Today being April Fool’s Day, perhaps it is fitting to recall some of the more ingenious contributions to the distinguished tradition of campus pranks.
On the last day of classes in 1994, students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology woke up to an amazing sight: a campus police car resting at the top of the 150-foot Great Dome in the center of the campus, with its flashing lights slowly rotating. By early morning, media helicopters were circling overhead, and word of the prank was spreading around the world.
The Lifetime Achievement Award for college pranks undoubtedly goes to generations of students at MIT for both their imagination and their engineering prowess. They pulled off the police car stunt by using a series of wooden rollers to hoist pieces of a car frame up the side of the Dome and then reassembled them to look like a complete car from the ground. As finishing touches, they placed a parking ticket on the windshield, installed a dummy dressed as a campus police officer in the driver’s seat, and placed a box of doughnuts at his side. The Great Dome has also been the recipient of other objects, including a fire truck, a piano, a facsimile of R2-D2, and a beanie with an aluminum propeller.
The police car “hack”—as such projects are known at MIT—is generally regarded as the gold standard for a tradition of campus pranks that goes back at least as far as the 1890s. That was when students at Auburn University began greasing the local railroad tracks every time the Georgia Tech football team came to town. Year after year, the trains slid past the station, forcing the visiting players to trek several miles back to the station, until school administrators were forced to intervene.
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In the early 1980s, brothers of the DKE fraternity at MIT snuck into Harvard Stadium before the Harvard-Yale football game and ran an electrical grid under the field that connected to a latex balloon buried at the 46-yard line. During the game the balloon suddenly inflated, revealing the letters MIT, and then exploded.
Students at top engineering schools seem to have an edge when it comes to sophisticated pranks. Undergraduates at Cal Tech once hacked into the scoreboard at the Rose Bowl and made it flash “Cal Tech 38, MIT 9.” On another occasion they duped a University of Washington cheerleader into giving them access to the Huskies’ flip cards that were used during a halftime show. The techies altered 2,232 instruction sheets, and a national TV audience was treated to the sight of the University of Washington cheering section spelling out “CALTECH.”
Institutional rivalries make for creative pranks. Students at Duke once stole Michael Jordan’s jersey from the rafters of the Dean Dome at UNC–Chapel Hill and hung it up at their own Cameron Indoor Stadium. UNC students have responded in kind by stealing the head of the costume worn by the Duke Blue Devil. Cadets at the military academies routinely kidnap their respective mascots—the Army mule and the Navy goat.
Sometimes these rivalry-inspired pranks do not always work out as planned. The Tommy Trojan statue at the University of Southern California has been a frequent target of UCLA students, who have painted him blue and gold and removed his sword so many times that USC has resorted to organizing students guards and 24-hour camera surveillance in the days before the two schools face off on the football field.
To outwit these defenses one year, UCLA students rented a helicopter and loaded it with several hundred pounds of manure, which they planned to drop on the statue. Unfortunately for the pranksters, the swirling helicopter blades sucked the manure back into the helicopter and into their faces.
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