No laughing matter: The revival of Harvey Mudd’s prank scene

Taylor Swift stands on stage, holding a red guitar and singing.
Taylor Swift performed at Bridges Auditorium on Oct. 15, 2012. The concert was won by Harvey Mudd students through a contest. (Courtesy of Frank Micelotta for VH1 Storytellers)

In September 1957, two weeks into the fall semester, the very first Harvey Mudd College graduating class erected a wall, sans mortar, across both lanes of 12th Street with leftover building blocks.

However, trouble fell upon the pranksters when “a young man from a sister college, speeding back in his open sports car” found himself being chased by police, according to a book that detailed the event. The student raced onto Mills Avenue and onto 12th Street, where, unable to change course, he found out about the prank wall — the hard way. The student walked away from the collision unharmed, and the cost of car repairs were divided among the pranksters.

This inaugural prank was chronicled in HMC founding president Joseph B. Platt’s book “Harvey Mudd College: The First Twenty Years,” and created a lasting standard of pranking at the school.

“This learning experience (for all of us) began another tradition: Pranks are tolerated, but no one should be hurt, and it should be possible for the perpetrator(s) to restore the status quo ante,” Platt wrote.

Mudd’s pranking from then on — notable schemes include soap impressions of campus keys, removing toilets and the famed cannon heist of ’86 — has played an integral role in campus culture and history.

In more recent years, Mudd appeared at the top of the leaderboard for the Victoria’s Secret 2009 “Pink Collegiate Collection” contest, aiming to have Mudd’s name on Victoria’s Secret brand underwear and outfits, according to emails sent to HMC students at the time.

The winner of the contest was based on which school earned the most votes over a set period of time. Individuals were allowed to vote once per day, according to The College Hill Independent, a student newspaper for Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

The voting site was described as containing a simple cookie and a CAPTCHA, a security measure ensuring that users are human and not a machine, The College Hill Independent reported.

Recognizing the weak security of the site, Mudders effectively circumvented the one vote per user per day policy of the contest by creating a program that bypassed the CAPTCHAs and sent in votes automatically, according to The College Hill Independent. Students solicited students of Sontag dorm to vote at a speed of 1,400 votes per minute, as verified in a 2009 email that was forwarded to TSL. 

However, it wasn’t enough for the instigators of the prank to just put Mudd at the top of the leaderboard — they also used the same vote-hacking algorithm to rearrange the order of the colleges below them so that the first letter of each school spelled out an acronym of their choice.

Christopher Sundberg, Mudd’s associate dean of campus life, recalled students’ exuberance when they realized they could take the prank one step further.

“I remember talking to students [involved in the prank and them saying], ‘This would be easy to manipulate … We could totally have this spell something out.’”

Mudders eventually settled on “WIBSTR,” recognized by any culturally literate Mudder as “West is Best, Screw the Rest,” the cultish cry of Harvey Mudd’s West dorm.

To evade detection of vote tampering, Mudders were meticulous in their voting behavior, manipulating other schools’ votes to match their own faux vote acceleration, according to the CMC Forum. When the trick was discovered, HMC was disqualified from the competition, The College Hill Independent also reported.

Still, Mudders had cemented their status as bonafide pranksters. In 2010, the Society of Women Engineers at Mudd printed and sold their own pairs of Victoria’s Secret underwear to pay homage to the iconic scheme, according to an email from Mudd’s Students-L email list.

The pranks continued in August 2012, when Mudd students entered the college into an online voting competition promising to bring a Taylor Swift concert and a $10,000 music program grant to the winning school, TSL previously reported.

The votes were measured in proportion to the size of participating schools’ student bodies, so Mudders made use of their small population and enlisted the larger 5C community via a Facebook event post to help garner a disproportionately high number of votes and take advantage of the contest’s scoring techniques.

According to the CMC Forum, former ASHMC president Josiah Gaskin HM ’13 said there was “no illegitimate activity (such as using computer bots to vote) was used in this contest by Mudd.” 

After effectively exploiting the contest’s system while following the guidelines, Swift came to Claremont in October 2012 and performed in Pomona College’s Big Bridges Auditorium.

First-years at Mudd have the ability to opt in or out of pranks, through the well-known “no-prank list.” Students must check the status of their peers on the list prior to pranking them. In the spirit of Platt, the policy that all pranks are reversible within 24 hours and that students should leave their names and phone numbers at the site of the prank still stands, according to Mudd’s site.

Despite Mudd policies remaining the same, prank culture has “decreased,” according to Sundberg. He attributed the decline to a “change in society” and security.

“A scheme akin to the 2009 Victoria Secret prank would be difficult to pull off now,” Prank Club co-president Howard Deshong HM ’21 said. “Companies that run that sort of thing are much more aware [of potential tampering].”

Prank Club was established in the spring of 2019 to overcome newfound barriers and revive the dying prank culture.

“There’s definitely been a decline in actual activity [since the 80s] … but we think that we’re going to be able to bring back [student enthusiasm],” Prank Club co-president Aely Aronoff HM ’21 said. “People are more interested now.”

Aronoff also said that organizing pranksters into an official club will give future pranks the resources to get off the ground. 

“Having the umbrella of a club is useful⁠,” he said. “We have ASHMC funding and access to student emails to raise involvement for the club.”

Prank Club kickstarted their antics by toying with signs at Pomona College in March 2019. 

“A bunch of [members] went to Pomona in the middle of the night and replaced all the signs that said Pomona with signs saying things like Panera College and Potato College,” Deshong said.

Then in April, the Prank Club paid homage to the infamous 1986 theft of Caltech’s Fleming Cannon by building a concrete monument with a plaque that read: “Fleming Cannon, On Extended Loan From Harvey Mudd College, Dedicated in Honor of the 11 Mudders Who Bravely Relocated this Cannon in 1986.” 

Under the cover of darkness and fueled by the adrenaline of being awake at 3 a.m., the Mudders encountered obstacles like Caltech Security and various Caltech students, who later expressed their enthusiasm at the revival of pranking culture.

And the future looks promising for the young and eager club as it starts planning to up the ante this academic year. 

“It’s all about big pranks,” Aronoff said. “Big pranks are things that require a lot of people, and usually a good deal of financial investment.” 

Prank Club member Alina Saratova HM ’23 recently joined the group and is ready to be part of the new generation of historic Harvey Mudd pranking.

“It’s our turn to do something big,” she said.

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