William Cole and His Fish Stories

Special Report

NEW YORK--The move is meant to deceive. A bridge player pretends to accidentally drop the king of spades, a particularly highranking card, face-up. The player's opponent, thinking an advantage has been won, begins a series of highpercentage plays. The plays, by their nature, lead into a trap. The game is lost.

In a 1991 book about bridge, the man who invented the trick gave it a name. It's called the Fishhead Coup, and those who understand it say the move is the bridge equivalent of a royal flush. To pull it off takes unusual cunning. To invent it, a person would need an even rarer combination of intelligence and guile.

Indeed, the world has few people as brilliant as the move's inventor, William David Cole. The cards he has dropped along the way confirm his intelligence: eight straight semesters on the dean's list at Columbia College; his mastery of five languages; a sterling reputation as a teaching fellow and graduate student at Harvard University. Cole, those who worked with him say, is fascinated by ideas. And he loves literature.

In 1991, Cole earned a Ph.D in French literature in the University's brutally competitive Romance Languages and Literatures department. But as exceptional as he was as a scholar, Cole was an even better teacher. In 1990, he won the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a Harvard teacher: the Levenson Prize for Undergraduate Teaching.

"He was very funny," says Davis J. Wang '97, who had Cole last year for Literature and Arts A-21: "Literary Mind of the Middle Ages."


"He showed an enthusiasm for the material and a very good understanding of the material," Wang says. "He transmitted his enthusiasm and a kind of love for the literature."

Cole made himself a prominent Harvard figure when an article he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education in January 1993 sparked a campus-wide debate on grade inflation. The notoriety from the article was such that Cole found himself quoted in national publications.

In those articles, Cole cut a stark figure. The brilliant Harvard instructor was speaking out against the vagaries of exaggerated accomplishments. The importance of standards and truth, he argued, were being lost in a sea of relativism.

"Having embraced this relativism," Cole warned in the Chronicle of Higher Education article, "some faculty members may feel that it is incompatible with making absolute judgments of our students. Giving everyone a good grade becomes the path of least resistance."

What Cole never said then was that he, too, had frequently chosen the easy path. Like a good bridge player, Cole never showed Harvard all his cards.

While students and faculty here respected him, friends and associates paint a portrait of a deeply troubled person with a peculiar habit for lying and getting into trouble.

This summer, Harvard police targeted Cole as part of their investigation into the mutilation of dozens of books in the University's libraries. A search warrant was issued for his Belmont home after police who spoke with him there observed cutting tools and hundreds of prints. Harvard Police Chief Paul E. Johnson indicated last week that the search did not turn up evidence against the teacher.

Johnson now says that Cole is no longer the focus of the investigation. No arrests have been made, and the probe is open and ongoing, he says.

Asked last week if the department is actively investigating Cole, Johnson said: "We're actively looking for information, period."

However the Harvard case is resolved, Cole's legal problems run deeper. In Cape Cod, he faces charges that he stole from and assaulted a rare book dealer in Cotuit, Mass, on June 23 of this year. If convicted on both charges, he faces a maximum of five years in prison.