Category Archives: Ivy On Celluloid

Movies about Higher Education

Ivy On Celluloid: Blue Chips

Blue Chips

In honor of tonight’s conclusion of the 2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, today’s installment of Ivy On Celluloid is going to take a look at director William Friedkin’s 1994 college basketball tale, Blue Chips.

William Friedkin is often cited as one of the key luminaries of the New Hollywood era of film, with classic works like The Exorcist, The French Connection, and Sorcerer to his name. However, since the late 1970s, his works have garnered far less critical and popular attention, outside of sporadic praise for films like To Live and Die In LA, Killer Joe, and Bug. Among his less analyzed films is Blue Chips, which connects his film work to his passion for the sport of basketball, through a fictional portrayal of desperately rebuilding college basketball program.

The screenplay for Blue Chips was written by Ron Shelton, who has carved a career niche for writing up sports-based tales like The Great White Hype, Bull Durham, Tin Cup, and White Men Can’t Jump.

Perhaps due to connections through Friedkin and Shelton, both noted sports fanatics, Blue Chips is littered with notable basketball figures, in both character and cameo capacities. The most notable of these are Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, who were then early-career basketball stars, in roles as the eponymous “blue chip” talent prospects.

While Hardaway and O’Neal adequately perform their roles, the heart of the film and focus of the story is Nick Nolte’s portrayal of an aging college basketball coach, facing fading glory and mounting pressures to re-capture success.

Despite best efforts, Blue Chips was ultimately a financial flop, as it only took in $23 million on a estimated budget of $35 million. Hal Hinson of The Washington Post referred to it as “a dreary lecture about ethics and moral corner-cutting.” However, one of its few critical advocates was Roger Ebert, who remarked that it was “a morality play, told in the realistic, sometimes cynical terms of modern high-pressure college sports” in his three star review.

In 2019, Memphis Commercial Appeal interviewed Penny Hardaway, who is now the University of Memphis basketball coach, about his experience with the making of Blue Chips.  Apparently, the reason for hiring basketball players into key roles was because of Friedkin’s staunch desire to feature actual basketball action in the movie, rather than using creative editing, stunts, and camera trickery. Thus, no actors could be found who could pull off the basketball demands of the roles.

“It was a good movie,” Hardaway said. “Not just because I was in it – it was a great basketball movie. I really liked that they just allowed us to play basketball. It wasn’t much acting. It was playing ball.”

Notably, the chemistry between Hardaway and Shaq that was built over the making of Blue Chips ultimately led to Shaq requesting that his team, the Orlando Magic, draft Hardaway in the 1993 NBA Draft.

Friedkin’s dedication to filming real basketball for the film extended to the climactic final game between Indiana University and Western University, which was filmed as a real basketball game with a live audience of extras. Outside of the conclusion, the game was completely unscripted, and just allowed the basketball players to play out the game while cameras filmed the action. Indiana University’s coach, Bobby Knight, known for his competitiveness, caused some issues for the filming behind the scenes, as he apparently wasn’t happy with allowing the fictional Western University team to win as scripted. Towards the end of the game, Indiana had a three point lead, and one of the filming crew caught audio of Knight saying the following:

“Let me tell you something, boys,” he said. “We’ve got 24 seconds to play and fate’s got us up by three. We sure as hell aren’t going to lose to a bunch of (derogatory term) from Hollywood now.”

To begin the higher education analysis of the film, I want to try to establish the higher education setting of the story. As is typically the case, the central institution is fictional – Western University. While there is an institution that goes by this name today in London, Ontario, it is technically the University of Western Ontario, and only took on the new moniker as of 2012. There was once a Western University located in Kansas, but it closed in 1943 due to the economic strains of the Great Depression.

While Western University as featured in Blue Chips is fictional, I believe that it is functionally a stand-in for UCLA. While the campus sequences in the film were shot at the nearby rival school University of Southern California, there are some clues that point to Western being a surrogate for UCLA. First, the location of the school is firmly established as Los Angeles, which narrows down the institution candidate pool significantly. Additionally, the Western University color scheme (blue and yellow) is clearly reminiscent of the UCLA Bruins. Perhaps most compellingly, the established history and legacy of repeated basketball success (vis-a-vis championships) at Western University lines up pretty well with the UCLA basketball dynasty of the 1960s and 1970s under John Wooden.

A number of other higher education institutions are also represented in the film, both fictional and real. One in particular blurs the line between the two – Texas Western. In the film, this team is referred to as the Texas Western Cowboys, and are coached by controversial college basketball figure Rick Pitino. In reality, today’s University of Texas – El Paso Miners were once referred to as the Texas Western College Miners until a formal name change in 1967. Interestingly, this was implemented just one year after the Texas Western Miners won the NCAA basketball championship, and cemented the name in college basketball history.

Another higher education institution that is shown in competition with Western University is never referred to by name – however, the uniforms identify the school by the abbreviated nickname, “Coast.” This is most likely a loose stand-in for Coastal Carolina University, which often uses the abbreviation “Coastal” on the front of their basketball jerseys. The team is notably shown coached by Nolan Richardson, who is known for his coaching success at multiple levels of the sport.

The one definitively real university athletic team featured in Blue Chips is the Indiana University Hoosiers, who are shown coached by Bobby Knight, whose tenure at the school stretched nearly 30 years.

As with the majority of higher education institutions in the film, the National Collegiate Athletic Association itself has a fictionalized stand-in: the NCSA. While the initialism is never defined, its prominence on championship banners and referee uniforms makes it clear that this is the fictionalized NCAA.

Western University’s athletics teams are known as the Dolphins, and are accompanied by a dolphin mascot. While this is certainly a curious choice, it is by far not the most bizarre. That said, I was curious if any other universities have embraced the “Dolphins” moniker – as it turns out, there are a handful. According to The Los Angeles Times, California State University – Channel Islands teams go by the name “Dolphins,” though there doesn’t appear to be much athletic activity at the school. Likewise, the College of Mount Saint Vincent has also embraced the Dolphins name, along with Jacksonville University, which also has a humanoid dolphin mascot named “Dunk’n.”

During the recruiting sequences in the film, a player’s parent asks whether student-athletes wind up taking easier classes than other students. While the coach insists this isn’t the case, a number of college athletics scandals have involved just that situation. Most famously, the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill was caught offering effectively fake courses for athletes that  essentially guaranteed that they would remain academically eligible for play.

Early in the film, one of the student-athletes on the Western University basketball team confesses to struggling in “TV class” – one of his courses. While this might sound like a joke at first glance, a number of real college courses have centered on various television shows, the impact of television, or television criticism. Georgetown University has offered courses in philosophy centered around shows like The Wire and Star Trek, Whitman College has offered a course titled “Mad Men: Media, Gender, Historiography,” and I took an American studies course on The Twilight Zone when I was in college at the University of Alabama. Mental Floss put together a list of 25 other fascinating television-based courses at a variety of higher education institutions, which includes studies of South Park, The Colbert Report, and Twin Peaks.

In a blurring between fiction and reality, Blue Chips star Shaq confessed in 2016 to receiving monetary bribes to attend Louisiana State University and play for the school’s basketball team, not unlike the eponymous blue chip prospects featured in the film.

Nick Nolte’s character is shown to have a hot temper and contentious relationship with both officials and media, which at one point culminates in the punting of a basketball and a subsequent game ejection. At times, he is shown bordering on verbal abuse of his players during games and practices. Unfortunately, these sorts of behaviors from college basketball coaches are based in reality. Mike Rice, a former coach as Rutgers University, was fired after recording surfaced of his verbally and physically abusing his playersA number of NCAA basketball coaches, including Indiana University’s Bobby Knight, have developed reputations over the years for their quick tempers. Like Rice, Knight was ultimately fired after video of his physical abuse of players surfaced. cementing his reputation as “college basketball’s greatest villain.”

Much of Blue Chips is dedicated to portraying the recruiting process to bring new players into a college basketball program. In particular, there is a specific emphasis on recruiting practices that violate regulations. As mentioned previously, the real NCAA has a fictional stand-in in the form of NCSA – however, the regulations of the two organizations appear to be the same. The violation most prominently featured is the explicit ban on “extra benefits” offered to athletes beyond their scholarship, which are defined as:

“any special arrangement by an institutional employee or a representative of the institution’s athletic interests (including fans) to provide a student-athlete or the student-athlete’s relative or friend a benefit not expressly authorized by the NCAA legislation.”

The extra benefits rule is applied to items as minute as flowers and apparel discounts and as grand as automobiles and housing. A University of Minnesota wrestler lost his eligibility due to selling an original song because the NCAA ruled that he financially benefited from his reputation as an athlete. Numerous college athletes have been the subject of NCAA scrutiny for benefiting from the sale of autographs or memorabilia, such as the University of Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. A simple Google search will yield numerous lists of bizarre and seemingly nonsensical NCAA violations from institutions around the country.

In the film, a number of extra benefits are shown, including duffel bags of cash delivered by “friends of the program” (typically referred to as boosters, defined by the NCAA as  “representatives of the institution’s athletic interests”), mysteriously delivered tractors and Lexus automobiles to students and their families, family employment opportunities, and fully-financed housing, all of which have some basis in the reality of NCAA recruiting violations. The University of Mississippi’s recent recruiting scandal alone featured cash payments via duffel bag, car payments, and free lodging to athletes’ families.

What is most interesting about the portrayal of recruiting violations in Blue Chips is that each of the families has an expectation of payment from the outset, with full knowledge that this is in violation of rules. One prospect’s mother justifies her financial requests by stating that “a foul is not a foul unless a referee blows a whistle,” and another athlete’s father succinctly claims that “they ain’t my rules” after requesting a new tractor. The high-profile nature of NCAA recruiting violations have, in a way, apparently created a normative expectation of special privileges for star athletes and their families, which is arguably reinforced through popular culture portrayals like Blue Chips. Every time a school like Baylor University or the University of Louisville is caught in an athletic scandal that gets covered extensively in the media, the message is sent to aspiring prospects that opportunities for payment and compensation exist if they look for them.

At one point in the film, Western University’s coach mentions Proposition 48 when approaching a basketball prospect who scored poorly on their SAT. This is a real NCAA regulation that governs the minimum academic qualifications for college student-athletes, which takes into account both high school grades and standardized test scores. In this case, the student’s SAT was too low to qualify, which prompts his retaking of the test after receiving tutoring.

The electric conclusion of Blue Chips sees Western University’s basketball coach publicly confess at a press conference about a litany of recruiting violations, after which he resigns. The closest parallel to this event in real life was actually in response to the film, when Coastal Carolina University’s Russ Bergman was inspired by Blue Chips to confess to his coaching misdeeds to a local reporter. However, both he and his program were already the subject of an NCAA investigation at that time, and the walls were likely already closing in.

