiarism continues to afflict higher education, and the stakes are getting bigger.  We need to look no further than The North Star State. 

Minnesota abolished its death penalty in 1911, but in 2017 reinstated the punishment only for the crime of plagiarism.  Following that decision, in February 2018, prison officials tied a sophomore from Carleton College to a pair of northern pike and “permanently submerged” him under the crust of Lake of the Woods, a premier ice-fishing destination at the Minnesota-Canadian border.  The young man had been convicted of presenting the work of Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz as his own in a Political Science term paper on former U.S. Department of Labor Secretary George Shultz.  “It was the Scotch tape around the edges of the drawings on pages 23 and 24 of the paper that tipped us off,” says Dwayne Gassick, Chief of Police in Northfield, Minnesota.  “We put our forensics people on the case, and they cracked it within a week.”

Widespread protests after the execution, led by the Land O’Lakes chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Northern Pike, prompted the state legislature to consult with Turnitin, a leading commercial provider of Internet-based plagiarism detection services.  The result: in 2019, Minnesota will introduce TurnYourselfIn (TYI), a collaborative venture of Turnitin and the Minnesota State Police.  The logistics are simple:

Students will submit online drafts of their work to TYI.  If plagiarism is detected, the student will have 10 business days to go to the nearest police department and plead guilty to a misdemeanor.  First offenders will be sentenced to spending all of Thanksgiving Day with their families, including Great-Aunt Berit, who is fond of smothering hugs, sloppy kisses, and deodorant that fails to compensate for her infrequent bathing.  Repeat offenders will spend Spring Break with Berit and Mr. Fritz, her gentleman friend, in their Coachmen motor home, watching their favorite assisted-living curling team, the Hibbing Hot Brooms, compete in the World Cup on ESPN.   

Plagiarists who do not turn themselves in, but are subsequently arrested for any offense, will be submerged.  As Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton asserts, “we’re giving these kids a chance to do the right thing, dontcha know!  But oh my garsh, if they’re not going to take advantage of what we’re offering, our state has enough ice holes and northern pike for every last one of ’em!”

You betcha.



“How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?”

That heartwarming lyrical question, posed in The Sound of Music, brings to mind the title of a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay by Trinity Washington University President Patricia McGuire: “How Colleges Should Deal With Their Kellyannes.”  President McGuire observes that “famous graduates can pose real dilemmas for colleges when fame becomes notoriety.” (White House counselor Kellyanne Conway graduated from Trinity Washington.)

Wayward alumni and alumnae are no strangers to higher education.  Take Genghis Khan (1162-1227), founder of the Mongol Empire and legendary Bad Boy who led military campaigns that slaughtered countless civilian populations.  He was an acute embarrassment to his alma mater, Karakorum Community College, where he obtained an Associate’s Degree in Public Administration.  Upon Khan’s death, the college spiked his head on top of a spear at the entrance to the campus, and attached a small plaque that read, “He Disappointed Us.”

Such an approach would not work in the current era, at least not in most regions of the United States.  At University Life we were curious to see how schools handle the “Kellyanne Problem,” so we started with Harvard University, where Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former Chief Strategist and all-around wingnut, obtained his MBA degree.  Here’s the transcript of our phone conversation with a representative of their business school:

University Life:  “Does Harvard feel that it should distance itself from some of the more outrageous statements uttered by Mr. Bannon?”

Harvard:  “I’m sorry, to whom are you referring?”

UL:  “Stephen K. Bannon, one of your graduates.”

Harvard:  “Dannon?  Yes, we serve their yogurt in our cafeteria.  There’s never been a problem, as far as I know.  You might want to check with the folks over at Food Services.  They could tell you more than I can.”

UL:  “Not Dannon.  Bannon.  He worked for the White House for a number of months early in the Trump administration.”

Harvard:  “Oh, him.  He didn’t go here.”

UL:  “Actually, he did.  MBA, Class of 1985.”

Harvard:  “You must have him confused with Steve Cannon, who also graduated in 1985.  Great guy.  Started an orphanage in Bangladesh that provides tech support for Starbucks and Boeing.  He’s one of our best.”

UL:  “There’s no confusion.  We’re talking about Steve Bannon.  I’m looking at his Harvard graduation photo right now.”

Harvard:  “Sorry, Mr. Bannon is not one of ours.  Are you sure he didn’t go to The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania?  I think that is where he met Trump.”

UL:  “Why are you lying to me?  We have DNA samples from a desk at your business school that are a perfect match for Bannon.”

