Writes of Passage…..or Not

Writing a credible recommendation letter for a student is a time-consuming endeavor, one that can easily suck up the better part of an afternoon that could otherwise be devoted to watching videos of NCAA Division I football coaches trying not to laugh when using the words “student-athlete” in a sentence.   That’s why many professors undoubtedly reacted with a bit of wistful envy when the story broke recently that two University of Michigan faculty members had declined, for political reasons, to write recommendations for students who desired to study in Israel.  “Politics, schmolotics, those two jokers just wanted to reclaim a precious part of their workday!”

The ensuing controversy over the professors’ actions has brought to light a host of reports on strategies that instructors have employed to lighten their letter-writing burden.  Here are three of the more provocative ones:

—  Grayson Orskhp (pronounced “Orskhp”), Associate Professor of Management at the University of Arkansas, refuses to write recommendations for anyone applying to an Ivy League graduate school.  As a high school senior, Orskhp had applied to all 8 Ivy League institutions, and was turned down by every one.  (Harvard’s rejection letter began, “We’re astounded that you actually thought we might accept you.”

Orskhp now carries a grudge. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to send any of my top students there.  Those elitist snoots at ‘Ah-vahd’ and the other status pits can rot….in….hell, because that’s exactly what I’m doing here in Fayetteville.   Have you ever tried to get a decent bagel or slice of pizza in this town?  I’m not even sure they know the difference between the two.”

—  At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Critical Studies Professor Lynette Haven-Poultice will only write recommendations for direct descendants of postmodernist icon Michel Foucault.  When informed by a University Life reporter that Foucault has no direct descendants, Haven-Poultice responded, “that is not my problem.  Do not try to construct it as my problem….or as Foucault’s problem, for that matter.  It was his decision to reproduce or not, not the state’s.  You disgust me.  Why don’t you move to Fayetteville and marry your cousin?  And there is nothing wrong with doing that, by the way.  In-house intersectionality should not be suppressed.”

—  Blake Crull, a Biology professor at the University of Tulsa, will only write recommendation letters in French.  “It’s the world’s most beautiful language, is it not?  Compare the phrases “Je t’aime, mon amour” and “pigs in a blanket.”  Which one is more inspired, more transcendent?  When riding a Metro train in Paris stuffed with sweating natives at rush hour, which phrase is more likely to help your senses escape the under-deodorized, overly perfumed locked box in which you are trapped?  I rest my case.  Or should I say, ‘Je repose mon cas’?”

Oui! Un millier de fois, oui!

One Step Forward, Two Steps kcaB?

The Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Carol Folt, apologized recently for the school’s role in slavery during a speech at an event celebrating UNC’s 225th birthday.  Referring to slavery’s “profound injustices,” she reaffirmed the “university’s commitment to facing squarely and working to right the wrongs of history.”

So far, so good.

But then something happened.

From beneath her ceremonial robes the Chancellor brought forth a basketball and began bouncing it — very slowly — while continuing to talk. 


As the audience sat, slack-jawed, she proclaimed:

“And speaking of profound injustices, I want to apologize for the failure of the UNC men’s basketball team to win the NCAA championship in 2018.  We won it all in 2017, and there is no excuse — absolutely none — for not doing the same in 2018.  I understand the hurt and rage felt by everyone in Tar Heel Nation, a community that extends far beyond the boundaries of our state.  Your pain is deep, and for the older alumni who passed away in the weeks following this year’s tournament, the agony will be eternal.

“Today, I pledge to you, in the name of beloved coach Dean Smith and all that is sacred, that UNC will not be denied in 2019.  We shall return to glory and honor our school’s heritage.  Tar Heel Nation will rise again, and the North will quake in fear as we march over scorched Yankee soil toward the NCAA finals in Minneapolis in April.  So help me God.”

Dr. Folt proceeded to snatch the microphone from its stand, hold it parallel to the floor, and then drop it.  She next pulled a flute from her sleeve and began playing an unrecognizable but catchy melody as she walked off the stage and out of the building.  Entranced, a small group of pigeons and squirrels followed the Chancellor back to her office.

The next day, University officials announced that in early September Dr. Folt had started taking a powerful medication, prescribed by her doctor, for an acute sinus condition, and that the dosage level now needed to be adjusted.

On a related note, UNC men’s basketball coach Roy Williams informed  reporters yesterday that the team’s fall practices had been going “really, really well.”

Rush to Judgment

Central Michigan University scored some major-league publicity recently when a geology professor at the school determined that a 22-lb. rock serving as a doorstop on a farm in Edmore, Michigan was actually a meteorite estimated to be worth $100,000 (no joke).

Not to be outdone, Western Michigan University, a fierce rival of CMU, announced less than 48 hours later that a 71lb. meteorite had been found on its campus next to a dumpster outside of the dining hall.  Unfortunately, subsequent analysis revealed that the object in question was not a meteorite; it was Economics Professor Harold J. Clowfeffer.

The 87-year-old faculty member had apparently wandered into the cafeteria’s walk-in fruit locker, an industrial-strength dehydrator that was used to prepared dried strawberries for Buckin’ Bronco Granola, a popular breakfast treat named after the WMU mascot.  Failing to notice that Dr. Clowfeffer had entered the dehydrator, a WMU food-service employee closed the door and turned the dial to “Maximum Shrinkage.”