Prior to the events of Blue Chips, the Western University basketball program was at one point embroiled in a point shaving scandal. Point shaving is the the willful act of manipulating the score through intentional play for the purposes of promoting a specific outcome that has gambling implications. In the 1978-1979 season, a number of Boston College basketball players were bribed for the purposes of point shaving, in order to benefit a mob-orchestrated gambling scheme. A documentary about the scandal, Playing for the Mob, was released in 2014, and a comprehensive book about the incident, Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball, was published in 2001. In 2015, former criminal and FBI informant Henry Hill, Jr., who was intimately involved in the scandal, co-authored a book that went into more detail about the planning and execution of the plot.

On the whole, Blue Chips is in an intriguing portrayal of a college basketball program. If anything, it is a bit oversimplified and glossy in its characterizations and portrayals of the dynamics between players, coaches, administrators, and boosters, but is done so for the purposes of the story. As a portrayal of college athletics, it certainly touches on a number of real issues, though some of them are framed oddly. For instance, the idea that student-athletes should be paid is scoffed at off-hand, and the portrayals of the players focuses on wanting money exclusively for luxuries rather than necessities, which simplifies the very real issue of student-athletes struggling to live on their scholarships alone. In order to portray boosters as villainous, the position that work merits compensation is explicitly frowned upon with melodramatic flair.

That said, I think the film merits critical reconsideration – while not a masterpiece, Friedkin’s attention to detail and focus on the fidelity of the basketball portrayal comes through in the game sequences. In the same way that Friedkin has conveyed the frenetic energy of car chases in his career, he catches lightning in a bottle in putting basketball to celluloid in Blue Chips. While the higher education portrayal is perhaps a bit spotty, the film as a whole is not bad, and is an interesting counter-narrative to many college sports films in its morally-conflicted central character portrayals and de-emphasis on competitive glory as the ultimate ends.

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Ivy On Celluloid: The Waterboy

The Waterboy

Today, I’m continuing my series of posts analyzing films for their portrayals of higher education by taking a deep dive into Adam Sandler’s college football comedy, The Waterboy.

The plot of The Waterboy is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A waterboy for a college football team discovers he has a unique tackling ability and becomes a member of the team.

The Waterboy was directed by Frank Coraci (The Ridiculous 6, Click, The Wedding Singer), who is primarily known for his numerous collaborations with comedy writer/actor Adam Sandler, The Waterboy among them. The screenplay was co-written by Sandler along with another one of his frequent collaborators, Tim Herlihy (The Wedding Singer, Mr. Deeds, Little Nicky, Saturday Night Live).

Beyond Sandler, the cast of the film includes Henry Winkler (Arrested Development, Happy Days, Night Shift), Kathy Bates (Misery, Fried Green Tomatoes), Fairuza Balk (The Craft, The Island of Doctor Moreau), Jerry Reed (Smokey & The Bandit), Clint Howard (Evilspeak, The Ice Cream Man, Apollo 13), and Rob Schneider (The Hot Chick, The Animal).

For the twentieth anniversary of the release of The Waterboy, Adidas produced a variety of SCLSU merchandise, including t-shirts, jerseys, and helmets that were designed to be film-accurate.

Co-writer of The Waterboy Tim Herlihy described in an interview the inspiration for the fictional institution name ‘South Central Louisiana State University’:

I always remember Southwest Missouri State… I just thought that was so funny. Not even South Missouri State. Like, Southwest Missouri State. They didn’t even have one direction. They had to share the South direction with Southeast Missouri State. So we definitely wanted to do that.

Interestingly, Southwest Missouri State University eventually changed its name to Missouri State University, likely in part due to perceptions like Herlihy’s.

Critically, The Waterboy didn’t fare terribly well, with critics labeling it as “trash,” “witless,” and “dumb.” However, it proved to be financially successful, taking in a worldwide theatrical gross of over $185 million on a production budget of $23 million, carving a place for itself in the public zeitgeist. It is now hailed by many as a cult classic, and generational favorite sports comedy.

To begin the higher education analysis, I want to take a look at the various schools portrayed in the film. As with Necessary Roughness, there is a mixture of fictitious and real institutions. Real colleges featured include Clemson University, the University of Michigan, the University of Louisville, and the University of Iowa, who are all shown in either montages or mentioned in passing. Another institution that I believe is featured is Vanderbilt University. Though it is not mentioned by name, a football team is shown with an almost identical star-shaped helmet insignia and color palette, which I have compared side-by-side below.

Still from The Waterboy
Vanderbilt University uniforms and helmets from 1980s and 1990s

The fictitious universities in the film include the two central institutions to the story – University of Louisiana, and South Central Louisiana State University. University of Louisiana is depicted as a large university with a recent history of national football success. For this reason, I think that it is clearly intended to be a parallel to Louisiana State University, despite how close the fictional name is to the University of Louisiana – Lafayette or University of Louisiana – Monroe. South Central Louisiana State University, on the other hand, is pretty clearly portrayed as a less successful “little brother” to the University of Louisiana. From what I can gather, however, it is still definitely a generally-focused public institution, which rules out a few real universities in the state as parallels (Tulane, LA Tech). A detail that is implied by Bobby Boucher’s commuter status is that both University of Louisiana and South Central Louisiana State University are within easy driving distance of each other, which helps narrow down real-life candidates. Based on this, I think it is immensely clear that the SCLSU Mud Dogs are a stand-in for the Ragin’ Cajuns from the University of Louisiana – Lafayette. Lafayette and Baton Rouge are merely an hour from each other, and separated by swampy terrain akin to how Bobby’s home is portrayed.

Aside from the University of Louisiana and SCLSU, a number of the other football teams from the film hail from fictitious institutions. One game is shown between SCLSU and the University of Central Kentucky. There isn’t actually a University of Central Kentucky – among the six Division I schools with football teams in the state, I believe the closest analogue is Western Kentucky University. Likewise, another game features the University of West Mississippi -an institution that doesn’t exist. As with Kentucky, there are six real Division I schools with football teams in Mississippi, of which I suspect University of Southern Mississippi is the real life parallel (mostly due to the direction-based naming).

The climactic championship game featured in the film is called the Bourbon Bowl, which follows the naming tradition of post-season games in Division I FBS college football. While there have been a number of oddly named bowl games due to various sponsorships, there has never been a Bourbon Bowl. Given the records of the teams invited – University of Louisiana is undefeated, and SCLSU is only shown to have one loss – it is fair to assume that the Bourbon Bowl is a bowl game with significant prestige, akin to the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl. However, the game is also clearly local to both University of Louisiana and SCLSU, as Bobby and his family are shown commuting to the game in a short period of time. The only bowl game of that significance within close range of Lafayette and Baton Rouge is the Sugar Bowl, which famously is held in New Orleans. Because the setting of the stadium is clearly not urban, I think it is fair to conclude that the Bourbon Bowl isn’t an exact stand-in for any one bowl game, but is a general amalgamation of the concept of a high-profile bowl game.

That said, there is another question worth asking about the Bourbon Bowl: is it a national championship game? The history of a “national championship” in college football is a bit odd and contentious – prior to the past few decades, it was often a very subjective title, awarded occasionally to different teams by different organizations in the absence of a decisive championship game. 1998, the year that The Waterboy was released, marked the first Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game, which arranged for the two highest-ranked teams to play in a decisive championship outing. The rankings, which were the subject of popular scrutiny and suspicion, utilized a handful of high-profile polls and computerized rankings to determine the contestants. A major downside to this system, however, is that there could easily be more than two teams with a strong case to participate in a national championship game – which ultimately gave rise to the playoff system that exists today.

We know that both the University of Louisiana and SCLSU had very strong records going into the Bourbon Bowl – U of L was undefeated, and SCLSU only had one loss. However, undefeated teams have been left out of national championships games – in 1998, for instance, an undefeated Tulane University football team was not selected for the game. Considering this fact in conjunction with the lack of national championship branding or discussion around the Bourbon Bowl indicates to me that University of Louisiana was passed over for the formal national championship game, which put them in position to claim a co-championship if they defeated SCLSU in the Bourbon Bowl. This exact scenario played out in the 2003 season, when an undefeated and widely-acclaimed University of Southern California squad was passed over for the championship game, and claimed co-champion status after subsequently winning their bowl game. However, a more apt comparison for the SCLSU – U of L Bourbon Bowl is the 1997 Rose Bowl match played between Arizona State University and Ohio State University. Going into the game, Arizona State was undefeated, and in position to claim a co-championship with a win over the one-loss Ohio State (as USC would do in 2004 with its Rose Bowl win over Michigan). However, Arizona State lost their game, just as University of Louisiana is shown losing to SCLSU, squandering their chance to claim a national championship. So, in effect, the Bourbon Bowl both was and was not a national championship game, depending on how you look at it.

At one point in the film, it is revealed that Bobby Boucher set a new NCAA record for sacks in a single game with 16. The actual record for sacks in a single game in NCAA Division I FBS is 6, which is co-held by Ameer Ismail of Western Michigan University and Elvis Dumervil of the University of Louisville. The idea of 16 sacks per game, considering the current NCAA record, may seem ludicrous. However, I decided to look into how many offensive plays occur per team in a typical DI college football game, which can be found here.

This graph was actually broken in 2016, when the University of California ran 118 offensive plays against the University of Oregon. However, the average offensive plays per team in a game has easily stayed between 60 and 80 over the past ten years. For the sake of calculation, let’s assume Bobby Boucher’s SCLSU opponents run 70 plays per game – this means roughly a quarter of their plays (22.85%) would need to conclude with Bobby Boucher sacks. However, that also assumes that Bobby earns all of his sacks on his own – sacks are also recorded in increments of .5 when multiple individuals contribute to the tackle. However, Bobby is never shown co-sacking a quarterback on screen, and it is frequently stated that he is the only capable athlete on the team, so it is safe to assume that Bobby is only accruing full sacks.

Another piece of dialogue states that Bobby’s sack rate actually increases after he sets the single game sack record at 16 – a team-mate mentions that he averages “20 sacks a game.” In order to reach that rate, we need to consider the length of a college football season. While this has changed over the years, most recently with the implementation of the playoff system in FBS, let’s say that a successful, bowl-appearance season has 13 games. Given his 16 sack performance in game one of the season, in order to reach the 20 sack/game average, Bobby would need to exceed 20 sacks at least once while maintaining a steady 20 sack/game rate throughout the season – a single 24 sack game would suffice to make the grade. Assuming this is how he reached his average sacks/game rate, this means that in at least one game of average offensive play quantity for the opposing team (70, for the sake of argument), Bobby would have sacked the quarterback on 34.3% of plays. While this seems incredibly unlikely, I don’t think it is anywhere near an impossibility – given a sufficiently incompetent offensive line and quarterback, there’s no reason to consider this feat technically impossible.

