The quintessential university prank comprises two elements: first, the feat should be technically ambitious. In the words of the legendary pranksters at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), exemplary stunts require “making possible the improbable.” Since MIT students coaxed a live cow onto the roof of a dorm in 1928, engineering students across the continent have made cars, telephone booths and even full-sized sailboats appear in the most unlikely places.
Second, a good dose of competitiveness—sometimes bordering on vindictiveness—is the hallmark of a quality hoax. A famous example: at the annual Yale-Harvard football game in 2004, Yale students, disguised as the fictional “Harvard pep squad,” distributed white-and-red placards to 1,800 unsuspecting Harvard fans. The fans were told that when they lifted the placards, they would read, “Go Harvard.” They actually spelled, “We suck.”
While the foundation of the pranking tradition can be fairly claimed by American students, Canadian students have begun to challenge their pre-eminence as tricksters.
When the morning light began to filter through thick fog in San Francisco on Feb. 5, 2001, viewers at Vista Point on the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge spotted an unexpected sight: hanging from the bridge, some 10 stories above the water, was a Volkswagen Beetle. The stunt, attributed to anonymous engineering students from the University of British Columbia, caused traffic jams and stopped boats from passing beneath the bridge for hours.
The feat commemorated the 20th anniversary of the first VW Bug prank, when UBC engineers hung a car off Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge to celebrate the skills of engineers and tradespeople who build bridges. The tradition recently spread to UBC’s satellite campus in Kelowna, B.C. In February 2010, a giant red fibreglass “E” (for engineering) was hung from a bridge that spans Okanagan Lake.
The bridge escapades are, of course, a variation of the earliest type of prank pioneered at MIT—the elaborate installation. In 2009, a secretive club called the Brute Force Committee, made up of engineers at the University of Toronto, honoured their predecessors by rebuilding a monument—a huge sword in the stone some 12 feet tall—that once stood on campus as a symbol of the faculty of engineering. The nocturnal unveiling of the sword, led by a student wearing a black mask and cape embroidered with the committee’s crest, involved lighting the sword on fire.
For all their efforts devoted to making the improbable magically appear, university pranksters are also preoccupied with making objects mysteriously disappear. In 1978, after much planning, a trio of enterprising engineers from UBC broke into the British Columbia legislature in Victoria, entered the assembly chamber, and stole the Speaker’s chair.
Engineering tricksters have not only vented their larcenous urges on inanimate objects. UBC engineers were at various times rumoured to have kidnapped former prime minister Kim Campbell and former Maclean’s columnist Allan Fotheringham.
In 1967, a group of female dorm-mates at Dalhousie University actually nabbed folksinger Gordon Lightfoot, releasing him only after receiving a ransom of canned food for charity.
Hostilities between faculties and universities often enter the equation when pranking. One snowy night in March 2006, members of U of T’s Brute Force Committee stealthily constructed a five-metre-long Trojan Horse in the central square of the McMaster University campus. McMaster’s engineers re-gifted the horse to the University of Guelph, and Guelph returned the favour with a huge fabric griffin, their mascot. McMaster intended to return what they referred to as a “duck” after “toasting” it, but the structure proved flammable.
In recent years, some of the most creative practical jokes haven’t been performed by engineers, but consisted instead of a large group of seemingly unconnected people suddenly congregating to perform an unexpected act: the so-called “flash mob.”
That includes one of 2010’s biggest pranks, which was organized by University of Victoria psychology student Shawn Slavin. Nearly 1,000 people showed up on campus at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday in September to participate in a giant “lip dub” (a music video of people lip-synching) of Michael Bublé’s Haven’t Met You Yet. UVic gets points for competitiveness, too, as the video was essentially a response to another lip dub recorded by a Spanish university also called “UVic”. Rivalries and displays of engineering genius aside, Slavin’s motivation for coordinating the event speaks to what is perhaps the one commonality underlying all of these pranks: “We wanted to get a whole bunch of people to do something—just for the hell of it.”