Coach’s house sale draws Harvard into admissions controversy

Fencing coach sold property for a price well above its market value to a businessman whose son later won admission

April 5, 2019
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Harvard University has been drawn into the college admissions scandal by a report that its fencing coach sold his house for a price well above its market value to a businessman whose son later won admission to the elite institution.

The businessman, Jie Zhao, paid almost $1 million (£760,000) in 2016 for the house in the Boston area then owned by the fencing coach, Peter Brand, The Boston Globe reported. The house had been valued at $549,300, and Mr Zhao sold it 17 months after the purchase, without ever living there, at a $324,500 loss, the Globe reported.

At the time of the sale, the newspaper reported, Mr Zhao’s son was considering applying to Harvard and joining the fencing team – a goal that he subsequently accomplished. Another son earlier won admission to Harvard after a large fencing-related donation, the Globe said.

The details bear some similarities to the fraud cases being pursued by the FBI, which last month accused the parents of at least 33 students of paying bribes to help their children win admission to elite US universities, often by finding sports coaches to claim the applicants as potential team members.

Harvard was not among the institutions known to be covered by the FBI investigation.

Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, said last month that the university was reviewing its admissions policies in light of the scandal. But, Professor Bacow added in the interview with The Harvard Crimson, “we do some things very differently” compared to some of the schools found to have been involved in the scandal.

“For example, with respect to athletes, every athlete who is admitted to Harvard gets an interview,” Professor Bacow told the student newspaper. “Apparently, not true at some institutions.”

Following the Globe report, Harvard issued a statement saying that it had been unaware of the details involving Mr Brand and was examining the situation. Mr Brand did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr Zhao has denied any impropriety. The son admitted to Harvard after the house sale actually is a successful fencer with top high school grades. His older brother was already a student and fencer at Harvard, and Mr Zhao said that he had come to regard Mr Brand as a friend. The younger son entered Harvard in autumn 2017, while the older son graduated in May 2018, the university said.

Mr Zhao told the Globe that he bought the house in the western Boston suburb of Needham as an investment and a favour for Mr Brand. And Mr Zhao, who helped found a telecommunications business connecting China and the US that he and his partners largely sold for $80 million in 2012, said that he paid little attention to the prices on either the purchase or sale of the house.

“If I know the policies that the coach cannot sell to students or parents of student, I would not do it,” Mr Zhao told the Globe. “I have no idea, right? I don’t think there’s any violation or anything.”

Harvard has said that all its recruited athletes are interviewed by an admissions officer or alumni interviewer. Decisions to admit all applicants, including recruited athletes, are made by a 40-person admissions committee, with each member getting one vote, the university said.

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