A former staff member of the Yale Record says that he recalls many of the details of a prank that Dr. Ben Carson wrote about in an autobiography.
The incident has been the subject of media coverage in recent days, after the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that it found no evidence to support Carson’s claim that he was a victim of a hoax that led him to take a fake psychology test, as he wrote in his 1990 autobiography, Gifted Hands.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News on Monday, Curtis Bakal, an editorial assistant at the satirical Yale Record who says he helped write the fake test, said he was “99% certain the way Carson remembers it is correct.”
“When I read about the story in the Wall Street Journal, I immediately said, to my wife and friend, ‘That was the prank we played at the Record! And Ben Carson was in the class,’” said Bakal, who noted he wasn’t actually present during the taking of the fake test. “We did a mock parody of the Yale Daily News during the exam period in January 1970, and in this parody we had a box that said: ‘So-and-so section of the exam has been lost in a fire. Professor so-and-so is going to give a makeup exam.’”
“We got a room to do the test in and one of us from the Record impersonated a proctor to give the test,” he said.
Over the weekend, Carson produced a link to a Yale Daily News account of the hoax. The Yale Daily News article describes an edition of the Record that was a total parody of the Yale Daily News, complete with fake articles meant to sound serious. In one article, the Record informed students that their exams had been destroyed and they needed to redo them.
Copies of the 1970 edition of the Record are not available at Yale’s library, an official told BuzzFeed News. (The school’s archives end in 1969 and don’t pick up again until the late 1970s.)
BuzzFeed News spoke to more than a dozen people listed on the Record masthead in 1969 — the year prior to the alleged hoax. No one besides Bakal could remember the incident, but a number had not been involved with the Record during that school year, or were only loosely involved. Some also noted that the prank did not sound out of the ordinary for the Record.
Lew Schwartz, the author of the Yale Daily News article mentioning the prank, told BuzzFeed News on Monday that he had not personally witnessed the exam and had reported it because “I guess we had heard that some folks had showed up.”
“To my knowledge we didn’t send anyone over to cover the story,” he added, noting that the Daily News had partly written the story to clarify that the issue of the Record posing as the Daily News was not, in fact, the Daily News.
Meanwhile, Carson suggested on Sunday that the Journal owed him an apology and, reached by BuzzFeed News on Monday, he was again critical of the paper.
“Their research teams are not very good,” Carson said over the phone. “I would have thought they would have crackerjack research teams. It really says something horrendous about their investigative abilities.”
In Gifted Hands, Carson writes that after reading that the examination papers for his psychology class, which he calls "Perceptions 301," had “inadvertently burned,” he went to take a makeup exam along with about 150 of his peers. The tests, the story goes, were much harder than anything they’d studied, “so intricate that I figured a brilliant psychiatrist might have trouble with them.” Carson says that all the students walked out of the test, some saying they planned to tell their teacher they hadn’t seen the notice about the makeup exam. By the end, only he remained, at which point, he says, a Yale Daily News photographer showed up to snap a photo and the professor of the class told him it was a hoax. According to Carson, who casts the incident as an inspirational tale (rather than a college prank), the professor then awarded him $10 for being “the most honest student in the class.”
Carson writes that the incident occurred during his junior year, during a time when he was badly in need of money.
A Yale librarian told the Wall Street Journal that no courses called “Perceptions 301” were taught at Yale during Carson’s time there. At the time, the Yale Daily News noted that the psychology class was called Psychology 10 and that the prank occurred during Carson’s freshman year. BuzzFeed News confirmed on Monday that there was a course called Psychology 10 taught during that semester of Carson’s Yale career.
Bakal, the Record editorial assistant at the time, remembered other details about the prank that are compatible with Carson’s account, such as the unusual difficulty of the test. “Several students showed up, and the fake exam, a parody of exam — in fact, it had real psych questions, because I had taken the class the year before, but it was a more difficult and probing personal exam,” he said.
Because he did not witness the fake test, however, he could not confirm that Carson — or only one student — was there at the end of class. But Bakal also backed up Carson’s claim that “at the end what few students remained — it may have just been one or two, I wasn’t there — received a small cash prize.” Bakal noted a staffer from the Record “impersonated a proctor to give the test.” (Carson said a professor had given him the cash prize in his written account.)
Speaking on Sunday, Carson appeared to ascribe some of the discrepancies to his co-author and the passage of time.
“You know, when you write a book with a co-writer and you say that there was a class, a lot of time they’ll put a number or something just to give it more meat,” he said. “You know, obviously, decades later, I’m not going to remember the course number.”
Ilan Ben-Meir contributed to this report.