The week in higher education – 15 November 2018

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

November 15, 2018
Cartoon - THE 15 November 2018 issue

A university chancellor paid thousands of dollars from institutional coffers so that a former porn star could speak to students. According to Newsweek, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse chancellor Joe Gow paid $5,000 (£3,875) to book Nina Hartley to visit and answer students’ questions about sex and adult media, although the cash came from a self-sustaining fund rather than public money. “This was a real value for $5,000, and a rare perspective we don’t hear every day,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. About 70 students attended the 90-minute talk, called “Fantasy vs Reality: A critical view of adult media”, in which Ms Hartley discussed topics such as online pornography and safe sex. The talk was designed to help mark the launch of a new university policy on freedom of expression. At least it makes a change from porn actresses in the US being allegedly paid to keep quiet.


Meanwhile, threats to freedom of expression in academia have led to the creation of a new journal that will allow academics to publish articles on controversial topics under a pseudonym. The Journal of Controversial Ideas is set to be launched early next year by an international group of researchers who feel that frank discussion on campus is being hampered by a culture of fear over offending those on the left or the right of politics. Jeff McMahan, professor of moral philosophy at the University of Oxford, revealed plans for the publication in a BBC Radio 4 documentary. “The need for more open discussion is really very acute. There’s greater inhibition on university campuses about taking certain positions for fear of what will happen,” he told the University Unchallenged documentary. It isn’t clear if it means that every other academic article published from now on will automatically be deemed uncontroversial and, therefore, not worth reading.


Eighties pop sensation Rick Astley went down a storm when he headlined a secret gig at a students’ union bar in Cambridge. Footage released by BBC News Online shows students going wild as the singer performs his 1987 hit Never Gonna Give You Up at King’s College, Cambridge – in front of the red walls and Soviet Union flag that decorate the famously left-wing college’s union bar. The hour-long performance took place after Mr Astley’s gig at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, and organisers were given just 12 hours to arrange the event after being contacted by the singer’s team. The bigger mystery remains Mr Astley’s incredible popularity with the younger fans at King’s, most of whom were born more than a decade after his last hit and would be too young to remember Mr Astley’s appearance in the “rick-rolling” YouTube phenomenon of the late 2000s, too.


There was once a time when “rich” undergraduates who drove a second-hand Ford Fiesta or VW Golf around town were the envy of others on campus. That dynamic has changed slightly at one Australian university, at least, where a photo of three supercars on campus has sparked debate about whether international students are “flaunting their wealth”, MailOnline reported. After a photo of three BMWs – one worth a staggering A$320,000 (£182,000) – parked at the University of New South Wales was uploaded to social media, one commenter said that he had seen a Chinese student driving one of the luxury cars. While some students might bridle at this conspicuous consumption, however, such pricey purchases underline just why Australia is doing all it can to hang on to its A$32 billion international education export industry.


A UK university has defended its decision to warn students to take care when reading an essay on socialist revolution because it might be deemed extremist material, The Observer reported. Politics students at the University of Reading were told not to access an essay by the late Marxist academic Norman Gerras, titled “Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution”, on personal devices or to leave it lying around where it might be seen “inadvertently or otherwise, by those who are not prepared to view it”, the paper said. The warning was made after the university classified the text by the former University of Manchester professor as “sensitive” under the government’s Prevent counter-terrorism programme. Professor Gerras’ essay rejects terrorism but argues that violence could be justified in the case of grave social injustices, leading critics to wonder how a treatise by a mainstream UK academic could now be seen as a threat to security. Ilyas Nagdee, black students’ officer for the National Union of Students, said the case again highlighted how “normal topics that are discussed as a matter of course in our educational spaces are being treated as criminal”.

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