Should Yale (and Other Elite Colleges) Require Students Take a Kobayashi Maru Test?

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When it comes to “The Game,” precedent has no say. The annual Yale-Harvard ritual evokes a rivalry that transcends the ages, as well as the win-loss record of the season’s previous games. So it was in 1979 when the heavily favored undefeated Yale Bulldogs fell to the Harvard Crimson in the season’s ultimate game by the score of 22-7.

Even the final score means nothing. In 1968, when Harvard scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds to earn a tie, the Harvard Crimson headline read: “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”

This year, the 136th edition of The Game was much anticipated. ESPN had it moved up an hour to a noon start since the Yale Bowl has no lights. Yale, with a record of 8-1, scoring an average of 37.4 points-per-game and fighting for the Ivy League title, was the odds-on favorite to defeat Harvard, losers of four straight. Was anyone surprised, then, that the first half ended with Harvard beating the Bulldogs by a solid 15-3 margin?

The halftime show changed everything.

After both bands cleared the field and as the annual George H. W. Bush honorees were being announced, several commonly dressed individuals walked assertively into the center of the field from each of the four corners.

At first, they looked to be part of the ceremony. Then it appeared they were nothing more than merry pranksters. After all, The Game has been the venue of many a delightful and memorable MIT stunt. Within minutes, though, it became apparent what it really was.

It was a throwback. An archaic expression reminiscent of a scene from Scott Johnston’s popular book Campusland (think Animal House meets 1984). Not to be outdone, Yale officials decided to channel their inner Doonesbury (think M*A*S*H the movie meets M*A*S*H the TV series).

It was a surreal juxtaposition.

And that made Yale President Peter Salovey’s words from just a few days earlier all the more relevant…

On the morning of the preceding Thursday, the President’s face strained as he searched for precisely the most perfect phrase. His initial question to the Dean’s Panel on Leadership would not only launch the inaugural session of Yale’s annual Alumni Assembly & Convocation, but set the tone for the entire weekend.

“Are our students resilient?” he asked before immediately apologizing for the implied generalization. Salovey, who earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale in 1986, then posed a contrapositive as way of explanation.

“Earlier in this football season, we all learned the power of resiliency when the Bulldogs, down by two touchdowns late in the game against Richmond, rallied to score twice in the final 90 seconds to win 28-27,” said the University President.

He then lamented that, in accepting the best of the best, perhaps Yale students lack one important trait: failure. For it is only by failing that we learn to cope with failure, learn to build resiliency and, ultimately, learn to build character vital to supporting and leading a sustainable community.

Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, a Harvard grad, said it more succinctly: “Football doesn’t build character. It reveals character.” Then again, Levy studied English, not psychology, so he tends to be more certain of his words.

Indeed, it was Levy’s team that has forever defined resiliency. The 1990-1993 Buffalo Bills are the only NFL team to go to four straight Super Bowls. That’s not what made them resilient. What made them resilient is that they lost every one of those Super Bowls. Failure did not dissuade them. It inspired them.

Was that the resiliency Salovey was referring to? Perhaps. For it was universally agreed on by the panel of distinguished Yale deans that the fields of sport offer the best environment to teach resiliency, to teach young adults that failure is a necessary part of growth, instrumental to both life and learning. You can scoff off a poor grade since few if any see it, but to fail in the public arena, now that’s real failure.

Upon hearing Salovey suggest incoming students lack a portfolio of failure, you might immediately conclude, “Well, why not just change the admissions standards and accept more students with a demonstrable record of failures?”

Aye, there’s the rub. For, wouldn’t the more creative students find a loophole to this requirement? In doing so, they could paint a picture of a personal Thermopylae they had to suffer (before, of course, their ultimate grand victory over the more powerful Persians).

Yes, adding a “Describe your most horrific failure (in no more than 250 words)” essay question to the application would only yield innumerable “how I turned lemons into lemonade” stories.