One of the most potent and vividly revolting illustrations in the film is the dichotomy between the amenities and conditions for the SCLSU and University of Louisiana football teams and athletics departments. SCLSU students are shown drinking out of a clearly unsafe water container, whereas U of L has a (assumedly) fully-funded water hydration station. Likewise, SCLSU football players frequently are shown sharing equipment – everything from helmets to sweaty cups.

While these disparities are definitely dramatized, there is certainly some truth to the portrayal. I recently spoke to an Associate Athletics Director at a small Division I football school, who told me about how different his current experience is to his previous role at an athletically-prestigious flagship institution – which included differences in pay, staffing, general amenities for students and staff, and, of course, the state-of-the-art facilities. The depiction in The Waterboy of the flagship institution having far more funds than a smaller, in-state competitor is, from what I have gathered, a fact of life in college athletics.

The SCLSU football coach, portrayed by Henry Winkler, is eventually revealed to have had a sort of burnout and breakdown after losing out on a coveted head coaching position to his rival on the University of Louisiana coaching staff. It is well-known that stress is part of the job of a college football coach – it isn’t even unheard of for coaches to suffer health issues associated with the job. So, the portrayal of a coach burning out certainly has some grounding in truth. Likewise, rivalries between coaches aren’t uncommon – many coaches serve on staffs together over the course of their careers, and later become opponents (like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, for instance). The idea of a rivalry formed between coaches from a common history on a given staff certainly seems to hold water as a plausible scenario.

The first time Bobby is shown tackling a quarterback in practice, the aftermath is framed comedically, with the quarterback having apparently lost his immediate memory and general awareness. In truth, these are clear, immediate symptoms of a concussion. In 1998, when the film was released,  research had not yet come out about the long-term dangers of concussions as a form of traumatic brain-injury, particularly for athletes in contact sports. Now, this is a major issue for both college football and most professional sports, and is speculated to be a potential existential threat to status quo of competitive athletics.

At one point towards the beginning of the film, it is revealed in an ESPN segment that SCLSU football is on a record-setting 41 game losing streak. The longest actual losing streak at the NCAA Division I FBS level is held by the Northwestern University Wildcats, which dropped 34 consecutive games from 1979 to 1982. However, that pales in comparison to the Division I FCS record held by Prairie View A&M, which dropped an unenviable 80 straight games over almost an entire decade of failure – 1989 to 1998.

Program from the midst of Northwestern University’s record-setting losing streak

Throughout the events of The Waterboy, a number of off-color, homophobic comments are made by characters. While this is certainly in part due to the nature of this genre of crass comedy and the context of the film’s release, the truth is that this is probably an accurate portrayal of a college football team at this point in time. There is a wealth of literature and research on homophobia within athletics, and particularly collegiate athletics.  College football, as a homogenously-male sport, is statistically even more likely to be more homophobic than women’s sports teams. So, it is certainly not a stretch for causally homophobic dialogue to fly around a college football locker room or practice field.

Though it is never specifically stated, it is highly suggested that Bobby Boucher is a first generation college student – meaning that he is the first member of his family to attend college. This is hinted through a number of sequences – for instance, he picks his classes solely based on the view of campus from the classrooms, as opposed to course difficulty or fit with his major. First generation college students often have difficultly navigating universities, due to a lack of institutional knowledge that is typically passed down from college graduates to their children.

Speaking of picking classes, it is an interesting detail that Bobby Boucher is not shown to be given guidance on what courses to sign up for. At many universities, there are academic advisors who operate as part of the Athletics Department specifically to help student-athletes with issues like class scheduling. However, these sorts of advisors have also landed in hot water on occasion – they were integral to the longstanding “paper classes” at University of North Carolina, where student-athletes were given entirely fake classes to remain academically eligible under NCAA guidelines.

At one point in the film, it is revealed that Bobby Boucher did not complete high school, or receive an equivalent degree. In order to be eligible for football, his coach provided a fake high school transcript. This kind of scandal is not unheard of – in 2013, a 22-year old faked a high school transcript in order to play high school basketball.  In 2014, a number of college basketball players were investigated over forged community college transcripts. The New York Times even reported on forged student-athlete high school transcripts back in 1973. However, I have not seen any records of a coach performing such a forgery themselves.

Connected to the forgery revelation is a level of malicious espionage – the staff of the University of Louisiana expose the misdeed of SCLSU’s coach to the NCAA, in an attempt to harm the on-field production of the school’s football team in the upcoming Bourbon Bowl. The use of NCAA reporting as a means of attacking a sporting rival was recently a subject in the SBnation documentary series Foul Play: Paid in Mississippi, which features a member of the Mississippi State University football team testifying to recruiting violations at the rival University of Mississippi.

At one point in the film, an event is portrayed that appears to be a conventional fraternity house party, rife with debauchery. However, the attendees of this party include a professor and a number of athletics coaches from the school.  To say that this is a bit odd and unbelievable would be an understatement. Coaches and university employees in general are expected to abide by certain codes of conduct or ethics, which would almost assuredly prohibit them from attending such events. However, college basketball coach Larry Eustachy once infamously resigned from his position at Iowa State University after it was revealed that he would frequent fraternity parties and generally fraternize with college students. In 2018, Eustachy once again resigned from a different college basketball coaching position due to another conduct investigation.

There are certainly plenty more higher education topics that can be discussed through The Waterboy – the physical assault of a professor by a student, the discipline exceptions offered to star student-athletes, and the parental pressures placed on many top-grade student-athletes to turn professional as early as possible are among them. However, I’m going to see if I can swing back to those topics in future reviews – I suspect I’ll be back to the realm of college football before too long.

Overall, The Waterboy is every bit the sophomoric, shallow comedy the world has come to expect from Adam Sandler. However, it is also an interesting, comedically-contorted portrayal of college football culture, which is integral to many institutions of higher education in the United States. There isn’t anything novel, witty, or innovative about the humor or story, and there is certainly much about the film that has become dated, but it is an interesting film to peruse for folks interested in college athletics and higher education as fields of study. Alternatively, those who find uproarious comedic value in a chorus of Henry Winklers tauntingly singing about the comparative benefits of Gatorade over water as a means of hydration will find something pleasing here.

Ivy On Celluloid: Senseless

Senseless

In today’s Ivy on Celluloid, I’m going to take a look at yet another higher education comedy: 1998’s Senseless.

The plot of Senseless is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A student gets his senses enhanced by an experimental drug. But abuse is not an option.

The screenplay for Senseless was credited to two writers, Greg Erb (The Princess and The Frog, RocketMan) and Craig Mazin (Scary Movie 3, Scary Movie 4, The Hangover 2, The Hangover 3). The film’s director, Penelope Spheeris, is best known for her string of high-profile comedy films in the early 1990s like Wayne’s World, Black Sheep, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Little Rascals.

The cast of Senseless includes the likes of Marlon Wayans (White Chicks, Littleman, Scary Movie, The Ladykillers, Dungeons & Dragons), Matthew Lillard (Scream, Hackers, SLC Punk, Scooby-Doo), David Spade (Black Sheep, Joe Dirt), Brad Dourif (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Child’s Play, Body Parts, Spontaneous Combustion), Tamara Taylor (Bones, Altered Carbon), Jeff Garlin (The Goldbergs, Curb Your Enthusiasm), and Rip Torn (Men In Black, Dodgeball).

Senseless was pretty far from a major hit – it failed to make back its production budget in its theatrical release, and the critics’ reviews were brutal (6% on Rotten Tomatoes), and audiences were, at best, mixed (6/10 on IMDb, 45% on Rotten Tomatoes). That reception was well justified, though – this is a crass cartoon of a comedy movie, with very little depth or relatability. Outside of farts, pee, physical comedy, homophobia, and sexist objectification, there isn’t a whole lot else to be found in Senseless. However, the film does provide an interesting lens through which to view issues surrounding higher education.

To begin with, three real campuses served as filming locations for the movie – the University of Southern California, UCLA, and the Stevens Institute of Technology, located in Hoboken, NJ. The setting for the film, however, is the fictitious institution of Stratford University, which is said to be located in New York City.

From what I can tell, Stratford University is supposed to be an elite academic institution, given some of the context throughout the movie (like the prestige of the junior analyst position). The two best real-life institutional fits for these details, based on the New York City location, are New York University and Columbia University, though it is hard to nail down which of the two institutions is the better analog. Interestingly, though, Stratford’s branding and colors are more akin to another institution with a similar name – Stanford University – due to the script “S” and red/white/black athletic uniform color palette. In fact, looking at Stanford’s Identity Toolkit side-by-side with the Stratford logo, it is pretty evident that they are almost exactly the same logo, with Stanford’s iconic tree removed.

At the center of the plot of Senseless is an elitist (and possibly racist) fraternity called Kappa Zeta, or “Kappa House.” In reality, there is a prominent sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, that uses the nickname “Kappas,” and a small sorority in California called Kappa Zeta Phi. However, there are no fraternities that I could find that go by the name Kappa Zeta. However, much of the fraternity’s activities in the film, like hazing via paddling, racist pledge decisions, and donors/alumni dictating chapter activity, all have basis in reality.

The two [black] students…apparently participated in the formal rush week festivities at the school and boasted impeccable academic and social credentials. Nevertheless, they didn’t receive any bids from the 16 white sororities on campus.

The problem, to hear sorority girls tell it, is that alumnae are either using their voting powers to veto racial integration or threatening to withhold donations and other assistance.

The Daily Caller

Part of the plot of Senseless involves the black main character, Darryl, becoming an accomplished hockey player for the university. Ice hockey is a notoriously non-diverse sport (in part due to the high costs involved), and at no level is that more evident than in collegiate competition. Jordan Greenway, a black hockey player for Boston University, recently made headlines for being named to the United States Olympic Men’s Hockey Team – the first black player to have ever received the honor. According to ThinkProgress, “less than one percent of male college hockey players are African-American, and only two percent of NHL players are black.” For comparison, a 1997 article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education titled “The Only Blacks in College Hockey are the Pucks,” stated that:

More than 62 percent of all male players on basketball scholarships are black. More than 52 percent of all college football players are black. African Americans also make up nearly 30 percent of all college track athletes…But college ice hockey is another story. During the 1996-1997 college hockey season, there were only seven blacks among the 3,554 athletes playing college hockey in the United States. Specifically, blacks
made up less than two tenths of 1 percent of all college
hockey players.

