February 16, 2024 | Christine Tran

Disreputable Facts About Upper Crust Colleges

Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, and the like are among the English-speaking world's most ancient universities. Any institution that old is bound to have their share of scandal, intrigue, and just plain weirdness. However, these schools' unique mix of history, privilege, and campus keggers provide stories that range from the historically quirky to the just plain socially disgraceful. Enjoy a full-ride to these 45 disreputable facts about history's upper crust colleges.

1. No Girls Allowed

Although the first woman, Lucinda Foote, passed the Yale entrance exams all the way back in 1793, women didn't study at Yale—and then only in graduate programs—until almost exactly a century later. Even worse, it was only in 1969 that Yale allowed female undergraduates to study in its hallowed, women-less halls.

prestigious colleges

2. Beyond the Ugly Truth

In 2016, Harvard Law School changed its Veritas crest. This move was a response to criticism that the former crest romanticized slavery; the original insignia, adopted from the House of Royall, depicted three black figures (perceived as slaves) carrying three bundles of wheat upon their backs.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsFlickr, Nathan Forget

3. Imperial Origin Story

One of Harvard's benefactors, John Harvard, was educated at Cambridge University in London.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsNeedpix

4. No Friend of Sabrina

As a result of Harvard's background in the Puritan ministry, the university leadership played an integral role in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsWikipedia

5. I Speak Only Lies

John Harvard's statue sits in Harvard Yard and is called the "Statue of Three Lies". Why? Because the plaque reads, "John Harvard, Founder, 1638". First, John Harvard was the benefactor of Harvard, not the founder. Second, the university was founded in 1636, not 1638. Finally, the statue does not depict John Harvard; it's a random good-looking student that the sculptor used as a model after all paintings and sketches of John Harvard were lost to time (and the great fire of Harvard Hall).

Upper Crust Colleges FactsWikipedia

6. Twinkle-Toes

Notice how the John Harvard statue in Harvard Yard has brassy shoes tips, whereas the rest of the monument is black? That's because tourists and students are always rubbing it for good luck, eroding the original varnish.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsWikimedia Commons

7. Legacy Student

All the Ivy League colleges instituted preferential treatment for white Protestants from renowned families (basically, this amounted to them not wanting to admit a higher percentage of Jewish people) in the early twentieth century. Yale, however, was the last to eliminate these preferential policies, doing so only in 1970.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsPxHere

8. May I [Walk Backwards to the Pub]?

At Merton College, it's an Oxford tradition to walk backwards from the Fellows' Quad drinking port on the final Sunday morning of October.

Edward VII factsPixabay

9. Sink or Swim

Since the 1980s, Oxford students have commemorated May Day by jumping off the bridge into the river Cherwell below. Authorities stay on guard during this day because the waters are shallow, and these festivities often follow (or are followed by) a trip to the pub.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsWikimedia Commons

10. Little Rascals

Harvard Medical School did not admit women until 1945.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsWikimedia Commons

11. Turn Your Nose at This

In a strike of irony, the word "snob" originated at Oxford University. It's an abbreviated form of the Latin phrase "sine nobilitate," which means "without nobility".

Stephen HawkingWikimedia.Commons

12. Once Upon a Time...

Folk culture has a mystical origin story for Oxford, one that begins with The Legend of Frideswide. According to myth, Frideswide was a princess who sought the religious life rather than marry. She escaped to Oxford, pursued by her father, who wanted her to be wed. As the king made his way to the gates of Oxford, he was struck blind. He begged the Princess for forgiveness, releasing her from the betrothal, an act that restored his sight. The Princess founded a nunnery upon that site, and legend goes that the nunnery was the first college of Oxford, as it supported monastic scholars.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsWikimedia Commons

13. Oxford Punches Pack at the PM

Way back in 2011, then-Prime Minister David Cameron put Oxford University on blast for accepting only one student of Black Caribbean descent that year. The university came back with more nuanced stats: that year, according to Oxford, there were 26 students who came from Black origin, and another 14 who identified with a mixed Black ethnic group. (To give you some perspective, the undergraduate class that year contained 3,000 students).

