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Pranksters abound in U. history

Brown’s campus has been a playground for pranks initiated by undergrads and professors alike

Barrett Hazeltine, professor emeritus of engineering, was completely taken aback when he arrived at his ENGN 0900: “Managerial Decision Making” class in spring 1977 to find every student wearing a t-shirt with his face on it, he said. The class gave him a standing ovation lasting more than two minutes, and Hazeltine could not stop smiling for the rest of class, the Providence Journal reported at the time.

This incident is just one of many mischievous endeavors littering Brown’s history of both well intentioned and more malicious pranks.


An unexpected puzzle 

In 2000, members of Technology House realized that the Sciences Library was the perfect shape for a unique game of Tetris, said Don Engel ’00 MS ’01, a former member of Tech House. Assembled using Christmas tree lights and run by student-written computer code, the giant game took up the entire facade of the SciLi. The installation received national attention and was featured in the New York Times.

After two years of planning and working long nights to create the massive display, students installed the game over spring break, said Soren Spies ’00, another member of the Tetris team.

Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple and a Tetris enthusiast, encouraged the prank when he visited campus earlier that year for a speaking engagement, Spies said. Spies recalled that Wozniak told Tech House, “If you do that, I will fly back here and play it with you.” This provided an “uber nerd sign off,” Spies said, inspiring the house to complete the project.

Throughout the process, the Brown community remained unaware of the prank — the administration only knew there would be some kind of art installation, he added.

Though some prank perpetrators choose to remain anonymous, Spies said that in his experience, covert prank culture was unnecessary — students could execute pranks with complete University support.

When the game went live, students sat outside MacMillan Hall and played Tetris on makeshift wireless controllers, which Spies noted were a novel invention at the time. The Brown Klezmer band accompanied the game with music increasing in tempo as players came close to losing, Engel said. Wozniak kept his promise and flew from California that spring to play the game.


Brotherly mischief 

Fraternities have also engaged in an array of pranks over the years. One fraternity staged the kidnapping of one of its brothers while he was giving a tour of Brown. Members of the fraternity, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, snuck up behind their brother while his back was turned to Thayer Street. The pranksters, dressed as “menacingly and criminal as possible,” grabbed the tour guide and wrestled him into a car, an alum of the fraternity wrote to The Herald in a Facebook message. A ‘replacement’ tour guide from the fraternity emerged from the car to continue the tour, pretending nothing had happened. “The worst, or best, part is that the replacement had never given a tour before and stumbled through the rest of the experience,” the alum wrote.

Tracey ’83, who ask to be identified only by her first name for fear of tarnishing her professional reputation, also recalled pranks that fraternities played on each other when she was a student. Two women once crawled through the tunnels beneath Wriston and snuck into the athletic fraternity’s bar, she said. On behalf of one of the nerdy fraternities on campus, the pair released bags of grasshoppers in the bar right before the fraternity had a large, open-bar party. The brothers were left befuddled, she said, unsure of how grasshoppers had infested their event. Tracey described these types of pranks as a “thrill” and “highly thought of” on campus.


Posting bail for a cure 

Margaret Watson ’11 leveraged Brown’s legacy of horseplay when pranking for a good cause — fundraising for Brown’s annual Relay for Life charity event in spring 2009, she said.

Watson and her team of organizers arranged for Department of Public Safety officers to “arrest” students for the crime of not donating to Relay for Life, she said. Students could donate money to have their friends publicly escorted by DPS to “jail” in Wilson Hall. Those arrested were not allowed to leave jail until someone posted “bail” on their behalf by donating to Relay for Life.

Watson said she was surprised to see how enthusiastic students were to arrest their peers.

“It’s a really easy way to get five dollars out of someone,” she said.


Professorial pranksters 

Students are not the only pranksters on campus. In 2008, Rich Schwartz, chancellor’s professor of mathematics and director of undergraduate studies, decided to prank his fellow faculty members for April Fools Day. Schwartz emailed the math department as a member of Brown’s Admissions Advisory Committee about a change in the University’s admissions policy. The email stated that after an “extensive latitudinal study … it seems that the applications are so carefully padded and polished that we can’t tell the good from the bad,” and therefore the first 300 applicants would be admitted by random lottery. Schwartz included a link for further information that led to a website reading “April Fools.” Clearly not many people read the link, he said, because he immediately received many angry and passionate replies. Nevertheless, Schwartz said, he enjoyed playing the prank and regretted not sending the email to the entire campus.

“I shot myself in the foot,” he said. “Not enough time has passed, and you really can’t do more than one of those jokes in a decade.”


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