The primary motivation throughout the film is for Darryl to win a tight competition for a prized employment position after graduation with a New York brokerage firm called Smythe-Bates. The stated requirements to qualify for the position include, specifically, a record of athletic achievement, high GPA, and ties of tradition through a fraternal organization. This set of requirements is what sends him on his quest for simultaneous hockey glory and admission to the Kappa Zeta fraternity, all while keeping his grades in order. This is reflective of a process that has gotten increasingly common over the years – bolstering a resume through taking on multiple extracurriculars, specifically for the purpose of making one more desirable/employable. You don’t have to search for online to find countless articles on the best kinds of activities to pursue to make your college application or resume look more impressive

Part of what makes Darryl’s challenge to win the position even harder is that, compared to his competition, he is under significantly greater economic strain. Early in the film, it is revealed that Darryl is behind on rent payments despite working 4 jobs, excessively donating both blood and semen for money, and signing up for experimental medical trials to pay for his schooling. It is also shown that he comes from a low-income single-parent household, and is likely a first-generation college student.

All of these challenges are very real. College today is immensely expensive, especially for students who can’t rely on financial support from family, which covers 22% of tuition for the average college student. A 2017 article from Texas State University’s The University Star noted predatory practices by plasma banks that took advantage of poor college students, at the expense of their health. The challenges faced by first-generation college students, when compared with their continuing-generation peers, are well documented – a study found that 20 percent of first-generation college students obtained a four-year degree 10 years after their sophomore year of high school, compared to 42 percent of continuing-generation students. In regards to medical trials, college students are no strangers to sacrificing themselves for cash:

The best-paying studies…they also undergo invasive procedures, like a bronchoscopy or a biopsy, or something else unpleasant, such as being deprived of sleep, wearing a rectal probe, or having allergens sprayed in their faces. Because such studies require a fair amount of time in a research unit, the subjects are usually people who need money and have a lot of time to spare: the unemployed, college students, contract workers, ex-cons…

The New Yorker, “Guinea-Pigging”

Speaking of “unpleasant” medical trials, this is where the plot of Senseless really kicks in. After Darryl volunteers for a paid medical trial of a drug aimed at providing “heightened human perception” and “super senses,”  he uses the effects of the drug to get ahead of his peers both academically and athletically. I brought this topic up in my post on How High some time ago, and cited a 2011 article by the University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Ross Aikins called “Academic Performance Enhancement,” about the use of stimulants by college students to improve their academic performance.

Now that the topic has come up again, I decided to give Dr. Aikins a call, to get a better idea of the realities behind the use of drugs as academic performance enhancers. I had a wonderful conversation with him, and thank him greatly for his insights here.

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To begin with, how real is the issue of using drugs to enhance academic performance? What are the drugs people are using to this end?

In college settings, there is functional, academic use of drugs. There is a history of surgeons and concert musicians who use beta blockers and anti-anxiety drugs to perform better. In war and combat, military forces use prescription stimulants and amphetamines. For college students right now, they tend to use Ritalin and Aderall…Generally, other drugs are used as purely recreational.

According to what I’ve read, stimulant use for academic purposes is far more common among white males from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. What can you tell me about that?

I have an upcoming article called ‘The White Version of Cheating,’ that looks at the academic use of drugs as an equity issue. They are a thing of privilege and access…you see men more than women in college using these drugs, and more often upper-class white families with access to these drugs. Ultimately, there is a risk factor with fraternities, as they have a culture of resourcefulness in circulating resources to perpetuate advantages, and also get easy access to drugs.

Are Ritalin and Adderall actually “smart drugs” – are people smarter when using them?

There is no evidence that these drugs actually help students academically. It can plausibly provide cognitive benefits on some kinds of tests…they mostly promote wakefulness and provide a feeling of improved performance, without proven gains to GPA.

Is using drugs for academic enhancement actually “cheating”? Is it specifically against the rules pf academic conduct at universities (outside of often being illegal activity)?

Very few colleges classify use of drugs to enhance academic performance as ‘cheating’…we sampled almost 200 university policies and handbooks, and only one included this as a matter for the academic code of conduct. Most schools don’t see it as an academic policy issue. On that one campus that did, it was a response to student demand to include it.

How widespread is this problem, exactly?

According to a number of sources, 8-9% of college students are illicitly using these kinds of stimulant drugs, but that doesn’t take into account technically licit use – when students have a prescription, but don’t use the drug as intended, or didn’t get the legitimate prescription in good faith.

In Senseless, the drug at the center of the plot is specifically engineered to “enhance senses.” Do you know of any drugs specifically made for academic enhancement?

There are not any drugs that I know that have been designed specifically to enhance academic performance…nothing like Limitless is actually out there…at least, I don’t think students are doing this in makeshift labs. There is some evidence that some people are using direct-current brain stimulation as cognitive enhancement, though. You can find information about this online, but it sounds to me to be very risky…people are essentially shocking and hacking their bodies. There are trials for Alzheimer’s medications that aim to improve focus and concentration without some of the negative side affects of current drugs, but those haven’t hit the market. Nothing like what you see in movies or books, though…mostly Ritalin and Adderall is what you see out there on campuses.

Is there anything else people should know about this practice?

This use of these drugs could be creating addicts…students often attribute their successes to the drugs, which is scary. If their career is challenging, will they use drugs as an adult as they did in school? There are concerns about long-term effects of these users later in life as well, due to a lack of longitudinal studies. What will happen to these people (both licit and illicit users), after flooding the brain with chemicals (dopamine, norepinephrine) as a result of using these drugs for so long? Some neuroscientists theorize that they ‘dim the bulb,’ and that early-onset dementia could be possible. We just don’t know yet.

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Based on what Dr. Aikins told me, I’m surprised that Senseless ended the way that it did. Ultimately, Darryl confesses that his successes were due to his use of an experimental drug, and he is disqualified from the competition for his prized position. According to Dr. Aikins, however, the odds are good that Darryl didn’t violate any of the school’s academic integrity policies, and because he obtained the drugs legally, I don’t think he violated any policies at all.

Lastly, I wanted to mention something that is played for a joke in the film – heroin addiction among college students. For most of the film, Darryl’s roommate things that he is addicted to heroin, because he catches him injecting drugs. In reality, as opioid use is rising across the United States, campuses are following suit. In 2014, there was a high-profile death of a University of Rochester student by heroin overdose, much like a death at the University of Delaware in 2018, and a 2013 death at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. 

On the whole, Senseless is another crass, sexist, mostly unfunny mess of a movie. However, this is also one of the more interesting films I’ve analyzed for its portrayal of higher education and higher education issues, for what little that might be worth. It is still not a movie I would generally recommend, other than to dedicated higher education nerds.

Ivy On Celluloid: Final Exam

Final Exam

Today, in my continuing series on films about higher education, I’m going to look at the 1981 horror movie Final Exam.

The plot of Final Exam is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A psycho killer shows up on college campus to slash up pretty co-eds and dumb jocks.

Final Exam was written and directed by Jimmy Huston, whose other credits include My Best Friend Is a Vampire and Running Scared. Huston’s career started with some minor work in the 70s, and concluded with a handful of television directing gigs in the mid-90s.

The musical score for the film was the first credited composition for Gary S. Scott, who would later make a name for himself providing music for television shows like Beverly Hills 90210, Behind The Music, 7th Heaven, Fame, Freddy’s Nightmares, and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.

To fill out the extras and background characters, the production apparently recruited theater students from the University of North Carolina – Charlotte and Appalachian State University.

Final Exam is the first horror movie I have analyzed for its portrayal of higher education – however, I found that it still brought up a handful of interesting issues relating to colleges and universities.

First off, three campuses served as filming locations for Final Exam – Limestone College in Gaffney, SC; Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, NC; and Isothermal Community College in Spindale, NC.

Lanier College, the setting as portrayed in the film by the aforementioned campuses, is entirely fictitious. However, there is a Lanier Technical College located in Oakwood, GA, though it is a trade and technical school that doesn’t match the traditional description of Lanier College in Final Exam.

Speaking of the description of the setting school, what kind of school is Lanier College, exactly? There are a few details scattered throughout the film – first off, the school is clearly residential and rural, as it is clearly not located in a city, and has a number of student dormitories. It is also revealed early in the film that a rival institution to Lanier College – March College (also fictitious) – is a small population, rural school that recently dealt with a significant football recruiting scandal. I think that it logically follows that Lanier is similar in size and athletic competitiveness – otherwise, it is hard to imagine how a rivalry would exist. There is also a throwaway detail that Lanier requires science courses – namely chemistry – as a core requirement for all students.

Based on these general descriptions of March College and Lanier College, I think it is safe to say that neither institution is meant to stand-in for a specific, real college – they are both designed to be as generic and relatable as possible to any given audience. They are both merely vague amalgamations of American higher education institutions.

At the beginning of the film, a killer is shown murdering March College’s star quarterback and his girlfriend. This got me wondering – has a star college quarterback ever been the victim of a murder?

In early 2018, Washington State University quarterback Tyler Hilinski was found dead as a result of suicide. Later in 2018, a Maryville College wide receiver was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend. Also in 2018, a former Penn State quarterback was killed in a stabbing in Philadelphia. In 2007, former University of Miami safety and NFL player Sean Taylor was killed in a break-in at his home. In 2009, former Alcorn State quarterback and retired NFL star Steve McNair was murdered. In each of these cases, however, the formula is different than what is described in the film – either the student had long since graduated, was a perpetrator rather than a victim, or wasn’t murdered.

In the trailer for Final Exam, the narrator states that Lanier College has “the finest security, the best teacher-student relations, no fraternity hazing, [and] strictly enforced curfews,” juxtaposed with images that counter each statement.

In regards to campus security, there is only one campus officer shown in the movie, who is quickly revealed to be a dire alcoholic and an incompetent. It is also shown that there is a jurisdictional debate between local police and and campus police, which has led to a negative view of the college by local police officers.

In a 2015 piece in The Atlantic, it was written that the role and size of campus police departments has expanded significantly in recent years – apparently, “over 4,000 police departments total operate at public and private postsecondary schools.” This is a far cry from the early 80s, single-guard security depicted in Final Exam, to say the least. In the words of the President of International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, campus police often “do a better job of interacting with the public” than local police departments, and allegedly have a more “harm-reduction” mentality than their non-campus colleagues. However, incidents like the UC-Davis pepper spray fiasco have also come about with the increase in campus police, as well as allegations that campus cops are insufficiently trained to deal with their ever-widening jurisdictions beyond their campuses:

the shifts within college and university police departments raise some odd jurisdictional issues: Even though they’re narrowly tasked with enforcing the law and student safety…According to DOJ statistics, eight of ten college police can patrol off-campus areas (81 percent) and make arrests (86 percent).

In the trailer narration, “teacher-student relations” is used as a euphemism for sexual activity between students and members of the faculty. In the story of the film, such a relationship plays a pretty minor role in the background of the story. This is an ethical issue in higher education I brought up back in my coverage of Necessary Roughness. As an example of a typical university policy on these kinds of relationships, here is an excerpt from a Cornell University document, which specifically outlines that romantic relationships are prohibited between faculty and students at that institution, and why:

The relationships between students and their faculty…should be conducted in a manner that avoids potential conflicts of interest…a conflict of interest arises when an individual evaluates the work or performance of a person with whom he or she is pursuing or engaged in a romantic or sexual relationship. Romantic or sexual relationships between students and persons in positions of academic authority may compromise the relationship between students and the university.