Upper Crust Colleges FactsWikimedia Commons

14. Ivory Tower Inequality 

From 2010 to 2015, an entire quarter of Cambridge University colleges failed to make an offer of admissions to any Black British applicant.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsWikimedia Commons

15. Exit, Pursued by a Poet With Too Much Money

The poet Lord Byron is one of Cambridge University's most famous alumni. He was also filled with spite at campus rules that forbid him from housing a dog in his dorm. In revenge, Byron kept a bear as a pet; the rules specifically forbid cats and dogs, but not ursine mammals!

Lord Byron FactsWikimedia Commons

16. No Bones About It

Yale's Skull and Bones undergraduate society is one of the most secretive societies out there. Although Yale became co-ed in 1969, women weren't allowed in the society until 1992—and even then, only after the loud protestations of previous members who couldn't seem to let go of their glory days. All the way back in 1971, Skull and Bones members tried to tap female candidates for induction, but the alumni (yeah, the dudes who had already graduated) quashed this rebellion and ended up naming this cohort "the bad club".

Ivy League FactsWikimedia Commons

17. Closet Accident

In 1667, Elizabeth Spencer, the daughter of a College Master at Cambridge, accidentally ended one of her gentlemen callers, James Betts. When the couple were on the verge of interruption by her father, Elizabeth swiftly sealed the man in her wardrobe—which, back then, only opened from the outside—where Betts suffocated to demise.

Bone-Chilling Events factsWikipediaCorpus Christi College, Cambridge

18. Near Headless Chuck

The ghost of King Charles I, who was beheaded in the English Civil Conflict, is said to haunt Christ Church College at Oxford University. His army comrade, who was shot for treason on campus, is said to show up intermittently by his royal side.

Barbara Palmer factsWikimedia Commons

19. Pass the Potato: Macabre Edition

History has not been kind of Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Roundheads during the English Civil Conflict. He has been so hated, in fact, that a natural cause of demise was not enough for some people; his body was reportedly dug up, hanged, beheaded, and that head has passed through quite a few hands before laying to rest at Cambridge University's Sidney Sussex College. Since then, students have enjoyed passing stories of Cromwell's floating cranium haunting the halls, looking for its body.

Charles II FactsWikimedia Commons

20. Acing the SATs (Standardized Attire Tests)

It's an Oxford tradition to wear a black gown and white shirt to your university exams—a standard code of dress, called a "sub fusc," which most students readily embrace. Alterations can be made however: it is also tradition to wear color-coded flowers on your uniform, depending on your type of exam. Wear a virgin white carnation to your first examination, a pink one for your interim exam, and a red carnation (to symbolize freedom) for your finals!

Upper Crust Colleges FactsFlickr,Tejvan Pettinger

21. Just Beat It

Several Oxford colleges observe the "Beating the Bounds" tradition upon every Ascension Day to mark the resurrection of Jesus Christ. A group of parishioners will walk up to the parish boundaries within Oxford, approach the boundary stone, beat the stones with willow sticks, and yell "Mark, Mark, Mark". This tradition originates from time when the scarcity of maps and deeds made it difficult to ascertain the boundaries of the parish—nothing like screaming to establish your territory.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsWikimedia Commons

22. Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick, Jack Leave the Candlestick at Home!

If you're a student at Oxford or Cambridge who wishes to use the archives and collections, you must sign a special declaration of honor, in Latin, which has remained unchanged for centuries. In this vow, you must, among other things, promise to never bring candles into the library.

Margaret Beaufort FactsWikimedia Commons

23. Wild Duck Chase

Oxford University's All Souls College organizes a "duck hunt" just once every 100 years. The goal is to look for a bird that reportedly to flew from the college foundation during its construction some 600 years ago. During this hunt, they parade and sing what is known as "The Mallard Song". Get ready for the next Duck Hunt in 2101!

