The week in higher education – 12 January 2017

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

January 12, 2017
The week in higher education cartoon (12 January 2017)

A US politics professor has claimed that he faced racial discrimination because he was forced to teach maths simply because he was “Asian”, the Daily Mail reported on 5 January. Seung-Whan Choi, a Korean-born US citizen, alleges that he had to teach statistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago despite none of his colleagues being made to do, specifically because of his race, the paper said. Dr Choi claims to have been told that “Asians, especially Koreans, are very good at mathematics and statistics”, according to papers lodged at a Chicago court. The international relations lecturer also claims that he was told to teach students about Korean history, despite having no experience in that area. Dr Choi claims that he had suffered other forms of harassment and exclusion on account of his ethnicity, which had caused depression, severe anxiety, shameful embarrassment and reputation damage. The university declined to comment on the case, saying it was ongoing.

A UK bank is using “mind-reading” technology to help students decide which graduate role is right for them, reported the Huffington Post on 2 January. As part of efforts to sign up future bankers, the Royal Bank of Scotland has begun wiring up students at university employment fairs to brain scanners and monitoring them as they are shown 10 images and videos linked to a specific skill or ability, the website said. “An algorithm is then used to look for spikes in brain activity…[which] automatically generates which courses you might be most interested in,” an RBS spokesman said. “It grabs attention on busy campuses and allows us to have valuable conversations with students who perhaps wouldn’t have normally considered financial services for an internship,” added another RBS suit, perhaps giving away the fact that the brain-scanning technology probably functions more as a canny marketing tool than as an effective mind reader.

Should the Bible now contain a trigger warning for sensitive students? That is the question raised by news that the University of Glasgow is warning theology students that they might see distressing scenes while studying the crucifixion of Jesus, giving them the chance to leave class if they feel upset, the Daily Mail reported on 4 January. According to university documents, a lecture on Jesus and cinema sometimes “contains graphic scenes of the crucifixion, and this is flagged up to students beforehand”. Warnings are also given to the university’s veterinary students who work with dead animals and to those studying “contemporary society” who will be discussing illness and violence, the Mail added. The trigger warnings were part of the university’s “absolute duty of care to all students”, said a Glasgow spokesman, although they were described as “patently ridiculous” by Liz Smith, Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman.

There are many things to rage against in modern society, but a £500,000 scholarship fund to help female students go to university seems an odd target. However, it appears that one Tory MP is genuinely angry that Labour peer Baroness Chakrabarti has launched such a scheme at the University of Essex, where she is chancellor, the Daily Mail reported on 4 January. Speaking to the Mail, Philip Davies MP branded the new Women of the Future fund a “politically correct dollop of money”, which ignored the fact that white working-class boys are the least likely to go university. Lady Chakrabarti’s claim that the fund, which will pay for 25 women to study at master’s level, would “close the gender gap” and help to “end gender injustice” was a “sham”, said Mr Davies, who is an outspoken advocate of men’s rights. “If she wants to have a fund dedicated to helping promote females, then she’s within her rights to do so, but…don’t pretend it’s about closing some imaginary gap,” he said.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has accused universities of “outrageous” use of gagging orders to stifle free speech after it emerged more than 3,500 higher education staff have signed “compromise agreements”, The Guardian reported on 30 December. According to data obtained by the Lib Dems under Freedom of Information laws, some 3,722 people at 48 universities signed settlement agreements upon leaving institutions, with £146 million paid out in severance cash, the paper said. “The cold wind of gagging staff and stifled debate, much in the public interest, is going through the halls of our bastions of enlightenment and tolerance,” said Mr Farron, who said that confidentiality clauses were “to avoid dirty laundry being aired in public” . 

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