Fraternity hazing also plays a minor role in the film, though it does ultimately leave a character prone to an attack from the mysterious killer. The hazing ritual that takes place is one in which the pledge is tied to a tree overnight. I was able to dig up a couple of approximately similar hazing rituals, including an incident at the University of Central Florida in 2004 where a pledge was found tied and Saran wrapped to a tree, and another case where a Troy University fraternity pledge was tied to a tree and pelted with eggs in 2015.

In regards to “enforced curfews,” as mentioned in the trailer, this is a policy that is not entirely uncommon. Kentucky Christian University, for example, has a campus-wide curfew of 1:00am. In 2017, a long-standing curfew policy at Liberty University was relaxed, allowing students 20 and over to stay out past the traditional midnight curfew, which met with a mixed reception:

“Our argument was to have college be a transition period from kind of being a kid into being an adult. This way when you graduate from here and go out on your own, it’s not going to be this huge culture shock where you can do whatever you want,”

– Jared Cave, Liberty University SGA Vice President

During one of the first scenes of the film, one of the characters complains about his required chemistry class, despite his non-science major:

“Why do I have to take chemistry anyway? I’m going into advertising.”

Some colleges certainly require science classes as part of their core curriculum, which all degree-seeking students must take. Columbia University, for example, uses the following logic for its three required science classes:

The objective of the science component of Columbia College’s Core Curriculum is identical to that of its humanities and social science counterparts, namely to help students “to understand the civilization of their own day and to participate effectively in it.” The science component is intended specifically to provide students with the opportunity to learn what kinds of questions are asked about nature, how hypotheses are tested against experimental or observational evidence, how results of tests are evaluated, and what knowledge has been accumulated about the workings of the natural world.

Columbia’s policy does allow for a degree of choice, however: students have to choose from Astronomy, Biology, Computer Science, Environmental Sciences, Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, Psychology, and Statistics to fill their three required science classes.

The very idea of a core curriculum ties in to a very old debate as to the purpose of higher education. Is college supposed to, as Columbia states, “help students to understand the civilization of their own day and to participate effectively in it,” or is it to provide specialized job training for a designated career? Passionate arguments for both sides have been made for centuries, and the battle continues through higher education policy and programming today.

In an early sequence in the film, a Professor glibly announces that he is introducing a modified honor system for an upcoming quiz – saying that any cheating is to be met with “sniper fire” from Nazis located in a nearby tower, who he claims trained with UT-Austin sniper Charles Whitman. While all of the students take this as an obvious joke, this kind of quip from a professor would almost certainly be received with hostility from students and fellow faculty alike.

An inappropriate joke by a King’s College London professor in 2018 led to disciplinary action from his professional association; in 2011, a Roosevelt University sociology professor’s immigration joke led to an investigation, and ultimately his dismissal from the university; in 2015, a Louisiana State University professor was fired for telling sexually-themed jokes to undergraduate students. While all of the aforementioned cases involved at least questionable professionalism, they all pale in comparison to the dark comments from the Lanier College professor in this movie, which could easily be interpreted as a direct, physical threat to his students.

The UT-Austin sniper killings, which were referenced in the aforementioned scene, took place 15 years prior to the release of this film. However, numerous other notable spree killings occurred on college campuses in the intervening years. For example,  in 1966, a copycat of the UT-Austin sniper killed 5 people and injured 2 others at the Rose-Mar College of Beauty in Mesa, AZ.  In 1970, 2 University of Pennsylvania professors were gunned down by a disgruntled graduate student. In 1969, two students at UCLA were killed by a third, who was never apprehended. In 1971, a spree shooter shot four people at Gonzaga University. In 1976, a university custodian killed 7 people and wounded 2 others at California State University – Fullerton. Even in 1981, the year of the film’s release, a flunking University of Michigan student killed two of his peers on campus. Even this is only an abridged list – there were numerous other incidences between 1966 and 1981, let alone in the ensuing years afterward the film’s release.

However, there is a key difference between the typical campus killer and the villain portrayed in Final Exam. Most campus shooters fit the definition of either spree killers or mass murderers, whereas the killer in this film is unquestionably a serial killer who targets college students.

Speaking of which, I was able to find one serial killer who specifically targeted college students – Danny Rolling, the “Gainesville Ripper,” who brutally killed five college students in the Gainesville, FL area over the course of four days in August of 1990.

When discussing the potential of campus violence, the characters in the film always assume it will be a random “psycho” who will show up on campus to bring the chaos (which ultimately proves to be the case). However, judging from the records I could dig up, the odds are far more likely that a member of the university community would commit such a public, on-campus act – whether a student, faculty member, or staff member.

In an early scene, a Lanier College fraternity launches a shocking, mock mass shooting on the Lanier College quad, terrifying the student body as an apparent prank. Ultimately, the intention behind the prank is to push back exam week, giving fraternity members more time to make a plan to cheat their way through the tests.

Outside of a bunch of conspiracy theories about crisis actors, I couldn’t find any documentation of a mock mass shooting on a college campus. Cheating, however, is an undeniably common practice. On top of the mock mass shooting, there are a number of other times where students at Lanier College are shown plotting to steal tests or actively tampering with grades. In 2015, there was a case at Texas Tech where a number of students tampered with their grades to graduate, but were caught by a professor and investigated. A Kessler International survey of 300 college students found that 86% admitted to cheating in some way in college coursework. A 2013 Boston Globe article claimed that the percentage of college students who are admitted cheaters is at 75%, and has been for some time.

At one point, one of the fraternity members in the film complains to a professor that “this isn’t the test I studied,” which seems to be a reference to the somewhat ethically dubious practice of test banking. Test banking is the practice of keeping copies and records of previous tests, which are frequently used by fraternities and other student organizations. While some schools and professors encourage this practice, many still find it to be ethically questionable.

At one point in the film, one of the characters tells the story of a student who rushed to join a sorority at Lanier College, but was ultimately rejected, and subsequently committed suicide. This kind of story is the sort that gets told over and over again, until people eventually just assume it is true. Personally, I haven’t been able to produce a single instance of a suicide that attributed a sorority rejection as the cause. Kind of like with the Dead Man On Campus roommate suicide straight-A scenario, this is something that is an unfounded hypothetical that has ballooned into the public consciousness over the years, despite there never apparently being a root truth behind it.

Final Exam, at the end of the day, is a weird, mostly-forgotten little film. It was a bit of an oddball choice to cover here on the blog, but I am glad I did. While it isn’t a movie I can particularly recommend, it brought up a fair number of interesting higher education issues and topics for me to dig into. Horror fans who enjoy an off-the-beaten-path slasher movie might get a kick out of this one, but otherwise I think it is worth a pass. If the Rotten Tomatoes scores of 14% / 18% say anything, it is that there are long odds that any given person is going to enjoy this flick.

Ivy On Celluloid: Accepted

Accepted

For today’s Ivy On Celluloid, I’m going to look at the portrayal of higher education in the 2006 comedy, Accepted.

The plot of Accepted is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A high school slacker who’s rejected by every school he applies to opts to create his own institution of higher learning, the South Harmon Institute of Technology, on a rundown piece of property near his hometown.

The screenplay for Accepted has three credited writers: Adam Cooper (Exodus: Gods and Kings), Bill Collage (Assassin’s Creed, Allegiant), and Mark Perez (Game Night, The Country Bears).

Accepted was directed by Steve Pink, a writer and director who also worked on the films High Fidelity, Hot Tub Time Machine, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, and Grosse Pointe Blank, and the shows Santa Clarita Diet and Cobra Kai.

The cast of the film includes Justin Long (Tusk, Drag Me To Hell, Waiting…), Jonah Hill (The Wolf Of Wall Street, War Dogs, 21 Jump Street, Moneyball), Maria Thayer (State of Play), Blake Lively (The Town, The Shallows), Anthony Heald (Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs), Lewis Black (The Daily Show, Inside Out), and Kellan Lutz (The Legend of Hercules, Twilight).

The cinematographer for Accepted was Matthew F. Leonetti, whose shooting credits include Star Trek: First Contact, Santa’s Slay, The Butterfly Effect, Hard To Kill, Action Jackson, Red Heat, Weird Science, The Bat People, and Dragnet.

Accepted was edited by Scott Hill, whose other cutting credits include Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Bruce Almighty, Evan Almighty, Here Comes The Boom, and Zookeeper.

In 2011, a loose Bollywood remake of Accepted was made, titled F.A.L.T.U.. It used many of the same elements as its predecessor, but changed the setting of the film. The world “faltu” in Hindi translates to “useless” in English.

Accepted was made on a budget of $23 million, on which it took in $38.5 million in its lifetime theatrical release. Taking into account advertising and post-production costs, the film probably wasn’t terribly profitable. Critically, the reception to Accepted was mixed. On Rotten Tomatoes, it holds scores of 37% from critics and 72% from audiences, alongside an IMDb user rating of 6.5/10.

As far as college comedies go, this is one of the more bearable ones that I’ve come across. There is still a lot of crassness and sexism to be found, to be sure, but it didn’t make me as livid as a lot of other college comedy films.

When it comes to the portrayal of higher education in Accepted, this is a movie that deals with some issues that most college stories don’t necessarily touch on, like what the minimum requirements for a university are, what the purpose of higher education is, and what fraud looks like in this realm.

The story of Accepted takes place in the state of Ohio, though the specific location is fictitious. Harmon College, as it is portrayed, it not a real institution in Ohio, though it could be a stand-in for any number of the many universities and colleges in Ohio. Interestingly, there is a Harmon College that exists within the University of Central Missouri, but it isn’t an autonomous institution.

A number of other higher education institutions are mentioned but not seen in the film. Oddly, some of these are real universities, whereas others are not. For instance, B is rejected from “Ohio State College,” which is clearly meant as a fictional stand in for the Ohio State University. Rory, however, is rejected from the very real Yale University, and an unnamed character is shown celebrating an acceptance into Princeton University.

At one point, the topic of B’s admissions essay comes up. Apparently, his essay was themed around how he “doesn’t have a clue” what to do with his life, which his sister claims is part of why he failed to get accepted anywhere. Later in the film, it is shown that B is pretty good improvisational speaker, and is able to weave complicated deceptions and inspirational speeches from thin air. At his core, he is a gifted storyteller / huckster, which is a skill which might have helped him out with his essay. In an article in the US News & World Report, it is stated that individualism, likability, and vivid storytelling are all key components to a successful and effective admissions essay. Personally, I think that if B had channeled his existing skills, he might have been able to concoct a brilliant essay that would have possibly compensated for his insufficient grades. However, it sounds like he couldn’t muster any genuine passion for his applications, which probably came through in his writing. That – rather than just his topic of choice – likely contributed to his inability to stand out in the admissions review process.