Harvard:  “No, you don’t.”

UL:  “Yes, we do.”

Harvard:  “Oh, no you don’t.”

UL:  “Really, we do.”

Harvard:  “Listen, pal, did you ever see Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum?  We know where your family vacations every summer.  Keep in mind who you’re dealing with here.  This is Harvard, not UMass-Boston.  Things can happen.  Bad things.  Just let it go.”

To Our Readers:  Looks like we made a mistake.  Will get back to you after we check with Wharton.  Sorry.



Pick Your Poison

Everyday life can be hazardous at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.  According to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “in at least three buildings, faculty members have for years complained about mold, water damage, humidity, climate control, asbestos, and radon.”

Annoying as these problems may be, one must look elsewhere for examples of truly harrowing environmental anguish in higher education.  Consider the following:

Room 232, Hillerman Hall, University of Arizona.  A 30-seat classroom used primarily for English courses, it is popularly known as The Scorpion Den.  Hundreds of these predatory arachnids scurry across the floor of 232 throughout the day and evening, stinging students’ exposed feet, ankles, and lower legs with abandon. 

According  to University Facilities Director Terrance “Tex” Turnbull, “we’ve been trying to get rid of the dang things for the past 17 years.  We’ve sprayed ’em with pesticides, smashed ’em with hammers,  and looped tiny lassos around their necks — nothing has worked.  We tell the students taking a class in that room to wear thick socks, hiking boots, and long pants, but do these kids listen?  Hell, no.  Most of them still show up in flip-flops and shorts.

“You know what’s interesting, though?  Last semester an evening course called ‘Post-Modernist Discourse’ was offered in that room, and the morning after the first class session, the room was filled with dead scorpions.  Some of them left suicide notes.  It’s the damnedest thing.  We’re looking into it.”

Wizmer Dining Hall, Middlebury College (Vermont).  On the third Wednesday of every month, the dinner menu features Poison Ivy Salad.  “It’s a school tradition,” says head chef Jacques Sternaux.  “There is no such thing as a toxic plant, only toxic attitudes toward stigmatized  plants.  Our organic, free-range poison ivy has more Vitamin A and K than raw spinach.”

Poison Ivy Salad is served with a fork and an EpiPen, the latter being useful for reducing the itching and potentially fatal swelling of the throat that can accompany anaphylactic shock.  The college’s health center reports that most freshmen who survive their first year at Middlebury develop an immunity not only to poison ivy, but also to rattlesnake venom and poison dart frogs.

Satan’s Chapel, University of Notre Dame (South Bend, Indiana).  This small chapel on the southwest edge of campus has been taken over by Lucifer, according to the University’s Chaplain, Reverend Hansen O’Feeney.  “Students and faculty who worship there become infected by the spirit of the Evil One and are sucked into the Underworld.  Weeks later they emerge from the toilets of the Business School as hedge fund managers.  We closed the chapel in 2014, but re-opened it in 2017 due to popular demand.  At this point we’re at a loss regarding how to proceed.  Over 35% of our alumni donations last year were specifically earmarked for the chapel.”

Kutztown, count your blessings. 

Nobody Said It Would Be Easy

Exactly how tough are the academic requirements at Harvey Mudd College, an elite California school that focuses on engineering, the sciences, and mathematics?  A recent headline in The Chronicle of Higher Education indicates that the institution “is rethinking its ‘soul crushing’ core curriculum.”  Indeed, an external review team concluded that “there is general agreement that the core [at Harvey Mudd] is an exhausting and dispiriting slog for too many students.”

To investigate this claim, University Life sent a team of student reporters to the Harvey Mudd campus to sample the school’s core courses.  Here is what they found:

Toby:  “I took a course called Rising Tides Calculus.  It’s held in a large grain silo on the edge of campus that has been converted into a water-storage tank.  At the beginning of every class session the tank is empty and you’re just sitting at your desk.  The instructor comes in and gives you a complex problem set that must be completed in 50 minutes.  Then the water starts flooding into the tank through a bunch of side panels, forcing you to work on the problems while you’re also trying to stay afloat.  Unfortunately, the desks are metal and bolted to the floor, so they’re no help.  As the water level gets higher and approaches the dome of the silo, the whole scene becomes an absolute sh*t-show: panic, screaming, and a lot of flailing about. 

“I’d never enroll in a course like this again….ever!  I got a B+, but it wasn’t worth it.  It’s way too cruel, even if you’re a good swimmer.”