It’s just like when you’re in a job interview and you’re asked to name your greatest weakness. Out comes things like “I’m too friendly,” or “I’m too loyal” or “I tend to work more than most.”

Every weakness is a strength. Every failure is a success.

The answer, therefore, is not to change the application process, but to change the student experience. Make failure a graduation requirement.

That doesn’t quite get to the heart of the quest for resiliency to which Salovey alludes. You don’t want mere failure. You want failure that challenges the nature of the student and, in its course, improves that student’s character. In other words, Yale should require every student take a Kobayashi Maru test.

For those less familiar with Star Trek, the Kobayashi Maru test represents a no-win situation every cadet must endure before graduating from Star Fleet Academy. The purpose of this test is to ensure a potential captain – a potential leader – will remain calm even as the ship is disintegrating and death looms certain.

Why is this critical to leadership? Because, no matter how bad the circumstances, how impossible the odds, there’s still a chance. Without calm and deliberate (you might even say dispassionate) leadership, however, that chance will be forfeited…

And “forfeit” was what was on of minds of the more enlightened spectators in attendance at the Yale Bowl on Saturday, November 23, 2019.

Not at first. As the half-time sit-in began, the first impression from most of the crowd was a wry “isn’t that cute” smile. The loud speakers continued to play the usual festive football music, as if to reinforce the point this was all part of the show.

The antic no doubt brought back nostalgic memories for many an alum, whether it be the Vietnam War sit-ins, the Black Panther demonstrations or the anti-Apartheid protests. “Ah, glory be the age of youth, when we were indestructible.”

Not that all those sitting at midfield were students. Officially, the event was staged by students from Harvard and Yale, but alumni and other onlookers took part.

After several minutes, though, those smiles turned to anxious frowns. The music went silent. The teams broke from their second-half warm-up routines and decided to surrender the field by going back into their respective locker rooms.

Meanwhile, not only was campus security not doing anything to remove the disruptors, but the yellow vested authority allowed crowds to rush the field to join the squatters. Rather than politely ending, the situation was broadly escalating.

It was now a mob. Reasonable people thought the better of it and left. That would count as the second worst decision made by people that day.

Soon a voice, in regular intervals, began announcing with all the dry emotion of a NASA launch commentator, “Out of respect for both teams, please return to your seats.”

As if to emphasize insolence, the trespassers shouted back, “OK, Boomer!”

To which, the Boomers in the stands, striving to capture the obvious humor, rejoined, “Get off my lawn!”

But humor could not win on this day. Anger rose victorious. With irony coming in a close second.

You see, many in attendance likely would have been sympathetic to the various causes promoted by the demonstrators. Indeed, had they chosen the tailgates in the parking lot to make their statement, they would have been more fondly received.

But right there, right at that time, with sunlight fading and their recalcitrance laid bare, each passing minute eroded the sympathy of the crowd. It was becoming quite real that, should Yale officials fail to coax them to leave the field, the Bulldogs would have to forfeit the game and any hopes of winning the Ivy League Championship.

Whatever their causes, these protesters would have only succeeded in destroying a lifetime of dreams and hopes of the dozens of young men who had worked so hard to get where they were right then and right there.

Most of the crowd did not feel comfortable being forced to be co-conspirators in such a travesty.

The “Emperor Has No Clothes” moment for the SJW movement?

That realization may have been understood far beyond New Haven. Barstool Sports tweeted: “Yale-Harvard is under delay because of a student protest. We’ve hit peak 2019.” For Boomers, this is Millennial-speak meaning “SJW has Jumped the Shark.” Hence, irony.

Finally, after some 45 minutes, the yellow vests, having doubled with reinforcements, surrounded the agitants. Those mercurial participants – the casual pranksters – fled as quickly as they had arrived. The stalwart originals – the true protesters – remained seated on the artificial turf. Eventually, security led them away. In all 42 were arrested, including Hollywood actor and Yale graduate Sam Waterson.