In an early scene, B tries to break his rejection news to his parents by arguing that it is “financially irresponsible to go to college.” This is not an uncommon line of thinking, particularly as the cost of schooling has continued to rise, and success stories of tech industry drop-outs have circulated and enchanted countless budding entrepreneurs. However, his parents immediately shoot him down, with his father stating that:

Society has rules. The first rule is, you go to college. If you want a happy and successful life, you go to college. If you want to be somebody, you go to college.

This is an interesting example of a generational divide when it comes to perceptions of higher education. People who went to college decades ago probably still hold on to the belief that a college is a sort of guarantee of a high quality of life, and the absence of one is a guarantee of the opposite. There was definitely a time where achieving a college degree alone was enough to raise someone’s social status, when it was a far less common achievement. Now, however, it isn’t that simple. College is an opportunity for learning and connections that can eventually lead to more than that. It isn’t, by any means, a guarantee of success.

Something that has always bugged me about this film is the apparent absence of community colleges. In theory, any number of the South Harmon students could have gone to a community college, as they are generally open enrollment. Many students who don’t get into the school they want, or can’t afford the price tag, will take community college classes and later transfer to another institution. While this pathway is definitely not flawless, it has proven viable for more than a few students over the years, and is likely preferable to not taking classes at all. If acceptance (as opposed to rejection) is what South Harmon students were looking for, community colleges is where they could have found it.

B’s sister, who is apparently a pre-teen, is shown to be already preparing for college admissions despite her young age, in the hopes that she will “have a shot.” Their parents are supportive of this, which is becoming increasingly common. In the hopes of standardized test successes and any potential advantage in applications, children are beginning college preparation younger and younger.

One of the central characters of the film, Daryl, is said to be an all-state quality wide receiver. However, at some point, he winds up with a prohibitive injury, which leads to his promised football scholarship being reneged. Prior to the formation of South Harmon, he is left completely adrift, without any clear options.

This is a very real issue that faces college athletes: any injury could not only spell the end of their scholarship, but in some cases the end of a potentially lucrative career as well. A single injury can stand between multiple millions of dollars worth of contracts, and being left with nothing but immense debt and a vacancy where a college degree should be. Consider the story of University of Oklahoma basketball player Kyle Hardrick, who suffered an injury shortly into playing at the university:

As Hardrick tries to resume his career, he has been unable to obtain a medical hardship waiver, something he needs to regain a year of college eligibility. His family has been stuck with tuition bills since his scholarship was not renewed. And with those bills unpaid, he also can’t get his academic transcripts from Oklahoma to transfer to another school.

“You believe that your child will be taken care of on and off that court throughout their college career,” said Valerie Hardrick, Kyle’s mother, at a congressional roundtable discussion last week. “My insurance does not cover all of Kyle’s medical bills.”

With scholarships renewed on a year-to-year basis, stories like Hardrick’s emerge every year across the country.

In an article titled “The Most Evil Thing About College Sports” on Slate.com, Josh Levin writes:

An athletic scholarship is not a four-year educational guarantee. What few college sports fans—and not enough college recruits—realize is that a university can yank that scholarship after one, two, or three years without cause. Coach doesn’t like you? He’s free to cut you loose. Sitting the bench? You could lose your free ride to a new recruit.

[One] roster management strategy, seen often at AlabamaLSU, and other SEC schools, is to rescind a promised scholarship just before the student-athlete’s freshman year.

Daryl’s is not unlike the other stories described here. If anything, he is somewhat fortunate to have been injured prior to getting to college, when a lot of debt could have been on the line.

The character Rory in the film faced another rejection scenario – she applied to only one highly-selective college, and didn’t get in. In this case, her target was Yale University. In her words, her rejection was due to “too many rich kids with mediocre grades and well-connected parents this year” applying for admission this year, meaning there was no room for her. In 2017, Yale was among the most selective of colleges, accepting between 6% and 7% of applicants. Even with an immaculate application, there was no guarantee for Rory’s admission to the school. That said, there is a long history of elitism and admissions bias in the Ivy League and other top-tier institutions, so she is probably not entirely off-base with her assumption. Almost certainly, a child of a trustee of donor would have gotten preferential consideration over here, in one way or another.

When initially designing their fake college, this first steps the gang makes are to design fake acceptance letters, as well as a facade website. Some people might thing that this is beyond belief – surely people would just Google the school and look at the website, and immediately get fishy?

Recently, I read a fantastic book on fraud in higher education called Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over A Million Fake Diplomas. Shockingly, both fake degrees and entirely fake institutions are really common, and people fall for them absolutely all the time. A couple of examples of entirely fake institutions that conferred fake credentials for years were LaSalle University in Louisiana and Columbia State University, both of which took in millions upon millions of dollars in profits before being shut down. Records of fake universities even go back all the way to the 14th century:

So many new universities opened, the University of Paris begged the pope to stop them…because some of the newer ones, more interested in making money than offering education, got into the business of…selling admission…and eventually the selling of degrees themselves.

Bear, J. & Ezell, A. (2012). Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over A Million Fake Diplomas. p. 34

Even more disturbing than how profitable and prolific fake universities are, is just how easy it is to get a hold of one of their degrees. In 1984, just to see how easy it really was, U.S. House of Representatives staff took $1800, and used it to buy a doctorate from the fake Union University in Los Angeles. The fake degree was written out to Rep. Claude Pepper, thus making him, nominally, “Dr. Pepper.” Taking it a step further, the staff members then made up their own fake university, and displayed to the House of Representatives how easy the process was (Bear & Ezell, p. 38).

The biggest difference between South Harmon Institute of Technology and most fake universities in real life is that “real” fake universities rarely, if ever, have a physical campus. Today, almost all fake universities utilize the internet as their primary platform, whereas they previously did a lot of their business over the phone through cold-calling. The audacity and impracticality of trying to pull off a false campus is clear from watching Accepted: the whole process is unbelievably complicated and tenuous. After all, imagine how much easier it would have been for B to concoct an online college: he wouldn’t have had to invest in a location, wouldn’t have had to improvise in his interactions with students, wouldn’t have had to deal with the liability of housing students, etc. However, this gets into another interesting aspect of the film – the guidelines for accreditation, as outlined in the climactic hearing with a state accrediting board.

As stated in the film, there are two sets of qualifications needed for SHIT to earn accreditation. First:

The state defines a college as a body of people with a shared common purpose of a higher education…that’s us, with the word ‘higher’ kind of loosely defined – B

As B notes, SHIT loosely qualifies as a college based on this definition. Thus, the team has to meet three additional stated requirements for accreditation – they have to prove that their college has a facility, a curriculum, and a faculty. While they ultimately provisionally pass accreditation by the skin of their teeth, there are a whole lot of problems with this whole process.

First off, the state does not accredit colleges. That work is done by independent accrediting agencies, such as the Higher Learning Commission or the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges. So, the entire basis of the hearing is bizarre and inaccurate.

Here is an example of the guidelines that an accreditation agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, uses. It has 9 general standards for accreditation, each of which has between 5 and 49 specific points beneath them. NEASC states that each of these standards “articulates a dimension of institutional quality”, and that “serious weaknesses in a particular area may threaten the institution’s accreditation.” There is, to be blunt, no chance that B and company could have weaseled their way through an actual accreditation process by one of these rigorous agencies. Their ad hoc institution simply could not meet these sorts of qualifications, given the amount of red tape and planning that would be necessary for the process.

In the film, the villainous President of Harmon College is shown to be planning an expansion of the campus into the impoverished surrounding area, in order to build a ceremonial gateway. This is something that actually happens as well – the University of Southern California, for example, recently expanded further into the low-income neighborhood of Inglewood, though it was in order to create more student housing.

Lewis Black’s character in Accepted was said to have once been a college Dean, but apparently “resigned” by sending bag of dog feces to his university’s president many years before the events of the movie. Regrettably, I wasn’t able to dig up any similar instances of over-the-top resignations of Deanships. However, in some ways, Black’s character’s opinions on and frustrations with the state of higher ed echo that of former MIT Dean Christine Ortiz, who left her Deanship in order to start an innovative, experimental university called Station1 that would forego traditional classes, classrooms, or departments.

The curriculum design that is shown at South Hampton is, to put it lightly, as bizarre as it is non-rigorous and disgusting. Some classes, as far as I can tell, consist of only leering at women, or learning skeevy pick-up artist tricks (“Hitting on Strippers” stands out). In fact, a huge number of the shown classes are centered on the study of “girls,” (not to be confused with women’s studies) as the primarily-male student body was able to design all of the course offerings. Other classes included real arts-based teachings, like wood carving, music, sculpting, fashion design, and the culinary arts, but most of the classes are shown to be effectively either nonsense, immensely creepy, or both.

One of the key selling points for South Hampton Institute of Technology in the film is that there are no traditional grades. In reality, there are some colleges that have tried to circumvent the stresses and anxieties that come along with traditional grading. Reed College, for example, records letter grades, but doesn’t release them to students. The rationale is that students can then focus on intellectual and academic pursuits instead of aiming for just a letter grade.

At one point, it is revealed that the student population of the South Harmon Institute of Technology is roughly 300. This is a very, very small student population, to the point that it would comfortably land among the smallest higher education institutions in the United States, most of which are seminaries or highly specialized art, music, or architecture schools.

As a film, I’m not a huge fan of Accepted. That said, I appreciate that it is different than most college movies, and deals with different issues related to higher education. It also actually feels like a movie that the cast and crew enjoyed making, which doesn’t always seem to be the case with these. Still, I feel like there was far more satiric potential with this movie than was ultimately tapped into by the production. As far as a recommendation goes, I think I can lightly recommend it, with a distinct caveat for the shallow, crass, sexist content of the school’s curriculum.

Ivy On Celluloid: The Skulls

The Skulls

In today’s edition of Ivy on Celluloid, I want to dig into the portrayal of higher education in Rob Cohen’s conspiracy thriller, The Skulls.

The plot of The Skulls is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Luke McNamara, a college senior from a working class background joins a secret elitist college fraternity organization called “The Skulls”, in hope of gaining acceptance into Harvard Law School. At first seduced by the club’s trapping of power and wealth, a series of disturbing incidents, such as his best friends suicide, leads Luke to investigate the true nature of the organization and the truth behind his friends supposed suicide. He starts realizing that his future and possibly his life is in danger.

The screenplay of The Skulls was written by John Pogue, who has credits on films like U.S. Marshals, Rollerball, Ghost Ship, and The Quiet Ones.

The Skulls was directed by Rob Cohen, whose other directorial credits include DragonHeart, Stealth, xXx, and Alex Cross.

