In an unexpected change of heart, Cornell University officials have decided to take down the mysterious pumpkin that has been perched atop the school's 173-foot bell tower since early October.

For months, professors, students and campus visitors have traded theories about the skill and technique required to impale the pumpkin on the seemingly inaccessible lightning rod on the bell tower, and they have also debated whether it is even a real pumpkin.On Friday, the university will use a crane to hoist the provost, Don Randel, to the top of the tower, where he will remove the pumpkin, place it in a cooler and rush it via ambulance across campus to a laboratory for analysis by a team of professors. Officials said they would announce in April whether the pumpkin was real or some artful facsimile.

But several students taking part in a contest to determine whether the pumpkin is real said Wednesday that they already had the answer: It is.

Two groups obtained samples of the pumpkin with the help of helium-filled weather balloons outfitted with tethers to control their direction. A team of engineering students punctured the pumpkin with hypodermic needles connected to its balloon, and a group of physics students hung a robotic drill and video camera to their balloon.

"We were pretty sure it was real, but we didn't have any proof," said Chris Regan, a junior who is a mem-ber of the engineering team. "Now we do."

School officials had long said they did not want to disturb the pumpkin. But now, they said, it is not safe to let nature takes its course any longer.

"With warm weather around the corner, we're concerned that large chunks will begin to fall on people," said David Brand, a Cornell spokesman.

But some skeptics said that all the hoopla surrounding the removal of the pumpkin suggested that Cornell was trying to milk the situation for every last drop of publicity.

"It's gotten to the point that Cornell is beating a dead pumpkin," said John Rubino, a graduate student from Ardsley, N.Y. "Everyone agrees that this prank is funny, quirky and even ingenious. But isn't an ambulance and a crash team of researchers awaiting its arrival a bit much?"