Who was the valedictorian at your college? If you can’t remember, that probably means it wasn’t you. Who was valedictorian at University of California, Berkeley in 1987? That is also a mysterious question.
Wikipedia would have you believe that it was the frontman of Third Eye Blind, Stephan Jenkins. And, yes, unless you’re a German royal, that is the weirdest possible way to spell the name “Steven.”
I came across the assertion that he’d had the highest GPA of every single student at one of the most elite public universities in the world after getting to his page via my forever-crush Vanessa Carlton (he produced her 2004 masterpiece Harmonium). It immediately struck me as… unlikely. I decided to dig a little deeper.
The first port-of-call was the appended double-citation. Surely one of these links would humble me for ever doubting that the lyricist of “doo doo doo / doo doo-doo doo” could have been worthy of such an honor. Unfortunately, while one of them briefly mentioned Jenkins was “at top of his class” (being valedictorian typically encompasses a more formal role, like speaking at graduation), the other simply said that he had attended “Berkley.” Which is how we all want to spell it but is WRONG.
There are in fact dozens of sources to make this claim but none of them seem to have independently verified it. The first time it appeared on Wikipedia was 26 May 2005 when IP address 184.108.40.206 (known only for their six-month stint improving the pages of Jenkins and Oberlin College) changed the verbiage from “received a degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1987 in Literature” to “was class valedictorian.”
I assumed something must have prompted this alteration, so I kept searching for articles from around that time and discovered a 2003 SFGate interview with Jenkins, the earliest instance of the claim I could find. At first, I thought it’d be like all the others, a quick mention of it in the opening paragraph for color without any real reckoning of what is, uh, on its face at least a little suspect.
Sure enough, the writer grabbed that color in the very first sentence, but the zingy little intro ended up more illuminating than I had expected. Because the very next sentence reached even further to say Jenkins is also friends with “gritty novelist JT LeRoy, a former prostitute.” LeRoy was, of course, an elaborate literary hoax that, by this point, had yet to be unmasked. Which is to say he was not actually a former prostitute and not someone anyone could really be said to be “friends” with.
What does this tell us? The most generous interpretation is that Jenkins fell for Savannah Knoop’s sporadic appearances in disguise and thought they’d formed a lasting bond. (Sad!) The least generous is that Jenkins was happy to include an untrue but superficially entertaining detail as backdrop for his burgeoning celebrity persona.
But wait — what’s this? Further down, a quote from Jenkins himself about the very academic achievement in question? Indeed. Here he is recounting the revenge he took on an elementary teacher as an adult. (Also sad!)
"The principal brought me to his class and was talking about how I was the valedictorian at Berkeley," Jenkins recalled. "I looked the teacher in the eye and said, 'You told me I would end up in juvenile hall. Remember that?'”
Well, that settles that, I guess. Guy who refers to his own guitar riffs as “sexual” – 1, someone who was not remotely close to being their college’s valedictorian – 0.
Or so it would seem. Here’s where it gets really interesting.
Unable to accept the frankly ludicrous notion that Jenkins ended up his class’s valedictorian before turning his back on academia to write a #1 song about taking crystal meth, I turned away from the man and instead to the bestowing institution.
As it turns out, UC Berkeley does not give out the distinction of valedictorian, a fact I was able to confirm with its press office. Instead, since 1871, they have given a University Medal which is awarded to one student with a 3.96 GPA or higher who nominates themselves, with other qualities taken into consideration, such as extracurriculars or public service. It also has a list of every recipient since 1871. Jenkins, one half of erstwhile rap duo Puck & Natty who landed a single on the Beverly Hills, 90210 soundtrack, isn’t listed among the mostly STEM students who probably went on to conduct groundbreaking research in their fields, not writing lyrics bemoaning a new cultural distaste for songs about “tits and ass.”
I reached out to both Berkeley and Jenkins to clear up this confusion.
Berkeley were also bemused (I noted that their admissions department had repeated the claim on Twitter only a few months ago) but after looking into it said they were unable to find any awards associated with Jenkins’s record and agreed that the tweet had been written in error.
Jenkins’s team, when presented with my findings, asked to clarify whether my article was “focused solely on Stephan and education” and then did not reply when I said yeah, basically.
I guess everyone really does have a reason to say, “put the past away!”
A selected list of publications that credulously repeated that the guy from Third Eye Blind got the highest grades of any of the other 20,000+ students in his class at one of the highest ranked research universities in the world:
Miles Beard is an Associate Lecturer at the Open University in Scotland.