Claremont, Calif. — Ask Maria Klawe about West Hall and she pauses, almost imperceptibly, for just a moment. Then Ms. Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, brightens. “Well, it’s known as Wild West,” she says of the residence hall, a little landscape of chaos in the middle of Harvey Mudd’s sleek Modernist campus. “And it’s why we have a rule that flames can’t rise higher than the tops of the buildings.”
West Hall, one of Harvey Mudd’s original dorms, is a U-shaped two-story building that wraps around a courtyard that I’ve usually seen ornamented with oversized speakers and a junk store’s worth of old sofas. When I walked by last week there was also an inflatable pool by the barbecue grill, and heavy-duty electrical cords snaked in and out of doors. An impromptu movie screen hung from the roof, and a skull-and-crossbones flag hung from a pole affixed to the tallest limb of a tree out front. A pair of shoes dangled from another limb.
You might imagine that West would be the source of nightmares for administrators, and you’d be right. Ms. Klawe remembers a West resident’s giving an extended presentation about a quest for the perfect mixture of a combustible substance with a bubble-making substance. That night, she says, she heard a loud boom and woke with a start, certain that the student and his peers had blown something up. It turned out to be nothing more than a bad dream, at least as far as she knows.
Ms. Klawe, a computer scientist, also has a favorite West Hall story, which concerns an online contest that Victoria’s Secret sponsored a couple of years ago. The retailer said it would offer a line of apparel with the mascot of whichever college attracted the most votes in the contest.
The contest Web site was set up to prevent individuals from voting more than once a day, but the site’s safeguards apparently were no obstacle to West residents. Not only did 750-student Harvey Mudd come out on top—it beat the No. 2 institution by more than 400,000 votes—but the first letters of the names of the next six colleges in the standings just happened to the the first letters of a longtime West slogan, “West is best, screw the rest.” (You can read the details here, with an update here.)
It’s a story Ms. Klawe tells with a big grin.