The week in higher education – 11 October 2018

The good, the bad and the offbeat: the academy through the lens of the world’s media

十月 11, 2018

“Almost every news story about universities is either depressing or bonkers. But mostly bonkers,” explained the Mail on Sunday’s Charlotte Gill on 7 October, in response to the latest round of “political correctness gone mad” stories that unfailingly follows freshers’ week. Ms Gill was not, however, condemning the absurdly reductive media coverage of higher education. In fact, news that the University of Manchester’s students’ union was supporting use of “jazz hands” instead of clapping (deemed exclusionary to autistic and deaf students) was the “craziest” example of how “universities have become one of the worst elements of our culture”, Ms Gill says. In an impressive rundown, Ms Gill adds that institutions are also guilty of “social engineering”, not offering enough teaching hours, providing “Mickey Mouse” courses, damaging students’ mental health, encouraging a “new puritanism” among students and promoting “postmodern ideology [which is] responsible for much of the current global disharmony”. Given the rap sheet of universities, it’s hard to see why anyone would be associated with them at all – not least Ms Gill, who lists her psychology BSc on her Twitter profile.


Nobel physics laureates have often been gifted polymaths: Richard Feynman was an accomplished bongo drummer, Brian Schmidt runs a successful vineyard and Kip Thorne has been an adviser for sci-fi movies. But Gérard Mourou, who shared last week’s prize with Donna Strickland and Arthur Ashkin, may be better off keeping his hidden “talents” under wraps, if a bizarre YouTube video is anything to go by. In the video, which was made in 2013 to promote a €850 million (£748 million) European project, the French physicist dances around a laboratory surrounded by a troupe of female students, who then strip away their lab coats to reveal their underwear. Another inexplicably awful scene involved Professor Mourou sweeping his hand through his silver hair while driving a BMW, The Guardian reported on 5 October. Criticised for the sexist tropes in the video, Mourou said that he was “sincerely and profoundly sorry for the image conveyed by this video”.


Professor Mourou’s scantily clad lab assistants would surely have been too much to bear for one censorious US professor. In his new book, To Build the City of God: Living as Catholics in a Secular Age, Brian McCall explains that “women must veil their form to obscure its contours out of charity towards men,” reported Inside Higher Ed on 5 October. The University of Oklahoma law professor writes that women who wear trousers are particularly guilty of tormenting male colleagues, adding that “to know that women in pants have this effect on men and to wear them is thus a sin against charity as well as modesty”. Professor McCall adds: “If there is something really impossible to do in a skirt, does this not indicate this is an activity inappropriate for a woman to perform?” Oklahoma confirmed last week that Professor McCall had “voluntarily” left his position as associate dean at the law school.


More on dress codes, and it is probably true to say that the standard graduation garb of gown and mortar board tends to vary little around the globe. So perhaps it was with a breath of fresh air that one graduate in Mexico decided to accept his certificate dressed as Spiderman. Hiram Yahir Salas Romero concealed the outfit under his gown before unveiling it at the ceremony held at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez in northern Mexico, MailOnline reported. He claimed that the stunt was an attempt to change the “square” image of law students and chose Spiderman because the character was a “human with problems but also with the desire to help people with his special powers and intellect”. Mr Romero sounds like a lawyer on a mission.


Many budding chemists and engineers often find their initial thrill for a subject when they realise that they can use experiments to unleash all kinds of chaos on a classroom or laboratory. However, perhaps that wasn’t the intention of researchers at the University of Tokyo who managed to blow the doors off their lab by creating one of the strongest magnetic fields ever seen in a controlled environment. According to website Motherboard, the researchers produced the magnetic field to test a new generator system, but its power ended up being nearly twice as high as they expected. As a result, it blew the door off a specially designed iron enclosure that they built to withstand the shock wave. The academics would have been hailed heroes in The Italian Job, but it’s not clear if Tokyo’s facilities managers saw it the same way.

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