To extend on Salovey’s thoughts, when one hasn’t experienced failure, one begins to develop a sense of entitlement. It’s an “I’m always right” kind of attitude. It leads to an utter lack of respect for others.

This is not resilience. It’s rudeness.

The Yale football team hammered home the point. Down by two touchdowns with less than a minute-and-a-half to go in the game, the Bulldogs could have simply blamed their fate on the protesters. That’s not resilience. Resilience doesn’t mean saying you’re a winner. Resilience means going out there, fighting through inevitable failure, and winning despite the odds.

Calm, cool, behaving as if they’d been there before (remember Richmond), Yale did score two touchdowns to tie the game in its waning seconds. This, though, would be no repeat of 1968. With Dartmouth winning, a Yale tie would mean losing the Ivy League Championship.

Yale had to win. But they were fighting two foes – man, in the form of a determined Harvard team intent on demonstrating its own resilience (as it had done so many times before); and nature, in the form of the fast approaching darkness (courtesy of the one-hour delay due to a pleasant prank turned seriously wrong).

Under gloom of night, the Sons (& Daughters) of Eli rush the field to celebrate their resilient champions.

History has now forever etched on this day a new classic tale. It’s a tale of two eternal rivals, a tale of shared resiliency and, ultimately, a never-ending tale that, though Harvard’s team had fought to the end, Yale did win (in the second overtime on the cusp of day descending into night).

The difference between civil disobedience and civil disruption is the difference between oratory and anarchy. President Salovey grasps the wisdom of this distinction, but is constrained to straddle the fine line between the two opposing extremes. The Game, however, may have provided an opportunity for all to see precisely what he means.

The gridiron men of Yale have now twice passed the Kobayashi Maru test, the comeback against Harvard being the most lasting and significant. Would that those who made the choice to jeopardize this have a real opportunity to enjoy discovering their own Kobayashi Maru test.

What Every Leader Wants (and Better Have)

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When we think of leadership, we think of power, authority, and influence. We often assume these three traits are interchangeable, that they mean the same thing.

They don’t.

According to Merriam-Webster, those with “power” have the “ability to act or produce an effect.” In addition, the dictionary also says power may be a “legal or official authority, capacity, or right” that possesses “control, authority, or influence over others.” Despite this, don’t confuse “power” with either “authority” or “influence.” You can possess power without having either authority or influence.

How is this so?

Merriam-Webster fails to help here, as it defines “authority” as the “power to influence or Continue Reading “What Every Leader Wants (and Better Have)”

What Comes First? “Entrepreneurial” or “Journalism”?

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I just read a book called Entrepreneurial Journalism (by Mark Briggs, SAGE Publications, 2012).

The phrase “Entrepreneurial Journalism” raises the question as to which part of the phrase should be prioritized. The term obviously comes from the journalism field. That industry is desperately trying to find a use for their buggy whips by thinking of ways to use them as engine cranks.

So that means they’re thinking “journalism” first and how to apply entrepreneurial tactics to the trade. This, of course, presupposes the “trade” remains intact, that the only obstacle between today’s ominous decline and long-term financial sustainability is the holy grail of the business model. And probably technology. But mostly the business model.

What if, instead of thinking like a journalist and overlaying entrepreneurialism on it, why not think like an entrepreneur and overlay journalism on that?

Here’s what I mean.Continue Reading “What Comes First? “Entrepreneurial” or “Journalism”?”

A Memory of Frank Ricci

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You probably never heard of Frank Ricci.

You probably never met Frank Ricci.

But I have and I did. He is among the thousand points of light that have illuminated my life. This is my salute to him. As you read this, I’m confident you may find some familiar tidbits that you didn’t expect to be there. I promise you, before you come to the end of this column, you’ll discover why.

Francesco “Frank” Ricci was born in the mountains south of Rome, Italy on February 10, 1935. He immigrated to America in 1959 after marrying his wife Teresa. Teresa DeAngelis grew up on Abbott Parkway in Blasdell, New York. I grew up on Abbott Parkway, only many years later.