Marlene:  “I thought it would be nice to take an Art History course, so I signed up for Post-Impressionism with Professor Spencer.  A nightmare!  At the beginning of the final exam you stare for 15 minutes at Seurat’s classic pointillist work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte [see above].  Next, you close your eyes and estimate the total number of dots in the painting, and how many dots of each color there are.  If any of your estimates are off by more than 10, you receive an electric shock to the back of your neck and repeat the test with another pointillist painting.

“During this exam I developed the most horrible headache of my life!  A guy next to me, his head actually exploded!  What a freakin’ mess!  Does this course really teach you anything about art?”

Graham:  “I made the mistake of taking the English course, Team-building and the Construction of Literature.  It’s a one-week residential ‘lived experience’ offered during Spring Break in a cabin on Timber Mountain in the San Gabriel range.  On the first day, your group of 10 is given a huge sack of tiny refrigerator magnets, with each magnet containing a single word.  It turns out that they’re the words for the complete text of Middlemarch by George Eliot.  By the end of the week you‘re supposed to recreate the entire novel on the floor of the cabin, chapter by chapter, by placing the magnets in the proper sequence.  What makes it worse is that we didn’t even have a copy of the book to guide us.  How insane is that?  Middlemarch is over 900 pages!

“I have no idea how this circus turned out.  I just left and hiked back to campus.”

There you have it.  Are these courses too intense?  Excessively demanding?  Fundamentally unfair? 

Or are today’s kids just whiners and snowflakes?

It’s your call.


Searching for What Works

A recent study by researchers from the U.S. and Iceland indicates that stimulants such as Adderall are unlikely to elevate the academic performance of non-ADHD college students, even though many such students take the drugs for this purpose (no joke). 

Now what?  Have researchers “hit a wall” with respect to identifying strategies that will enhance the achievement levels of students here and abroad?  As Texas A&M Psychology Professor Fritz Mandible observes, “we could ask students in our courses to complete the assigned reading, attend class, and study, but can we do that with a straight face?  We know they’re not going to do any of those things, so we’re pretty much screwed.  Drugs were our last hope.”

Maybe not.  A team of researchers at Georgetown University is investigating the potential of prayer for boosting performance.  In a randomized study of three sections of a Calculus I course at the Jesuit school, one section of students will pray to St. Ignatius of Loyola, Patron Saint of Higher Order Functions, for good grades.  Students in a second section will be prayed for by a group of retired Catholic nuns in Bowie, Maryland, with half of the nuns focusing on in-class exams, and the other half on term papers.  Finally, a third section of the course will serve as a control, with students participating in the course as they normally would — drunk and/or asleep, with no prayers.  According to the study’s principal investigator, Professor Ezeriah “Izzy” Claiborne, “we’re curious to see if God is willing to step up to the plate in the name of education.”

Amen to that.  Are you there, Big Guy?


The “P” Word

It’s been a tough few months for Papa John’s founder John Schnatter, who was caught using the N-word during a conference call in May.  A number of schools have severed ties with him and/or his company.  A prominent example is the University of Utah, which proclaimed that the racial slur was in “direct opposition to our values.”

Not so fast there, Utes.

The full story, at least at Utah, seems to be a bit more complicated. University Life has obtained an audio transcript of the June 15th meeting of the school’s Board of Trustees.  Here’s the relevant excerpt:

Trustee A:  “Our campus food court has a Papa John’s.  What should we do?”

Trustee B:  “Close it.  Holy crap, have you ever eaten one of their pizzas?  Tastes like cardboard that’s been left out in the rain and then dipped in store-brand tomato soup that’s two years beyond its expiration date.  And don’t get me started on the cheese!  Imagine a block of Velveeta having sex with a slab of kimchi-flavored Play-Doh.  Unbelievably vile.”

Trustee C:  “I was in the food court with my two grandchildren last year and ordered them a mushroom-and-onion pie.  Turns out that the place was using Destroying Angels mushrooms and didn’t even know it.  We ended up spending all night in the emergency room getting the kids’ stomachs pumped.  I actually think Tiffany may have suffered some brain damage, but it’s hard to tell because she’s always been a little dim.”

Trustee D:  “Why didn’t we end our contract with this outfit a long time ago?”

Trustee A:  “Our lawyers said we could get sued if we did anything that implied their pizzas sucked.”

Trustee D:  “That’s simply not true!  I told you we should stop hiring graduates of our own law school!”

Trustee A:  “Whatever.  Let’s just thank God for racial slurs!”

Trustee B:  “Shall we vote?”

