College freshmen have plenty to think about: dorm food, checking accounts, roommates, fraternity parties. In many cases, the last thing on their minds is learning. That’s one reason the SMU administration decided to change its orientation program. This year, campus tours and school dances took a back seat to programs about nuclear holocaust. Each of the six schools within the university prepared a part of the presentation.
According to Judith Pitney, assistant provost for SMU, the university spent a significant amount of money to improve the academic level of its annual orientation program. During early registration in July, each incoming freshman received a copy of Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, a book that outlines the possibilities and consequences of nuclear holocaust.
During the three-day orientation in August, the theology and liberal arts schools screened Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, then held group discussions. The school of engineering and applied sciences presented a panel discussion on nuclear technology and public policy relating to nuclear deterrents. Former congressman and U.S. Ambassador Robert Kreu-ger spoke on a panel. The business school held faculty-student discussions on the strategic business and marketing problems that could lead to nuclear war.
On the final day of orientation, the law school held a mock trial of former president Harry Truman for crimes against humanity in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The university also produced a 13-minute film entitled The University and the Fate of the Earth.
Pitney says the $32,000 orientation program was a success. She says that SMU is one of the few universities to explore such a sensitive theme so comprehensively. More than 1,400 freshman enrolled at the university this semester; two-thirds attended the orientation. (Although attendance at orientation is mandatory, Pitney says that there is no way to enforce it.) Attendance this year was much higher than in the past several years.
SMU President Donald Shields says he feels very positive about the program. He says it was “effective and well-received” and set the tone for learning, for being a part of the university and for being inquisitive. When asked how the notoriously conservative board of directors of the university reacted to the idea, he said, “Whether one is conservative or liberal-however you define that-the consequences revolving around nuclear issues are ones we all should be concerned about.” He says that none of the board members protested the idea.