In this installment of Ivy On Celluloid, the series where I examine movies about higher education, I’m going to take a look at the tone-deaf 1998 suicide-centered comedy, Dead Man On Campus.
The plot of Dead Man On Campus is summarized on IMDb as follows:
Two college roommates go out and party, resulting in bad grades. They learn of the clause that says, “If your roommate dies, you get an A,” and decide to find someone who is on the verge, so to speak, to move in with them.
The screenplay for Dead Man On Campus is credited to Mike White (The Emoji Movie, School of Rock, Nacho Libre, Orange County) and Michael Traeger (The Amateurs).
Dead Man On Campus was directed by Alan Cohn, whose other credits include directing a handful of episodes of The Man Show, and composing the theme music for The Wayans Bros.
The cast of the movie includes Tom Everett Scott (Boiler Room, That Thing You Do), Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Saved By The Bell, NYPD Blue), Poppy Montgomery (Without A Trace, Unforgettable), Lochlyn Munro (Riverdale, White Chicks, Unforgiven), Alyson Hannigan (American Pie, How I Met Your Mother), and Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, The Muppets, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man).
The cinematographer for the film was John Thomas, who has shot movies like Sex & The City and Sex & The City 2, as well as television series like Gossip Girl, The Big C, Conviction, Law & Order, Law & Order: Trial By Jury, and Sex & The City.
The editor for Dead Man On Campus was Debra Chiate, who also cut Movie 43, The House Bunny, Never Been Kissed, Clueless, Look Who’s Talking, and Look Who’s Talking Too, among others.
The musical score for the film was composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, whose other credits include The Lego Movie, Last Vegas, Fanboys, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Sorority Boys.
Interestingly, Dead Man On Campus follows a similar plot and premise to another movie from the same year: The Curve, starring Matthew Lillard. However, that movie is a thriller: a more fitting genre for the premise than comedy.
Dead Man On Campus was made on a production budget of $14 million, and was the third theatrical release by MTV films (Orange County, Napoleon Dynamite, Jackass: The Movie). However, it brought in just over $15 million in its lifetime theatrical run, barely covering the production budget, and almost certainly failing to turn a profit. The critical reception wasn’t any better: it currently holds a 6.1/10 user rating on IMDb, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 15% critics and 55% audiences. The Los Angeles Times referred to the film as “disgusting in its ultimate endorsement of conning your way into academic survival,” and The AV Club noted that “it comes off as more ghoulish than anything else.”
Personally, I can’t help but side with the critics here: Dead Man On Campus is as mean-spirited as it is alarmingly unfunny. The characters are outlandishly cruel in their disregard for human life, and the jokes are stoner-grade, lazy attempts at humor when they aren’t punching down at the mentally ill. All of that said, there are some elements of the film that interestingly relate to higher education.
First off, the school that serves as the setting for the film, Daleman College, is entirely fictitious. A couple of universities were used as filming locations to create the institution, however: University of the Pacific and the University of Southern California.
The impetus for the film’s plot is an old higher education urban legend: it claims that, if one’s roommate commits suicide, then the student is granted straight A’s for the semester to cope with the grief. I’m not sure exactly where this idea came from, but, per Snopes, “no college or university in the United States has a policy awarding a 4.0 average (or anything else) to a student whose roommate dies.” To add to that, if any policy did theoretically exist, it would almost certainly vary institution to institution.
While the urban legend may not be true, I was able to dig up a Purdue University study that corroborates the foundational assumption behind the policy: that grief impacts students’ academic performance.
College students who experience the death of a family member or friends also experience a corresponding drop in academic performance during the semester the loss takes place.
– Servaty-Seib, H. L. & Hamilton, L. A. (2006)
An example of a policy that does exist, however, is described as follows (from a Columbia University source):
While a person’s grades will not automatically be changed, most colleges and universities provide some type of emotional and academic support to roommates, including extensions on due dates, make-up exams, and time off without penalty.
On the same note, I also managed to dig up a blog post from The New York Times blog The Choice, which collected a series of comments from former students who dealt with the death of a parent while in college. While this is a different scenario than the one in this movie, these accounts are far more reflective of how your typical university deals with student grief. Here is abridged version of one of the comments:
I will never forget the kindness and consideration that Mount Holyoke College showed me. From getting me on the plane to keeping in touch with me while I was home sitting shivah, they could not have been more compassionate…Each of my faculty members hand-wrote a note of condolence to my mother and me, expressing sympathy and telling me to take as long as I needed in coming back and picking up the responsibilities of my studies…I was able to return promptly and finish the semester with high grades and renewed respect for my college. Forty years later, I still remember.
All of this taken into account, this is an urban legend that is strangely persistent. The Chronicle of Higher Education has referred to it as “one of the most persistent and morbid rumors on college campuses.” I’ve read accounts of it showing up as a matter-of-fact in television shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent and CSI: NY. It is honestly alarming how pervasive this potentially harmful misconception is, to the point that it is just assumed to be true by many.
Getting off of the grim topic of suicide for a moment, I want to address one of the other major focal points of the film: the character Cooper’s most prized possession, a six foot tall bong. Now, I am not what you would describe as a marijuana enthusiast, so I wasn’t sure if this was simply a gag prop, or a practical smoking utensil. As it turns out, if you have about $60, the website smokea.com can hook you up with a six foot bong: the Headway Big Boy. Per the description, “Headway Acrylics has been a leading manufacturer of high quality acrylic water pipes for nearly 20 years” which places its founding roughly around the time of filming for Dead Man On Campus. I suppose that means that the bong prop in the film is plausibly one of their creations?