Edward VII factsPixabay

24. Anything to Get Ahead

The Harvard Cheating Scandal of 2012 remains infamous. Undergrads came under investigation for cheating in the notorious "bird course," Introduction to Congress. Accusations against students included "sharing answers," although students fought back that the exams were already take home and information openly accessible. In the end, Yale University wore shirts to the Harvard-Yale football game that read, "Try cheating your way out of this one".

Upper Crust Colleges FactsWikimedia Commons

25. $tudent Union

Join the Oxford Union and enjoy access to invigorating talks by professionals across politics, entertainment, and culture. All for the fee of £269.86 for a life of learning.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsWikimedia Commons

26. I Have No Clothes, and I Must Scream

Primal Scream: it's Harvard's annual tradition of letting off steam by streaking with your mates through Harvard Yard. It's also surprisingly accommodating for students who prefer to keep their clothes on; participate in the ceremony by simply screaming out your dorm window in support of your uncovered classmates.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsWikimedia Commons

27. She Bites Back

Lowell House of Harvard University is reportedly haunted by the ghost of Amy Lowell, the sister of the hall's founder. Although Lowell was a brilliant writer who won the Pulitzer prize, she could never officially breach the halls of Harvard—the university only began to accept women in 1920, just years before her demise. She was, nonetheless, a frequent physical fixture at her brother's workplace throughout her life. It's now said that you can distinguish Lowell's apparition by the faint scent of the poet's cigar smoke.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsWikimedia Commons

28. A Push for Equality?

In 2016, Harvard implemented new rules that restrict students who participate in single-gender social organizations (like frats or sororities) from leadership positions in recognized clubs and sports. Such students will also be barred from getting Dean's letters of recommendation for special fellowships, such as the Rhodes or Marshall Scholarship. This decision was spurred, in part, to correct the gender imbalance on campus culture by pushing students towards more gender-integrated social spaces.

Fraternities and Sororities FactsWikimedia Commons

29. Pigs Only; Chicks Need Not Apply

The Porcellian Club is an exclusive society at Harvard University, founded in 1790, where only men of the "right" family may secure membership. In April 2016, the club refused to budge on the centuries' old "boys-only" policy, stating that including women would raise the "potential for misconduct". Girls may be excluded, but members can still be identified by the pig's heads on their official ties (the club derives its name from the Latin word for "pig," because subtlety is gone).

Harvard University Sever Hall buildingDaderot., CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

30. Judas, Judas, and Judas

During the Cold Conflict, three members of Cambridge's exclusive Apostles society—Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross—turned out to be Russian spies.

George VI FactsFlickr

31. Screening Mother Earth's Calls

In 2016, many English universities agreed to do their part for the environment and divest from fossil fuels. Cambridge University was not one of them. In fact, the school argued it was better to keep their investment in oil and gas companies rather than divest the £5.9bn endowment, which is the largest amount among the British universities.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsFlickr,Kate Ausburn

32. Rhodes the Wretched

The Rhodes Scholarship is considered one of the world's leading academic awards, helping top students around the world take courses at Oxford University. It is also named after Cecil John Rhodes: PM of Cape Colony and a historically ardent supporter of white British supremacy.

Stories Of Real-Life Heroes factsShutterstock

33. #RhodesMustFall, But Not Yet

In 2016, voices around the world called for the removal of Oxford's statue of Cecil John Rhodes, who was a proponent of prejudiced dogma and white imperialism. When alumni threatened to pull millions in donations unless the statue remained, Oxford backed off. The Chancellor told students to "think about being educated elsewhere" if they did not embrace the university's brand of free speech.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsWikimedia Commons

34. I'll Have What He's Having

Oxford has a dining club called the "Piers Gaveston Society," named after the reputed lover of King Edward II of England. Their motto coyly alludes to this royal affair: "(Sane) non memini ne audisse unum alterum ita dilixisse," which is roughly Latin for "Truly, none remember hearing of a man enjoying another so much".