The site formerly occupied by Papa John’s at the University of Utah food court is now Tiffany’s Kinder-Gym, a play space for children of the school’s faculty and staff.

FINAL NOTE:  One school that has not abandoned Mr. Schnatter is his alma mater, Ball State University (no joke).  According to BSU President Geoffrey Mearns, “here in Indiana, we love our pizza soupy and fermented.  It’s the Hoosier way!”


Five Lives, Forever Changed

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay critiquing the “Productivity Syndrome” in academia, Mitchell Aboulafia suggested that professors concerned about this problem should “stop publishing scholarship for an extended period of time.  Announce this decision to colleagues.  Be willing to say that this is for your good and for the good of your field.” 

Three days ago, at Duke University, Assistant Professor of English Elston Brillo stood up at a lunchtime department meeting and proclaimed that he was going to follow Dr. Aboulafia’s advice.  He encouraged his colleagues to join him in “stepping to the sidelines of this soul-killing publication rat race.”

The conference room’s audio-equipped surveillance camera, now in the possession of Durham, North Carolina police, recorded what happened next:

Professor Harold Frazley-Quint, age 72, screamed “Are you insane?”, grabbed his chest, and had a heart attack.  Eyes and mouth wide open, he died on the spot. 

Assistant Professor Penelope Kelso, seven months pregnant, gasped and immediately went into labor.  Thirty-five minutes later she delivered Gherkin, her first-born, in the hallway.  Gherkin is now in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Duke University Hospital, while Penelope resides in the psychiatric ward.  The only words she has spoken since the incident are “Where are the page proofs for Chapter 4?  I need to return them to the publisher by Monday!  Get that baby away from me!

Associate Professor Kevin Gumrap began choking on his ham sandwich.  Professor Brillo applied the Heimlich maneuver to Gumrap in time to save his life, but not quickly enough to prevent the significant brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation.  As a result, Gumrap, a Melville scholar, will be teaching four online sections of E112 (Introduction to Verbs) in Fall 2018. 

Gretchen Stent, Assistant Professor, fainted and suffered a severe gash when her forehead struck the edge of the conference table.  Extensive plastic surgery will be required, and her upcoming TED talk on “Adjectival Patriarchy: Why ‘Many’ and not ‘Womany’?” has been cancelled due to photogenic impairment.  She is suing Brillo for $3.6 million.

Associate Professor Clive Taylor-Riesling lept across the conference table and grabbed Brillo by the throat while the latter was Heimliching Gumrap, yelling “What the _____ are you talkin’ about, you pissant?  I’m in the middle of researching volume 4 of my 12-volume authorized biography of Tupac Shakur!  Are you tellin’ me that I just spent the last 5 months of my life transcribing his dental records for nuthin’?”

Life Lesson: Announce whatever you wish to your colleagues, but anticipate their reactions.

On a Scale of…….

RateMyProfessors, the infamous student-evaluation-of-faculty website whose relationship to verifiable fact is indeed Trumpian, recently dropped its chili-pepper ratings of instructors’ “hotness” in response to charges of sexism (no joke). 

A noble gesture, to be sure, but let’s be clear: RMP has ushered in a Golden Age of student-initiated faculty-review websites.  Here are a few of the specialized sites that have gained significant traction in the past several months:

Nate, My Professor:  Only provides ratings of professors named “Nate.”

Ate My Professor:  The brainchild of Hannibal Lecter’s grandson, Winston “Cheeseboy” Lecter, who is serving three consecutive life terms at San Quentin.  This is more of a Zagat-style dining guide than a site for finding evaluations of teaching quality.  Humanities professors get very high ratings (“overall, very tender”), while Management profs receive relatively low ones (“too much gristle”). 

Date My Professor:  Published by the anarchist student group LUAD (Leave Us Alone, Dammit!), it takes the position that there should be no restrictions on students dating their professors.  WARNING: Ratings are very explicit with extensive narratives, and often include photos, drawings, and/or claymation exhibits.

Mutate My Professor:  Faculty are described in terms of the animals their teaching styles most closely resemble.  (“Professor Willis prowls the classroom like a cheetah stalking its prey on the Serengeti Plain.  Has been known to claw the shirt off a student’s back with her fingernails.”  “A sloth in appearance and behavior, Professor Tyler frequently falls asleep curled up on his desk during exams, surrounding himself with leaves, twigs, and branches.”)

Bait My Professor:  A politically conservative site where students taunt their instructors, tempting them to respond in an ill-considered fashion (“Bite me!”) that will get them fired by nervous administrators.

