The Most Accurate Movie About Campus Life in the 1990s: Oh! What a Difference Three Decades Has Made

Michael Chabon’s Most Accurate Academic Movie Ever Made

Those interested in a humorous romp through a dysfunctional college’s administration might pick up the novel Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. Chabon published Wonder Boys in 1995, early in his career before going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001. The Pulitzer Prize committee praises Chabon for “exuberant realism” and Wonder Boys is uncompromisingly realistic about campus life . . . in the 1990s.

Chabon’s main character, Grady Tripp, is an overweight, pot-smoking, washed-out novelist who has a teaching gig at the fictitious Pittsburgh College. Professor Tripp spends his time fretting over an unfinished novel-within-the-novel (also titled Wonder Boys).

The story begins with one of Grady Tripp’s colleagues losing a tenured job at another college because he “showed up drunk for work, spoke with unpardonable cruelty to the talentless element of his classes” and waved a loaded pistol to inspire them to write about “fear.” Notwithstanding these shenanigans, Chabon describes the professor’s termination as “a difficult trick.” In the 1990s, tenure was still presumed to be difficult to revoke. There is not a single mention of an HR department.

Grady Tripp is himself in hot water. For one, he is a deadbeat with regard to publishing. Yet, despite the principle of publish or perish, at Pittsburgh College, there is just not enough perishing to doom the good professor. He has committed a decade of stoned musings to his manuscript, which has become a rambling 3000 pages of unreadable, unfinishable, and clearly unpublishable prose.

Yet this failure does not stop Professor Tripp from having an illicit affair with the university chancellor, Sara Gaskell. He gets the chancellor pregnant while, unsurprisingly, wrecking his own marriage. Undaunted, he also energetically but incompetently pursues his tenant, a much younger and more attractive female professor in the writing program—who shows some interest until a reading of Wonder Boys causes her infatuation to speedily wear off.

Amidst this general meltdown, Grady Tripp facilitates a sexual encounter between his lecherous editor, Crabtree, and a young male college student, James Leer. We learn that James Leer is one of those suicidal and sensitive artistic types, who, in the process of manifesting his wacky, eccentric genius, shoots the Chancellor’s dog with a pearl-handled derringer and steels her husband’s (expensive) Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. The good professor Tripp seeks, also incompetently, to cover all this up; that is, he commits the crime of tampering with evidence and aiding and abetting a felony.

When Leer’s theft/dog murder is finally figured out, there is speculation that Leer will be “expelled.” This speculation remains idle, though, because the lecherous Crabtree announces at an academic conference that he will publish Leer’s first novel! All is forgiven . . . at least for James Leer. Meanwhile, the Chancellor’s cuckolded husband threatens to get Grady Tripp fired. It is intimated, however, that all Tripp’s derelictions still do not suffice to pull off the “difficult trick” of his removal, and the novel ends before we find out if the pregnant Chancellor will fire Grady Tripp.

Hollywood made a movie out of Wonder Boys in 2000, with an all-star cast: Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp, Frances McDormand as Sara Gaskell, Robert Downey, Jr. as Crabtree, and Tobey Maguire as James Leer. It was the kind of film that critics loved. The general audience, not so much. The film critic Roger Ebert praised the movie Wonder Boys as “the most accurate movie about campus life that I can remember.”

Then and Now

Now, almost thirty years later, Michael Chabon is a grey eminence of American letters. But for his novel to be realistic today, all of his characters would be suspended, fired, and dragged through the campus Title IX bureaucracy. Fixtures of campus life are entirely missing. Not only is there no HR department; there is no Title IX office; and there are no students denouncing others on social media; there are no overwrought faculty scurrying off to the campus administration to submit complaints about Tripp, Crabtree, or Leer.

Wonder Boys could never count as “exuberant realism” today. The reality of campus life has deserted Chabon more rapidly than the artistic talent leaks out of Grady Tripp’s pot-addled brain.

First, by most contemporary campus rules, it is a firing offense for consenting adults to have an affair on campus if there is an imbalance of “power,” such as the supposedly over-awing power that a chancellor may exercise over a lowly faculty member. “Power” is supposed to render the likes of Professor Tripp without agency.

For example, the University of Michigan fired its president for an “alleged inappropriate relationship with a university employee.” Indeed, by today’s standards, Sara Gaskell (a sympathetic character in Wonder Boys) should also be forced to resign for allowing inappropriate sexual escapades at faculty functions.

Today, faculty can be subjected to HR investigations for grading too hard, teaching students about the rich tradition of visual arts in Islam, or doing anything that contests the “lived experience” of students. The good Professor Tripp would not last long.

And you don’t have to bring a loaded gun to class to pull off the “difficult trick” of flushing your tenure down the drain. In Florida, a Black female student was suspended simply because she posted a picture of herself with a handgun at a gun range.

Obviously, no achievements based on merit would save the talented, tortured genius James Leer either, once he brandishes a gun and shoots his Chancellor’s precious pooch.

Where Are the Higher Education Lawyers?

Michael Chabon undoubtedly understands academia. As recently as 2018, he was the Roy and Shirley Durst Distinguished Chair in Literature at SUNY Purchase. But there is another character who (thankfully) makes no appearance in Wonder Boys: the higher education attorney. Lawyers who understand the law of higher education have unfortunately become indispensable in protecting the rights of students and faculty against today’s university administration.

What a difference three decades has made.

At Allen Harris, we have seen faculty investigated, harassed, and even terminated over increasingly trivial “infractions,” which is the subject of another blog here. And, of course, we too have defended faculty accused of grading too hard.

There is a red thread through all of these frivolous investigations. In our experience, campus bureaucrats are terrified of telling students that education, no different from other life experience, will make them feel “uncomfortable.”

Campus administrators increasingly define their job as confirming the “lived experience” of whomever comes in to complain. Therefore, if students or faculty colleagues complain that something makes them “uncomfortable,” especially if there is a “power imbalance,” this may be all the proof an administrative mind needs to find that something, somewhere, must be investigated

Sadly, this is the (unexuberant) reality of the contemporary college campus. You don’t have to come anywhere near the level of Michael Chabon’s hilarious eccentrics in Wonder Boys to get fired, expelled, or at least harassed by an unending investigation. Lamentably, to survive in this brave new world, you will need an experienced higher education attorney.