Campus Pranks

“There is something glorious about a college prank. A really good prank brings not just laughter, but a visceral satisfaction and a kind of awe that does not fade with time nor diminish with retelling.”

— Neil Steinberg

Campus pranks have a special place in modern lore, and students — flush with youth, intellectually understimulated and face-to-face with inflexible and inane authority — are frequently fertile fields of foolishness.

Not all of the stories you hear of campus hijinks are more than legends, but enough of the creative and wittier ones can be verified that a bit of sports-like rivalry pops up (say, between CalTech and MIT) over the extent and cleverness of their hacks.

In one legendary hack, a number of students from CalTech hacked the instruction cards for Washington State’s half-time flip-card display at the 1961 Rose Bowl. On national television, on the most-watched college football game of the year, the stands suddenly filled with the name of a college that was playing an entirely different game.

In 2004, pranksters from Yale revisited that prank on the fans of the Harvard-Yale game:

On November 20, 2004 at the 121st Yale-Harvard game, 20 Elis donned custom made “Harvard Pep Squad” t-shirts, applied enemy-red war paint on their faces, and set out to pull a prank on 1800 Harvard alumni. Like clockwork, these brave Elis proceeded to exude more Harvard spirit than any Cantab ever… tossing t-shirts to the lucky and unsuspecting few, and passing out 1800 sheets of red & white construction paper in perfect order to the cheering Harvard crowd. With 4:47 minutes left in the second quarter of the game, each member of the crowd raised their sheet of paper expecting to spell out “Go Harvard” as they were told by the cheering “Harvard Pep Squad.” Instead, the truth was revealed to a laughing crowd of Yale alumni and students who saw the Harvard crowd spell out in clear red letters “WE SUCK.”

Neil Steinberg, whose book If At All Possible, Involve a Cow is a prime source for historical and cross-campus information on American college pranks, writes:

There is something glorious about a college prank. A really good prank brings not just laughter, but a visceral satisfaction and a kind of awe that does not fade with time nor diminish with retelling. In the narrow world of university life, so routine, so programmed and often — like life in the real world — too dull to tolerate, a prank shakes things up, breaks the tedium, and gives hope for a life filled with hidden, delightful possibility.

The Pail & Shovel Party of Madison University, Wisconsin took over the otherwise irrelevant student government in the 1970s and fulfilled their absurdist campaign promises to bring the Statue of Liberty to Madison.

The P&S are gone, alas, but Ten-Fat-Tigers remain.

A bus driver took two hours to complete a 10-minute journey to school after asking the children for directions.

A student at Springbank High School in Calgary, Alberta, slid some hardcore porn into the middle of a video that accompanies the mandatory morning replay of Canada’s national anthem.

The Yippies played an interesting prank on a meeting of college newspaper editors. At one point during a deadlocked discussion of whether the editors should come out against the United States government policy in Vietnam, according to Yippie Jerry Rubin:

Suddenly the lights went out and across the wall flashed scenes of World War II fighting, burning Vietnamese villages, crying Vietnamese women and napalmed children, image after image. The room echoed with hysterical screams, “Stop it! Stop it!” A voice boomed over a bullhorn: “Attention. This is Sergeant Haggerty of the Washington Police. These films were smuggled illegally into the country from North Vietnam. We have confiscated them and arrested the people who are responsible. Now clear this room!…” The editors fell over themselves rushing for the door.

Check out our Hugh Troy page to learn about a number of pranks perpetrated by that king of campus practical jokers.

Hackers at Louisiana Tech University programmed the campus clock tower to play “Dueling Banjos” on the hour.

A reader writes in: “The Battle Axe who worked in the Registrars office at my former University almost went out of her way to not help students in need of guidance. She always acted too busy to help in any way. She soon found out the true meaning of ‘swamped’” The reader and some of his fellow-students made hundreds of official-looking notices and posted them throughout campus. The notices read:

Your Academic Points Booklets (A.P.B.’s)
MUST be filled out IN FULL by June 15, 1995
Failure to do so WILL result in loss of all Spring Quarter credits!

The notice directed students to the Registrar’s Office, which was soon swamped with students demanding an “A.P.B.” The booklets, of course, never existed.

The class of ’96 at Christian Fellowship School in Lakewood, Colorado, went the extra mile both in perpetrating their senior prank, and in documenting it on the Web.

Remember when all the spoons vanished from the dining hall at Johns Hopkins University?

When I was in college, I was annoyed enough by the pompous and worthless declarations of university regulations that could be found on every other vertical surface that I decided to get in on the act. I put up a notice in the computer lab that read:


The sign stayed put. It may still be there today.

Someone from Boiling Springs High School took some official school district letterhead and composed a note for parents saying that the district would be providing hotel rooms and condoms for the safety of students on prom night. Nice one.

Students at the University of Waterloo altered a water tower in amusing fashion back in 1958 and they’re still talking about it today.

Nonexistent people are sometimes enrolled in class for the amusement of those in the know. Joseph David Oznot, Adelbert l’Homme-dieu X. “Bert” Hormone, Joe Gish, Ephriam di Kahble, Cuthbert Gleep, Warren G. Wonka, Helmar Sciete and Cyndi LePage are among the non-students who have attended.

Which reminds me of Hugo N. Frye, the founder of the New York state Republican Party. Or not.

The 60s and 70s are thought of as the heyday of creative campus protest, but when you remember that in the 1930s students at Princeton U. brought us the biting and very successful parody-organization Veterans of Future Wars, you see that this sort of tomfoolery has been around for a while…

Legendary newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, as a student at Harvard University, sent as gifts to every member of the Harvard faculty a chamberpot with the recipient’s picture affixed inside.

Public school classrooms are anæsthetizing holding cells that can only improve by being disrupted. Students short on ideas of their own might consider the ones in the School Stopper’s Textbook - available on-line here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

A correspondent writes: “At my old high school we managed to get a 20 foot for-sale sign and drape it over the front, we got newspaper coverage in the classifieds: ‘large house for sale, 103 bedrooms, lake front access, 10 bathrooms and a full sized gym’ (or something like that). Fun prank, no damage (except for the sign we had to steal), we had the sign up on Saturday night, was there all day Sunday and Monday, the students loved it.”

Students at Norton High School in California, upset at mandatory urine tests the school had insisted on as their part in the drug war hysteria, held a bake sale every day to raise funds for their protest — selling poppy-seed-infested desserts which happened to have the property of inducing false-positives in the drug tests of those who ate them. Soon, half the school was testing positive for opiates and the urine tests were worthless.

Michael Cameron at Coke Day
Michael Cameron at Coke Day

Jim Mallon of the Pail & Shovel Party
Jim Mallon of the Pail & Shovel Party

They brought the Statue of Liberty to Madison
They brought the Statue of Liberty to Madison

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On This Day in SniggleryJuly 13, 2001: John Hargrave gets an answer from Kellogg’s: “…we can tell you that we put raisins in our packages and not “pregnant ticks” as you have been told.” (Sounds like Commerce Jamming to me)