Inflate My Professor:  A site for sucking up to faculty in order to obtain good grades (“Professor Graven taught me to love photosynthesis in a way I thought would never be possible!”).  All reviews are signed and forwarded to the relevant faculty member.

Sedate My Professor:  Ratings of hyperactive, over-enthusiastic teachers.  Offers a variety of coping strategies (e.g., “Don’t go to class”; “Arrive late”; “Leave early”).

Nitrate My Professor:  Terrorist website maintained by Al-Qaeda followers who are hostile to higher education.  Do not click on the emoji that has a fuse sticking out of a bowling ball!

Coming soon…..a site that features nothing but chili peppers.


“The World Needs More Mormons”

“Well, slap my chaps and twirl my spurs!”  The University of Wyoming has stirred up a bit of a ruckus with its new promotional slogan, “The World Needs More Cowboys,” which is prominently displayed on its website (no joke).  Among other things, the slogan might be criticized as sexist and/or human-centric.  Unfortunately, neither the gender-neutral version (“The World Needs More Cowpersons”) nor the bovine-friendly one (“The World Needs More Cows”) was popular with focus groups, so the school opted for cowboys.

As the controversy continues to churn on the Wyoming campus, it’s clear that other institutions are taking note and, in some cases, emulating the Laramie school.  For example, in September 2018 Brigham Young University will unveil its new tag line: “The World Needs More Mormons.”  

According to BYU President Kevin Worthen, “well over 90% of our students are Mormon.  We want to significantly increase the number of non-Mormon applicants, and then baptize them once they get here.  We have a lot to offer these folks: testosterone-driven young men will surely appreciate our tradition of polygamy [‘Hook-ups You Can Be Proud Of’, claims the BYU website], while young women will experience the profound sense of sisterhood that is generated when multiple females focus their attention on one shared man [‘He’s Mine, He’s Yours, He’s OURS’]It’s true that polygamy is currently illegal in the U.S., but at BYU we take a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ approach, and it’s worked well for us.”

Coming in January 2020: “The World Needs More White People” campaign, launched by Bob Jones University — just in time for the Presidential primaries.  Stay tuned.


I’m Just Sayin’……

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “sometimes when Chronicle reporters….call sources for a story, experts who are women will say they can’t provide comments because the subject is a bit outside their expertise.  The same isn’t always true of male experts.”

Hmm…. Could there be some unwarranted male-bashing going on here?  Well, University Life decided to investigate the Chronicle’s claim.  We picked three topics, and for each one we solicited the opinions of a female professor and a male professor.  The results:

TOPIC #1:  The Controversy over Current U. S. Immigration Policy

Valerie Plurtz-Wizzen, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Princeton University.  Author of U. S. Immigration Policy since 1900: Causes and Consequences (Harvard University Press, 2017). 

Response:  “I’d love to comment, but there’s a Mexican family of four that crossed the Nogales border into Arizona last week that I haven’t interviewed, and I wouldn’t want my remarks to be based on incomplete data.  I’ll have to decline.  I’m so sorry.”

Clarence Kusker, Professor of Civil Engineering, Drexel University.

Response: “Sure, I’d be happy to answer your questions.  Fire away!”

TOPIC #2:  Transgender Identity and Sexual Politics

Gretchen Stilton-Brie, Professor of Endocrinology, Developmental Psychology, and Sociology, UCLA Medical Center.  Editor of The Transgender Handbook (Oxford University Press, 2018).  Recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.

Response:  “Thanks so much for the invitation, but my expertise does not extend to transgender dynamics in the protozoan community.  I realize that you are not asking me to comment on transgender dynamics in the protozoan community, but you never know how single-celled eukaryotes might turn out to be relevant to this discussion.  I’d prefer to hold off saying anything until we know more.”

Dalton Wrendl, Professor of Finance, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

Response:  “Sure, I’d be happy to answer your questions.  Fire away.”

TOPIC #3:  The Future of Artificial Intelligence in the Workplace

Samantha Quintepino, Professor of Cognitive Science and Director of the UC-Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research Lab.  Developed the first computer program to translate post-modernist English prose into English (2008).

Response:  “Oh my gosh, AI is evolving in so many different directions these days!  It would really be premature, and irresponsible, for me to speculate right now.”

Dalton Wrendl, Jr., Assistant Professor of Lacrosse, Duke University.

Response:  “Robots are going to absolutely RULE the workplace, dude!  You can quote me on that!”

Okay, maybe the Chronicle is on to something.