The cast of The Skulls includes Joshua Jackson (The Mighty Ducks, D2: The Mighty Ducks, Urban Legend, Fringe, Dawson’s Creek), Paul Walker (The Fast and The Furous, She’s All That, Into The Blue, Pleasantville), Hill Harper (Homeland, Concussion, CSI: NY), Leslie Bibb (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Midnight Meat Train), Christopher McDonald (Quiz Show, Broken Flowers, The Faculty, The Iron Giant, Happy Gilmore), William Petersen (Manhunter, To Live And Die In LA, CSI), and Craig T. Nelson (Coach, Poultergeist).

The cinematographer for the film was Shane Hurlbut, who also shot Terminator Salvation, Into the Blue, Need for Speed, Semi-Pro, We Are Marshall, and Drumline.

The editor for The Skulls was Peter Amundson, who has cut some other notable films –  Pacific Rim, Gamer, Hellboy, The Buttefly Effect, Godzilla, Blade II, and Shoot ‘Em Up, to name a few.

The music used in The Skulls was composed by Randy Edelman, who also provided music for the television series MacGuyver and Alvin & The Chipmunks, as well as for movies like The Mask, Balls of Fury, xXx, Corky Romano, Anaconda, Ghostbusters 2, My Cousin Vinny, Executive Action, and Twins.

Film critic Roger Ebert famously despised The Skulls, and gave it a biting review. In it, he states that the movie is “so ludicrous in so many different ways it achieves a kind of forlorn grandeur.” Most other critics were of a same mind – The Skulls currently holds a dismal Rotten Tomatoes critic rating of 8%. Audiences were hardly fond of it either, giving it a 43% on Rotten Tomatoes and an IMDb user score of 5.6/10. Financially, despite the bad reviews, The Skulls easily took in a profit on its production budget of $15 million – all in all, it had lifetime theatrical gross of $50.8 million.

The Skulls, as the critics have described it, is “boneheaded,” “ludicrous,” “ridiculous,” and “stupid.” However, it definitely had a solid acorn of a concept for a thriller – lots of people believe that secret Ivy League societies have sinister intentions, and far too much power and influence on society. As far as the portrayal of higher education goes, The Skulls is a bit of a doozy – while there are definitely real inspirations, there is also a lot of conjecture, assumptions, and illogical leaps made for dramatic effect. Let’s start with some basics.

To begin with, let’s figure out the host school for the plot. The real Skull and Bones society, which The Skulls are based on, is located at Yale University, so it a isn’t a huge leap to assume that Yale is the story’s setting. Adding to this, a number of other Ivy League institutions are mentioned by name throughout the film, including Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, Cornell University, and Princeton University. However, the clear inspiration – Yale University – is never explicitly mentioned. However, there are a ton of allusions to the institution in the film’s details. First, the inclusion of their Ivy League fellows in the crew competition is a pretty big hint, particularly as Yale is conspicuously absent from the commentary. Going even further than that, the school that serves as the backdrop for the events of the story is shown to have Yale’s colors, Yale’s mascot (bulldogs), and there are even large “Y”s located all over the campus. The production clearly did the bare minimum to conceal that Yale was their target of criticism – they wanted people to know, but didn’t want to be so explicit as to open themselves to potential legal ramifications.

In the opening scene of the film, a class is shown discussing the nature of modern American society. Specifically, they are discussing whether it fits the definition of a meritocracy or an aristocracy. This is a huge part of the conflict of the film, as it follows a commoner trying to rise in social status through meritocratic means. However, this is also a point of great debate when it comes to discussions of college in general. Higher education institutions, particularly the most prestigious of colleges, have an elitist reputation, which comes from years of preferential admissions policies and prohibitive costs. Are colleges really meritocratic, as they claim to be, or are they a function of an aristocratic, classist society? Critics of the Ivy League, and traditional higher ed in general, often argue the latter.

As mentioned previously, the inspiration for the film is the long-running secret society at Yale University called Skull and Bones. Ironically, it is hardly much of a secret society anymore – there is not only a wikipedia list of suspected or confirmed notable members, but there was a detailed expose of the society written in 1977 by Ron Rosenbaum, and published in Esquire. Also, if you really had the desire, you could find a litany of conspiracy theory YouTube videos speculating as to the society’s misdeeds. At a certain point, you aren’t really a secret society anymore.

That said, Skull and Bones is far from the only secret society housed at a university. Wouldn’t you know it, but there is a thorough wikipedia page for that too! Some, of course, are more secret than others. At my undergraduate institution, The University of Alabama – Tuscaloosa, the secret society known as The Machine was all but an established public entity. Honestly, I don’t think anybody didn’t know about them. From what I understood, though, they mostly just functioned as a corrupt, back-channel bureaucracy.

Early in the film, Luke and Will discuss what they expect their total higher education debt to be by the time they graduate. Luke, assuming he gains admittance to Harvard University’s law school, anticipates to owe between $100,000 to $110,000  for his undergraduate studies at [redacted], and an additional $100,000 to $115,000 for his law school costs at Harvard. According to the Harvard Law website, the total cost for the 2018-2019 academic year is estimated to be $95,930. Assuming that number stays level (tuition raises are hardly uncommon), a full three years of law school at Harvard University would now cost almost $290,000, over twice that of Luke’s 1999-2000 estimate. That isn’t just inflation, either: $115,000 in 2000 is roughly equivalent to $166,700 in 2018. Yale’s undergraduate tuition, meanwhile, is currently estimated at just north of $69,000 per academic year, which is equivalent to $277,720 for a full four years – well above the $100,000 to $110,000 range that Luke notes.

The first assignment given to the new prospective Skulls in the film is to steal a statue from a rival secret society. This isn’t a terribly uncommon prank on college campuses, but the most similar instance in history I can think of is the ritualistic stealing of the The Harvard Lampoon‘s Ibis statue by staff members of the rival student publication, The Harvard Crimson. It has apparently happened many, many times over the years – at one point, the statue was even gifted to a Soviet consul as a symbol of peace, in an attempt to move the statue out of the country.

One of the most ludicrous aspects of The Skulls is the character played by Christopher McDonald. As is stated in the film, he is the Provost of the university (remember, this is essentially Yale University). However, it appears through his actions that he has the skill set and abilities of a special operations agent or a hitman, and is shown attempting/committing murder numerous times.

For context, a Provost is one of the highest positions at a university, and is typically the #2 administrator behind the President. It is the equivalent position to a Vice President, and is sometimes even called a Vice President of Academic Affairs. The idea that such a person would have this skill set is a reach – they would likely be a senior career academic. However, the notion that they would actually use such skills – or even have the time to – is utterly bonkers. Universities are big, complicated mechanisms, and being the #2 ranking person running such an operation doesn’t afford a lot of free time to gallivant about and murder folks. Honestly, at best, they might delegate the task. However, the idea that the Yale University Provost is a gun-slingling, car-chasing, neck-snapping henchman is nothing short of laughable. Try to picture the current Yale University Provost, Dr. Ben Polak, doing anything that McDonald does in this film:

Dr. Polak was an Economics professor for roughly 20 years, and was a passionate member of the University Budget Committee during that time. Unless he has some unexpected hobbies, he doesn’t seem like the kind of dude a secret society would use as muscle.

One of the most notable symbols of The Skulls is a brand, which is located on the wrist of members, and concealed by a watch. While there is no evidence of branding bring done by the real Skull and Bones, the watch detail is apparently accurate: members of the society do receive a wristwatch. In fact, star Joshua Jackson was able to acquire one of these watches, and gave it to director Rob Cohen as a gift.

The climax of the film takes the form of a traditional pistol duel between Luke and Caleb. This got me pretty curious – have there been any formal pistol duels on a college campus? Nowadays, the idea of a firefight between students on campus is horrifying, but duels were a very real (though not necessarily accepted) part of American society for quite some time. As it so happens, I found an example of just such a case. In 1833, two students at South Carolina College engaged in a pistol duel “after an argument over a plate of fish at the college dining hall.” Both young men apparently died of their wounds.

While I am definitely not a fan of The Skulls as a film – it is actually shockingly boring – I definitely think that there was potential from the real-life source material to make an interesting story, particularly when you consult some of the more outlandish conspiracy theories surrounding the Skull and Bones. While it does touch on some contemporary issues in higher education, the foundation in reality is pretty shaky, to the point that it is basically a fantasy film. If the screenplay hadn’t delved into the deeper, wilder conspiracy stuff, there was potential here for a fish-out-of-water, class conflict drama with the exact same premise, that might have even been more interesting (and definitely more accurate and relatable). For what exists, though, this isn’t a movie I can recommend – it is a huge squandering of an intriguing idea and wonderful cast of character actors.

Ivy On Celluloid: Orange County

Orange County

Today, I’m going back to my series on the depictions of higher education on film with the 2002 comedy, Orange County.

The plot of Orange County is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A guidance counselor mistakenly sends out the wrong transcripts to Stanford University under the name of an over-achieving high schooler.

Orange County was written by Mike White, whose other screenplay credits include The Emoji Movie, Pitch Perfect 3, Brad’s Status, Nacho Libre, School of Rock, and previous “Ivy on Celluloid” feature, Dead Man On Campus.

The director for the film was Jake Kasdan, son of noted director, screenwriter, and producer Lawrence Kasdan. His other directorial works include Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Bad Teacher, Sex Tape, and the recent Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. numerous episodes of the television shows New Girl and Freaks and Geeks.

The cast of Orange County includes Colin Hanks (Fargo, Roswell), Jack Black (High Fidelity, School of Rock, Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny, King Kong), Schuyler Fisk (Snow Day, The Baby-Sitters Club), John Lithgow (Harry and the Hendersons, Raising Cain, Cliffhanger, Interstellar, Dexter), Lily Tomlin (The West Wing, Nashville, Short Cuts, I Heart Huckabees, Grace & Frankie, The Magic School Bus), Catherine O’Hara (Best In Show, Home Alone, Wyatt Earp, A Mighty Wind), Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters II), Kevin Kline (Wild Wild West, A Fish Called Wanda, The Big Chill), and Chevy Chase (Fletch, Community, Caddyshack, Vacation, Nothing But Trouble).

The cinematographer for Orange County was Greg Gardiner, who also shot such comedic films as Elf, Son of the Mask, Herbie: Fully Loaded, Men In Black II, and Marmaduke.

Likewise, the film’s editor has an extensive resume in comedy: Tara Timpone cut Slackers, Sex Tape, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Bad Teacher, and multiple episodes of the television shows Freaks & Geeks, The Grinder, and Fresh Off the Boat.

The musical score for Orange County was provided by Michael Andrews, who also did music for the movies Donnie Darko, The Big Sick, Dirty Grandpa, Sex Tape, The Heat, and Cyrus, as well as for the television shows Freaks & Geeks, Undeclared, and Friends From College.