The next morning, the Professor was mistaken for a freeze-dried eggplant that had gone bad and was placed next to the dumpster.  Later that day, a 1st-year geology graduate student on academic probation stumbled upon Dr. Clowfeffer and excitedly made the incorrect identification. 

Once WMU’s media relations office was notified of the discovery, the University’s PR machine shifted into high gear, eager to displace the trending news story that focused on Central Michigan’s puny “pebble.” 

According to an anonymous source in the WMU Geology Department, the first clue that something was amiss came when “our research team discovered that this supposed meteorite appeared to be frowning, and was wearing eyeglasses.”

WMU President Edward Montgomery has expressed deep regret over the incident, and promised that Buckin’ Bronco Granola will no longer be served at the school.  “It’s the least we can do.”

For her part, the professor’s wife, Blanche, is just happy to know what became of her husband.  “When he didn’t come home on Thursday, I called every strip club in Kalamazoo — he was a regular — but no one had seen him.  Now I take comfort in the fact that he’s in a much better place — his beloved Japanese rock garden in our back yard.”

Battling the Odds

What do you do with a tenured faculty member who behaves badly?  That’s the question explored in a recent online Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled, “In a World of Tenure and Promotion, Demotion is a Murkier Matter.”  One can almost hear ominous organ music from Phantom of the Opera playing in the background.

And when it comes to murk, there are few challenges as daunting as dealing with professors who are just plain odd.  Consider the following:

—  Two months after suffering a concussion while playing touch football with graduate students, Bucknell University Mathematics Professor Elwood Stanchion began denying the existence of both long division and any number greater than 14.  He also claimed that the “equals” sign (=) was a Satanic symbol associated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.  Eventually, these beliefs began to interfere with his teaching.  (“He once threw a whiteboard eraser at me when I told him I was 19 years old,” says sophomore Molly Timmons.  “And I am 19, I really am!”) 

Following a semester’s worth of awkward classroom interactions, the Provost created a job for Stanchion: overseeing the library’s card-catalog operations.  Bucknell had not used the card-catalog system since 1993, and had relocated all of its cabinets — filled with hundreds of thousands of brittle, yellowed index cards — to a storage area in the library’s basement.

According to the Provost, “things have worked out a lot better than I thought they would.  Elwood fits in pretty well over there.  I think he’s happy.”

—  When his appeal of a $25 campus parking ticket at Ramapo College of New Jersey was denied in February 2018, Chemistry Professor Rufus Phlox stopped speaking.  He now stands silently at the front of the room for the full 75 minutes of every class session, holding a cardboard sign above his head that says, “Ramapo owes me $25.”  Enrolled students no longer show up for his courses, but the professor’s attendance record remains perfect.

Phlox’s attorney indicates that his client is currently negotiating with the College’s administration over the matter.  “We’ve offered to settle for $15, but Ramapo has been holding fast at $17.50 for the past three weeks.  We have another meeting scheduled for early November, when I hope further progress will be made.  Of course, I’m the one doing all the talking in there.”

—  Finally, there is Gretchen Hedley-Yoof, Professor of History at Auburn University.  Mired in a dispute with the Dean of Arts & Sciences over a classroom re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings that took place in her course, in which five undergraduates suffered severe pole-axe wounds, Hedley-Woof took provocative action last week.  She hijacked a group of high-school seniors and parents who were waiting for a student assistant to escort them on a campus tour.  She led them across the quad to the Dean’s office, where they stood outside his door while Hedley-Yoof repeatedly screamed, “this man sucks, this school sucks, and all y’all should just go to the University of Alabama, not this guano-filled hole!”

The Dean has announced that Hedley-Yoof will not receive a merit-pay increase in 2019, and her full-professor discount at the faculty dining room has been suspended. 

Sometimes, a Dean’s gotta do what a Dean’s gotta do. 

The “Final Days” Have Arrived

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that next fall the University of Pennsylvania will become the first Ivy League school to offer an online bachelor’s degree. 

Take a minute.  Let that sentence sink in. 

Ivy.  League.

Wait, there’s more.  The program will include a residency requirement that consists of a writing course “designed to be completed over a weekend” (no joke).  According to Penn officials, the compressed weekend format will necessitate that student papers be limited to one-syllable words that begin with letters in the first half of the alphabet (A through M).  Students who wish to develop multi-syllable proficiency, and become familiar with N through Z words, will be eligible to enroll in the school’s online MFA Program in Creative Writing, which will commence in Fall 2020.

The Penn bachelor’s program will provide individualized, online graduation ceremonies for all students, broadcast from an Elvis wedding chapel in Las Vegas, where an Associate Provost will be available 24 hours a day. 

Diplomas, delivered to recipients via drones, will be “Currency Green” in color, signifying the win-win nature of the program:

—  Students will save money because online course tuition is lower than on-campus tuition

—  Penn will make lots of money due to overall growth in the number of students enrolled at the University

How valuable will these online degrees actually be to those who obtain them?  “That remains to be seen,” observes a high-ranking Penn administrator who wishes to remain anonymous.  “But the intrinsic gratification one derives from having an Ivy League credential should never be underestimated, even if that pride doesn’t necessarily translate into enhanced earnings.  You just feel better about yourself.  Showing your Penn diploma to a co-worker at Jiffy Lube who dropped out of high school is certain to provide one with an opioid rush that you can’t put a price tag on.”

Step aside, Philly Cheese Steak, there’s a new taste in town.  The UPenn online bachelor’s program is in the house. 




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?