I remember much about growing up on Abbott Parkway. On the other hand, I don’t Continue Reading “A Memory of Frank Ricci”

I’m Not a Dancer

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Dateline: October 27, 1979

Two conversation threads ran on our hour-long bus ride back. For some in the group, they gushed with overwhelming enthusiasm over having taken their first step in what they expected to be a life-long political career. For others, they gushed with overwhelming enthusiasm over having just discovered the girls’ college we were spending the evening at was hosting a Halloween party.

I participated in neither discussion. Perhaps I was contemplating Bush’s anxiety. Perhaps I was mulling over my own insignificance. More likely, though, I was tired and wondering if Continue Reading “I’m Not a Dancer”

The World – The Universe – That Might Have Been… (Part II)

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When last we left, you saw evidence that I was a boy obsessed with astronomy. It drove my very being. It was the reason for everything I did. It represented the meaning of my life.

Come senior year, I ignored the reality of my GPA and nonetheless plunged into my graduate school applications. Everything looked great. My recommendations. My activities. My GRE scores. Everything except my GPA. Surely, I thought, someone would see it for what really happened. My senior advisor, Professor Pierre Demarque, encouraged me.

I really appreciated Professor Demarque’s confidence in my application process. As my senior advisor, he allowed me to take on a project that other students in other schools might not have had the opportunity to undertake. I was permitted to Continue Reading “The World – The Universe – That Might Have Been… (Part II)”

The World – The Universe – That Might Have Been… (Part I)

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There’s this thing. It’s called the “multiverse.” Today we think of it as a series of parallel universes that exist simultaneously. This definition stems from a “lunatic” speculative physical interpretation of his mathematical equations made by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s in a 1952 Dublin lecture.

Oddly, American psychologist and philosopher William James originally coined the term in his May 1895 lecture “Is Life Worth Living?” presented to the Young Men’s Christian Association of Harvard University. James meant it to mean a chaotic amoral alternative to the universe we live in.

Today, scientists and science fiction writers prefer Schrödinger’s meaning. The multiverse theory officially emerged with a 1957 paper by Continue Reading “The World – The Universe – That Might Have Been… (Part I)”

Discover Success Like Columbus: The Power of Thinking Inside the Box

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Everyone thinks the secret to success is to think outside the box. That may be one path, but it’s not the only one.

In fact, there may be a far easier route. It’s also one of the most overlooked paths to success.

You don’t need to think outside the box. All you need to do is think inside the box.

The voyage of discovery undertaken by Christopher Columbus represents an epic tale of success long embraced by the vast American public throughout the history of our country. It contains everything a good story should contain.

The Columbus saga begins with a naïve but unpopular observation by an underdog of underdogs. It features the obligatory scorn of the establishment. It honors the power of Continue Reading “Discover Success Like Columbus: The Power of Thinking Inside the Box”

What Does President Trump Know and When Did He Know It?

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Spoiler Alert: This is not what you are expecting. This is not a column about politics (good or bad); it’s an article about journalism (good and bad).

OK, it’s also a commentary on today’s political scene, but only because it provides an instructive backdrop to the most salient points I wish to make about the art of reporting.

Let’s start with a scene from two years ago. It’s not from a political convention, it’s from a Continue Reading “What Does President Trump Know and When Did He Know It?”

A Look Back at Tomorrow – Review of Campusland

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I have to admit, Campusland is not the kind of book I would normally read, precisely because it’s the kind of book everybody reads. When it comes to popular fiction, I tend to abide by the Yogi Berra maxim “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too busy.”

But I had to read Campusland.

Call it “being true to your school” (the author was a classmate of mine).

Call it “reciprocity” (he’s followed my own author’s journey, including, of all things, my being interviewed by his cousin at a radio station in Minnesota).

Most important, call it “inspired curiosity” (the topic promised the allure of topical irreverence).

The story takes us through (literally) the trials and tribulations of several characters during Continue Reading “A Look Back at Tomorrow – Review of Campusland