During an early sequence in Dead Man On Campus, a professor is shown gleefully assigning one of his classes a textbook that he wrote himself. This is, in truth, a very common practice throughout many disciplines. Slate.com featured an article that said the following of professors who assign their own texts:
If your professor requires you to buy his or her own books as course textbooks at full sticker price, get out now…Heed this simple warning, and you are almost certain to avoid your institution’s most pompous, self-serving twits…assigning one’s own work is an eye-roll-inducing ego stroke.
In response to this popular perception of unethical behavior, in 2004, the American Association of University Professors released a statement which generally defended the practice. However, in that same statement, the AAUP cited a handful of standing school policies intended to curb the practice, which is an interesting read:
At Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, materials written by faculty members and intended for purchase by students may not be assigned unless their use is first approved by the appropriate departmental, collegiate, and university-level committees. Faculty members at the University of Minnesota cannot “personally profit from the assignment of materials” to students without authorization of the department chair. At Southern Utah University, a department chair and dean must approve the assignment of faculty-authored materials. Approval by a faculty committee is required at Cleveland State University. Faculty at North Dakota State University and the University of North Texas can assign their own works but are cautioned against retaining profits earned from sales to their students unless, as the North Dakota policy states, “the text has become independently accepted in the field.”
There is a thoughtful post on the ethics of professors selling their own textbooks on PsychologyToday.com which I found to be more than worth the read as well, which comes to a similar conclusion as the AAUP:
I’ve encountered lots of people—students, friends, colleagues, and publishing professionals—who think it’s automatically a conflict of interest for professors to assign their own books. But is it an unethical conflict of interest?…No. Not under most circumstances. Assigning one’s own textbook…is, on the face of it, ethical.
In Dead Man On Campus, the character Josh is shown taking a unique degree program: a six-year combined undergraduate degree and Doctorate of Medicine. I was able to dig up a list from November of 2017 of combined BA/BS/MD programs, of which the following schools reportedly offer a six-year program that high school seniors can apply directly to:
University of Texas Southwestern
Northeast Ohio Medical University
University of Missouri-Kansas City
Sidney Kimmel Medical College
California Northstate University
Getting back to the light and cheery topic of higher education and suicide, Dead Man On Campus‘s lead character of Josh is shown as being held to impossibly high standards by his parents. To paraphrase his mother: “you always exceed my expectations. And I expect straight A’s!” In 2015, The New York Times ran an article titled “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection”, the introduction of which reads almost exactly like Josh’s first act in Dead Man On Campus:
Kathryn DeWitt conquered high school like a gold-medal decathlete. She ran track, represented her school at a statewide girls’ leadership program and took eight Advanced Placement tests, including one for which she independently prepared, forgoing the class.
Expectations were high. Every day at 5 p.m. test scores and updated grades were posted online. Her mother would be the first to comment should her grade go down…In her first two weeks on the University of Pennsylvania campus, she hustled…surrounded by people with seemingly greater drive and ability, she had her first taste of self-doubt…Classmates seemed to have it all together.
The article lays some of the blame for perfectionism on college students’ parents, quoting that “children deserve to be strengthened, not strangled, by the fierceness of a parent’s love.” In the context of Dead Man On Campus, it is an interesting note: by the end of the film, Josh is apparently on the verge of suicide due to his failing to meet the academic expectations of his parents, peers, and professors.
At one point early in the film, it is stated that suicides are a common occurrence on the local college campus, to the point that it is just assumed that at least a few students will kill themselves by the time the semester’s final exams roll around. Unfortunately, suicides are, in fact, tragically common at college campuses. The aforementioned New York Times article notes a preceding academic year that saw 4 suicides at Tulane University, 3 at Appalachian State University, and 6 at the University of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health has reported that 25.5% of college students had “purposely injured themselves,” and that 9.3% of college students had made a suicide attempt in the 2015-2016 school year.
In the story of Dead Man On Campus, Daleman College has launched a campus suicide hotline to help deal with the outbreak of suicides on the campus. While I didn’t find any examples of an identical program in use on a college campus, many colleges are making innovative strides in dealing with the tragedy of student suicides. Ohio State University offers training courses to faculty and students on how to spot warning signs, and how to intervene or approach at-risk students. Vanderbilt University offers a joint program through its Psychological Counseling Center and Center For Student Wellbeing aimed at suicide prevention and mental health awareness on campus. Cornell University launched a video project, where school leaders spoke of their own struggles with mental health, which were shared with students during orientation.
Once again, there are plenty more higher education topics worth discussing in Dead Man On Campus: homophobia, Greek organization party culture, and the popularity of recreational use of prescription drugs by college students, to name a few. However, there are plenty of other higher education movies out there for me to cover those topics in: just stay tuned.
Overall, I consider it a tasteless travesty that Dead Man On Campus ever made it to the screen, and I believe it belongs (at best) in the realm of obscurity where it currently resides. It certainly isn’t worth seeking out: black comedy fans and college stoner comedy fans can both equally easily find better than this without having to dig so far down.
For this entry, given the topics covered, I wanted to conclude with some resources for anyone who feels that they need them.