John Werner speaks during Dan Chambliss's class
Students listen to Hamilton Alum John Werner speak during Professor Dan Chambliss's Sociology class

What if they gave a final exam and nobody came?

By Donald Challenger

It’s a story that begins like a Hollywood plot — seeming to pit a rogue student against a high-rolling prof in a classroom game of brinksmanship — and quickly turns into something else: a story about learning to collaborate, building community, and considering risks and rewards with eyes wide open. That makes it a Hamilton story — and a bit of campus legend.

In fall 1988, Dan Chambliss, now the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology but then a young teacher with a growing reputation, made a pitch to his Introductory Sociology classes, one he’d made since his arrival in 1981 as a way of grounding the objectives of the course in real life. The grade for the course would be based on three exams. For the final exam, “if you thought you had the goods, if you thought you’d mastered the content, you could write ‘2x’ on it” for double credit, John Werner ’91 recalls. That was the first roll of the dice, but there was more: “If no one showed up to take the final” — in either ­section of the course — “everyone got an A.”

Stunned students tried to grasp the flipped script: Don’t show up? A’s for everyone? And then the caveat: “There’s a catch,” Chambliss told them, and paused. “If one person takes the exam, everyone else double-fails. Zero.”

Today, in an era of email, ­texting and social media, the challenge is less daunting. Twenty-five years ago, working in relative isolation without laptops or cell phones, the 62 students across two sections of Soc 101 had virtually no chance of reaching unanimity on such a risky venture. “It was a classic exercise in game theory because of the near-impossibility of pulling it off,” Chambliss says. “The downside, the risk, is enormous.” One student caves, everyone else flunks.

Werner recalls the class as “like the Noah’s Ark of interesting people — we had the jocks, the geeks, everyone.” And, he adds, “There were serious people in the class, including two class salutatorians — people who didn’t mess with their GPAs.” But he was already calculating. “My ­recollection,” says Chambliss, “is that when I first announced it, John said, ‘We’re gonna do this!’ And everyone looked around and said, ‘Who is this guy?’”

Well, the Werner of 2013 is a tireless entrepreneur and educator — the founder and leader of the national nonprofit Citizen Schools; executive curator of TEDx, a nonprofit devoted to creating an ongoing exchange among innovators in technology, entertainment and design; and a former Loeb Fellow at Harvard. He returned to campus in December to tell the story, with Chambliss and classmate Dave Dammerman ’91, to rapt students in the same course.

In 1988, however, Werner was a new arrival on the Hill, a swimmer and formidable cross country runner who hadn’t yet honed his entrepreneurial talents; Dean of Students Nancy Thompson recalls that Werner’s first event proposal to her was “a Jell-O wrestling pit for Winter Carnival.”

The plot unfolded over weeks. Werner finagled a roster for both sections of the course from the registrar. He created a “contract” and printed it on gray paper “because I thought that looked more official.” He networked, argued, cajoled. At no point did all 62 students meet in one place at one time. Werner found one who never attended class “in the basement of a frat house — I wasn’t even sure he existed.”

By December, Chambliss realized that Werner was actually close to pulling off the coup; he’d heard about a student who was so certain of success, she’d flown home to California a week before the final. “I was terrified,” Chambliss says. “I thought a few people would show up and I’d be forced to give most of the class double F’s. If I hadn’t, it would have been the end of my career.”

Werner had the same fear. On the day of the exam, Dec. 17, he showed up “ready to tackle anyone who tried to go in,” he laughs. Seven anxious students milled around outside, hedging their bets in case anyone broke ranks.

None did. Students in ­Sociology 101 had their credits, Chambliss breathed a sigh of relief despite grumblings from a few faculty members about “the end of Western Civilization,” and Werner — having shaped a community of trust — entered into Hill legend.

Chambliss never offered the challenge again. Once it had been met, the game was over and the point made: “­People have told me it was the most ­educational thing they’d ever done in their college career,” he says, “because it was such a deep lesson in risk and in building a sense of community.” ­Werner, too, learned something that cramming for a final could never have taught him. “After I organized this,” he told today’s students, “I began to believe I could organize anything.” And he has.

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