Jack Black’s part as the stoned, ne’er-do-well older brother of the protagonist was written specifically for him – Black was friends and neighbors with the film’s screenwriter Mike White. The two have gone on to collaborate numerous times over the years.

One of the key points of criticism that was consistently thrown at Orange County at the time of its release was its questionable casting of so many children of Hollywood notables in key roles. For instance, one scathing review from Rita Kempley in The Washington Post read as follows:

If director Jake Kasdan hadn’t been the son of Lawrence, leading man Colin Hanks hadn’t been the son of Tom, and love interest Schuyler Fisk hadn’t been the daughter of Sissy Spacek, would there be an “Orange County”? Probably not.

“Orange County” is strictly a vanity vehicle with a mess of star babies on board. That would be just fine if it didn’t take us down the same old cul-de-sac. But it does, and with a vengeance.

In its lifetime theatrical run, Orange County took in just over $43.3 million on a production budget estimated to be at $18 million, making it a profitable venture if not a blockbuster. Critically, however, the reception was mixed: it currently holds a 6.2/10 user rating on IMDb, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 46% critics and 61% from audiences.

In his review in Variety, Todd McCarthy wrote:

[Kasdan] and White aim very low here and fail to take advantage of the abundant opportunities for social satire that its upper class and academic settings provide…White hasn’t attempted any cultural critique at all.

McCarthy has a really good point in his criticism here – Orange County, at the end of the day, doesn’t have anything to say, which is a big problem. Ultimately, it is a story of the plight of a person with immense privilege trying to get into college. The movie could have at least used self-criticism for comedy – pointing out how many breaks the protagonist has and gets to achieve his ends, none of which are earned. It could have even given us a foil – someone who got into Stanford, despite being poor, a woman, of a marginalized racial identity, etc. The humility and grounding of such an encounter could have served as a moment of maturation for the protagonist. Instead, we get a protagonist who displays immense entitlement, sexism, and elitism who is entirely incapable of self-reflection or empathy for those around him, who ultimately still gets everything he really wants.

To be frank, I absolutely loathe this movie. The protagonist is despicable and unlikable, to the point that I think this movie is an unintentional homage to American Psycho. The comedy, where it exists, isn’t terribly funny, despite a talented cast. Despite all of that, it is a movie about the college admissions process, and thus portrays quite a few aspects of higher education. So, lets get on to an analysis of higher ed in Orange County.

One of the first characters introduced in the film is an unqualified high school English teacher, who is shown to be unfamiliar with the works of Shakespeare. While this is definitely an exaggeration, it alludes to the popular perception that many high school teachers aren’t qualified or prepared to fill their positions.

Also in one of the high school sequences, there is a scenario shown in which a student is given exemption from specific coursework due to trauma/grief. I covered this pretty extensively in my write-up on Dead Man On Campus – basically, schools will make reasonable concessions for grief and trauma experienced by students, but not in the form of a pass or full exemption. Tests and assignments might have extended deadlines, or students can dis-enroll temporarily without penalty, but A’s for grieving don’t seem to actually happen.

At one point in the film, it is revealed that the protagonist scored a 1520 on his SAT, which led him to believe he was a shoo-in at Stanford. At the time of filming, the SAT was graded on a 1600 scale, which subsequently shifted in 2005 to 2400 scale, and then ultimately back to a 1600 scale in 2016. In any case, it is definitely a very good score given the time period. However, even a high SAT score is not a guarantee of admission to an institution like Stanford. Even if everything in the application had gone in accurately and according to plan, there was no guarantee of Stanford admission. The sense of entitlement the character expresses is utterly unjustified. Here are some contemporaneous Stanford University admissions statistics that I was able to dig up online:

12.4 percent of the applicants for fall 2002 were offered admission, compared with 12.7 percent for fall 2001 and 13.2 percent for fall 2000.

So, again, there’s definitely no guarantee of admission here. It is also worth noting that, following that stated trend, Stanford University is even more selective today. In 2017, only 4.73 percent of applicants were ultimately admitted.

In one scene John Lithgow complains that “all writers are poor,” as he puts down his son’s decision to want to become a writer. This sort of tension between parents and students over liberal arts majors is a very real thing – there is a popular impression that liberal arts degrees aren’t cost-effective, and don’t lead to careers. Basically, some parents see such pursuits in college as a waste of money. This gets at a very old debate as to the purpose of college – is the institution there simply to provide career training, or does it have a broader, more generalist purpose for students to become more rounded? It is a debate that isn’t likely to have an end any time soon, and it echoes through personal relationships and political policy divides alike.

One of the many schemes that is hatched to earn Shaun a back-door admission to Stanford University is through a private meeting with a member of the university’s board of trustees. Another such scheme involved Shaun’s father “buying” him admission by making a large donation to the University. One similar situation occurred in real life, when The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wound up in hot water in 2009. The Chicago Tribune revealed that “some students with subpar academic records [were] being admitted after interference from state lawmakers and university trustees.” After an investigation, it was found that there were “acts and omissions of University officials across all levels of leadership [that] substantially contributed to admissions-related abuses and irregularities,” after which, the Board of Trustees of the University were asked to resign, and the President of the University voluntarily did so. The truth is, such practices are typically kept mum, but admissions corruption has seemingly been accepted as a part of life at higher ed institutions – people with connections, money, and status have an advantage when it comes to admissions. In that sense, Orange County appears to be a pretty (depressingly) accurate portrayal of the admissions process. The Stanford University student newspaper has even noted as such:

..some [Stanford University] applicants may have less cause for concern due to unique privileges gained from special connections with [Stanford]. According to former University admissions officers and college admissions experts, the difference made for those applicants—including legacies, children of faculty and development cases—may, in some cases, bridge the gap between acceptance and rejection.

Yet another admissions scheme hatched by Shaun and company is to directly compel Stanford’s  Dean of Admissions to personally review his application. From what I can tell, Admissions Deans do have a lot of power in the process of acceptance, but they are not a solo operation: Admissions offices require a good number of people to go through applications and make decisions. Even if Shaun made an excellent impression by invading the Dean’s personal abode in the middle of the night and drugging him, that’s not a guarantee of admission – if anything, that kind of back-channeling could be seen as an abuse of the Dean’s position. Then again, ethical concerns are already tossed out the window with this movie, so maybe that is totally in-bounds after all.

Early in the film, there is disturbing moment played for laughs. When Shaun discovers that his high school college counselor made an error in sending his test scores and transcripts to Stanford University, he violently attacks her. This got me curious – are there any documented cases of violence from rejected students towards high school counselors or college admissions officers?

I wasn’t able to find any cases like that, though there are a litany of articles out there that are aimed at helping rejected applicants deal with their feelings. Interestingly, I found one article from 2009 that covered the “cruelest and kindest rejection letters from colleges and universities,” which had the following to say about Stanford University in particular, which includes a quote from the Dean of Admissions:

Stanford University sends a steely “don’t call us” message embedded in its otherwise gentle rejection letter. In addition to asserting that “we are humbled by your talents and achievements” and assuring the applicant that he or she is “a fine student,” the letter says, “we are not able to consider appeals.”… It also discourages attempts to transfer later, an even more competitive process. One recipient, whose heart had long been set on Stanford, cried for hours, her mother says, after interpreting the letter as, “we never want to hear from you again so don’t bother.”

Stanford admissions dean Richard Shaw says the ban on appeals is necessary because other California universities allow appeals and families assume Stanford does too. Even after sending that firm message, Stanford, which has an admission rate of 7.6%, still gets about 200 attempted appeals. “We care deeply about the repercussions” of the letter, Mr. Shaw says, but “there’s no easy way to tell someone they didn’t make it.”

Going back to the impetus for the film – the error of sending the wrong student transcript to a college – I decided to look for some real examples of this sort of occurrence. From a Google search, there are plenty of forum posts out there that claim similar scenarios. Once such post on college confidential outlines a similar set of events as what happened in the movie (though they did apply and get accepted to a safety school, despite the error):

[The counselor] notified all the schools, but the admissions processes are already in motion, and I am afraid they will not consider me for scholarship money or even admission because of how screwed up my file is. I called all the schools, and while some them have replaced my incorrect transcripts with correct ones my guidance counselor sent, others are saying they will “figure out the error as they go.” I am really, really upset. This mistake has already made me receive a deferral from one of my top choices because of the credits that were missing.

In general, it sounds like most schools understand that clerical errors can and do happen, though some are less forgiving than others in such matters. Some institutions do have an appeals process to handle just such situations. However, as covered earlier, Stanford University is not one. No luck for Shaun there.

One of the most dramatic events in Orange County is the unintentional arson of the Stanford University admissions building (in real life, this appears to be Montag Hall). While I haven’t been able to find any records of an arson in Montag Hall, I did find some interesting points of history. In 1971, there was a firebombing at Tufts University of the office of a Dean, which was followed up by a bomb threat of the Admissions Office. In 2013, there was a fire set just outside of the doors of the admissions building at the College of Wooster. While neither of these instances were on the level of what was depicted in the film, this is as close as the official record seems to get.

Towards the end of the film, Shaun and company make the drive from Orange County to Stanford in what is said to be 3 hours. According to Google Maps, that is a roughly 400 mile, 7 hour drive. So, in order for the drive to take that long, the car would need to be travelling over twice the speed limit for the entire route with no traffic, which is far from realistic, particularly for I-5. Also, the vehicle they are in seems hardly able to handle 3 hours of 140+ mph driving.

At one point, Shaun is shown considering suicide due to his rejection from Stanford. As it, happens, I wrote at length about issues of suicide in higher education in my post on Dead Man On Campus. However, I didn’t look specifically at admissions rejections as a factor. As it so happens, I found a thread on this topic on College Confidential, but there were no verifiable instances of a suicide that directly attributed college rejection as the impetus. That is not to say that this has never happened, but I couldn’t find anything to verify this belief that seems to exist in the zeitgeist.

As I stated earlier, I really dislike this movie. However, there are some interesting higher ed issues that are brought up by the film, though they aren’t particularly criticized or illuminated by the story or the characters. Still, this isn’t a movie I recommend seeking out – if you are one of the people who remembers it fondly, I highly recommend not revisiting it.

Personally, I’m shocked Orange County wasn’t torn apart by critics more at the time – Shaun is maybe the most unintentionally unlikable character I have ever seen in a movie. Not only is he shown to be dismissively sexist and elitist through his PoV, but his entitlement to Stanford admission, constant condescension to his family and friends, and harassment/exploitation/abuse of anyone in his path makes him pretty much unforgivable. On top of that, he genuinely seems incapable of love or mourning throughout the events of the movie. At best, he has to be prompted into emulating these natural emotional processes. People, apparently, are merely means to his ends. Basically, Shaun is a monster, and represents just about everything people loathe about the institution of higher education.