The week in higher education – 13 July 2017

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

July 13, 2017
The week in HE illustration (13 July 2017)

A professor’s profane take on Brexit divisions in the UK’s Conservative Party has been hailed as the “letter of the decade” by the Financial Times’ editor, Lionel Barber. Commenting on an FT story that described how pro-Brexit Tories were now known in some political circles as “fuckers”, while they described their opponents as “wankers”, Nicholas Boyle, emeritus Schröder professor of German at University of Cambridge, wondered if this “rhetoric inverts the truth”. “It is the Europhobes who shut themselves away in self-gratifying fantasies, while the Remainers know that real life is possible only through interaction with others,” he wrote in a letter published in the FT on 6 July. Retweeted by the famously EU-friendly FT boss with his generous tribute – others on the social media site felt it merited “letter of century” – Professor Boyle’s fine example of master debating quickly went viral, being reposted more than 18,000 times.

Those worried about the UK’s exit from the European Union may be pleased to hear that a university teacher is heading to Brussels to smooth the Brexit process as (possibly) the country’s last MEP.  Less reassuring is the fact that this teacher is Rupert Matthews, who lectures on the paranormal at a little-known US outfit called the International Metaphysical University, which charges $200 (£155) for its “master’s degrees”, according to the Daily Mail on 5 July. Mr Matthews, who was quietly signed off as MEP for the East Midlands by Conservative Party HQ, might be described as a polymath, having written more than 300 books on subjects as diverse as Teashop and Pub Drives in Sussex, Alexander the Great and the Battle of Granicus and You Wouldn’t Want to be a Chicago Gangster. However, his specialist subject is ghosts, having penned half a dozen books on the subject alone, alongside titles on aliens and UFOs. Topics covered on his current IMU course include the Loch Ness monster, poltergeists and the intriguing week 12 class on “the Goblin Universe”, but sadly he will be putting aside his research while he fulfils his duties in the European Parliament.

A law professor has been found guilty of sexual harassment by Washington DC’s Howard University in relation to a 2015 test question that involved Brazilian waxing. Inside Higher Ed reported that, at first glance, this might be the sort of case that “might anger even modest professors concerned about the rising tide of what’s been called campus illiberalism, or student calls for censorship of emotionally discomfiting speech”. However, it was the details of Reginald Robinson’s question about a client who fell asleep during a wax and later alleged inappropriate touching that raised concern, with references to a “landing strip”, hairlessness from “belly button to buttocks” and more. Professor Robinson’s attorney was undeterred, complaining to Inside Higher Ed that Howard “wants to treat its students as delicate snowflakes who must be protected from unpleasant hypothetical cases”.

Aberystwyth University is the latest UK institution to find that attracting students to a branch campus in an island paradise isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Aberystwyth’s outpost in Mauritius, which opened in 2015, was built to accommodate 2,000 learners but currently has just 106, the BBC reported on 6 July. Welsh Assembly member Simon Thomas said that the venture was “somewhat struggling” and that, if it did not make money, “the plug must be pulled” – a scenario that would see Aberystwyth following the University of Wolverhampton in closing a Mauritian campus. Another option would be for Aberystwyth to find a cheaper alternative to flying academics out to the Indian Ocean to deliver lectures: on these returns, would sending teaching materials via messages in bottles not be a better option?

It’s graduation season in the UK, which can mean only one thing: the annual battle between universities to boast of the most famous honorary graduate. However, the University of Edinburgh has already exhibited what looks like a clear winner in the shape of Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister. The degree of doctor honoris causa, presented on 5 July in recognition of his commitment to equality and diversity, is the latest in the long line of achievements enjoyed by Mr Trudeau, who has previously won adoration around the world for explaining quantum computing and hugging pandas, among other things. To prove there really is no end to his talents, Mr Trudeau even showed off a serviceable Scottish accent in his graduation speech, recalling how his great-grandfather’s decision to emigrate to Canada had been forced by restrictions on fishing rights in Scotland. “If I cannae fish, I cannae live!” were the words that Mr Trudeau attributed to his ancestor. 

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