The week in higher education – 19 September 2019

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

September 19, 2019
Boris Johnson cartoon

Boris Johnson gave some invaluable advice to Year 4 pupils during a visit to a London primary school. “My strong advice is don’t waste your time at university,” the prime minister advised, according to a report in the Daily Star on 10 September. “Don’t get drunk. I frittered too much time at university I’m afraid to say.” The trauma of missing out on a first-class degree at the University of Oxford appears to be a shaping factor in the personality of Mr Johnson, who gained a 2:1 in Classics. It has been suggested that Mr Johnson’s sister, Rachel, had to tell him the “bad news” when his younger brother, Jo – who resigned as universities minister this month – gained a first at Oxford. And Mr Johnson’s recent description of David Cameron as a “girly swot” seemed to express resentment at the former PM’s Oxford first. Hopefully, those Year 4 pupils will take a social and educational path that spares them such insecurities.

Jerry Falwell Jr, president of the Christian institution Liberty University, referred to one student as “emotionally imbalanced and physically retarded” and called the school’s police chief a “half-wit”, internal emails reported by Reuters on 12 September reveal. “The barbed comments…emerge as the evangelical political leader is seeking to stem a rash of news reports about his stewardship of the Virginia-based university,” the agency added. Dr Falwell, a prominent supporter of Donald Trump, told the Associated Press that he had contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and that the email disclosures constituted an “attempted coup” aimed at forcing his exit from Liberty. The disclosures could damage Dr Falwell in the eyes of evangelicals by revealing apparently un-Christian behaviour – but given the support of evangelicals for Mr Trump, they seem to be turning a blind eye to such things.

The annual Ig Nobel prizes are almost as keenly anticipated these days as their more famous namesakes, and this year’s collection of wacky papers is a bumper crop. They include the winners of the anatomy prize, who measured the relative temperature of right and left testicles in 22 French postmen and bus drivers, The Times reported on 13 September. Like most Ig Nobel winners, their ballsy experiment had a serious purpose – to further understanding of how testicle temperature and sperm mobility are related. Other winners included Japanese scientists who investigated how much saliva a typical five-year-old produces in a day, a multinational team who compared different nations’ paper money to see which transmitted the most bacteria, and another international group who compared itches on different parts of the body to establish which ones were the nicest to scratch (which, it should be emphasised, had no relation to the testicle research).

Perhaps a potential Ig Nobel experiment for the future might be: “The half-life of UK universities and science ministers in the UK: how Brexit affected the longevity of a key government post.” Certainly exhibits A and B for such a scholarly investigation could be Jo Johnson and Chris Skidmore. The latter found himself back in the post on 10 September, just seven weeks after reluctantly having had to hand the baton on to Mr Johnson (who cut short his second spell in the brief in protest against his brother’s Brexit stance). Of course, further added into the experiment’s mix should be previous universities ministers Sam Gyimah and Greg Clark – both of whom no longer even represent the Conservatives in Parliament after they were forced out because of their opposition to Brexit (Mr Gyimah has just defected to the Liberal Democrats). The role has become so cursed by Brexit that it will rank as a surprise if Mr Skidmore is still there next week.

The controversy involving donations made to US universities by Jeffrey Epstein has widened this week. The president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that there had been knowledge at a senior level of money being given to the institution by Epstein after he had already been convicted of a sexual offence. L. Rafael Reif said “members of my senior team” learned in 2013 – long after Epstein’s 2008 guilty plea to a charge of procuring a teenage girl for prostitution – that MIT’s renowned Media Lab was receiving money from the financier, The Guardian reported on 12 September. Professor Reif said he himself even signed a “standard acknowledgment letter” thanking Epstein for a financial gift, although he does not recall doing so. It comes after Joi Ito resigned as director of the MIT Media Lab earlier this month following a New Yorker investigation that reported that the lab tried to hide donations made by Epstein.

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