Upper Crust Colleges FactsWikimedia Commons

35. Like Pitch Perfect, But with UK Imperialism

"The Oxford Belles" are Oxford University's internationally renowned, all-female acapella group. They've gone on tours to New York City, Los Angeles, and have covered artists from Rihanna to Lady Gaga.

Elsa Lanchester FactsShutterstock

36. Tiddly Me This

As one of the world's top academic institutions, of course Harvard University has its own Tiddlywinks Society, devoted to playing the tabletop game of small disks and big fun.

Upper Crust Colleges FactsFlickr,Chris Dorward

37. Head to the Poles

"The Cambridge University Pole [dancing] Society" is open for all genders and expertise levels to try their hand at fitness and self-confidence.

Aleister Crowley factsFlickr, Image Catalog

38. Second Childhoods at First-Rate Tuition

The Sheila and Her Dog Society offers Cambridge students a judgement-free outlet to relieve stress. Don your favorite fluffy gown, cuddle with a teddy bear, and read your favorite story aloud in the voice of a 6-year-old; the Sheila and Her Dog Society is a unique way to put a pause on young adult worries by embodying the space of a child.

Strangest Date FactsShutterstock

39. To the Left, To the Left

In a survey from 2014, none of the Harvard female senior students who were headed into finance predicted they would make more than $90,000 a year. 29% of male finance students, however, bet they would make the big bucks.

Baby Boomers factsShutterstock

40. Just a Peek?

In an investigation by The Times, it was deduced that Oxford students have cheated at 20 times the rate of Cambridge students at exams and coursework.

Teachers Cheaters FactsWikimedia Commons

41. Gaming the System 

The Lego Foundation granted Cambridge University £4 million to study "play". The university posted a job call for a "Professor of Play," which would pay £84,000 a year. That's a lot of dough!

Worst Guests factsPixabay

42. Hit Some Steam in Harvard's Holes

Harvard University sits atop a series of secret "steam tunnels". This subterranean passage network runs about three miles and was used by the FBI to tail a German spy in 1939. The tunnels were also used to safely carry a pro-segregationist speaker away from protestors in 1968.

Secret Rooms factsPxhere

43. Tenure: Extra Toasty

A Harvard professor in chemistry and geology was convicted (and hanged) for the 1849 dismemberment, burning, and liquidation of George Parkman, a well-known doctor and philanthropist. The professor owed Parkman money, and Parkman had threatened to have the professor fired. A janitor discovered Parkman's body—charred and in pieces—after he suspected foul play and dug through the walls of the cellar into where the remains lay. The parts had been charred with nitric acid, strewn about the professor's lab, and dismembered with the precision of a professional.

Unprofessional Teachers FactsShutterstock

44. Burn It Down

David Cameron was part of Oxford's Bullingdon Club, an exclusive group for the country's most elite, whose fees are outside of most humans' budgets. In 2013, it was reported that one of its initiation rituals requires members to burn a £50 in front of a beggar; a friend of one of Bullingdon's members leaked the information to the press after he found out. (Wow, imagine ex-PM David Cameron doing something more upsetting to make a university club happy. We'd be hog-tied to imagine something worse!).

OxfordDiliff, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

45. A "Legacy" Boy, Booted Out

In 2017, a Cambridge student was kicked out of the campus Conservative Association after footage showed up of him burning a £20 note in front of a homeless person (sound familiar?). He did so while inebriated and in the white tie and tails that members wear to dinners. He also claimed to be the nephew of famous Scottish minister Nicola Sturgeon, but the Scottish government has denied that any relation exists.

Meghan Markle FactsShutterstock

Sources:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39


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