The week in higher education – 2 February 2017

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

February 2, 2017
Week in higher education illustration (2 February 2017)

More than 4,000 academics, including 25 Nobel laureates, have signed a petition denouncing President Donald Trump’s “un-American” immigration ban, the science news website Stat reported on 28 January. The executive order – which barred nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the US for at least 90 days even if they had a valid visa – is discriminatory, wrote petitioners, according to the specialist healthcare science site. Among those to sign the “No to Immigration Ban” petition were the Nobel laureates Linda Buck of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and biologist Andrew Fire of Stanford University. Also among the signatories was Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychology professor, the site said.

With his penchant for “alternative facts”, Donald Trump might not appear to be a natural ally of academia and its stubborn attachment to evidence-based reality. But the 45th president of the US is, in fact, a strong supporter of scholars, he told an audience at the CIA headquarters, in Langley, Virginia, the day after his inauguration on 20 January. In off-the-cuff remarks, quoted on the legal website Lawfare on 21 January, Mr Trump explained, “I’m a person that very strongly believes in academics.” The proof? “I had an uncle who was a great professor at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] for 35 years, who did a fantastic job in so many different ways academically.” His uncle – engineering professor John Trump, who died in 1985 – was an “academic genius”, the president stated. “And then they say: ‘Is Donald Trump an intellectual?’ Trust me. I’m like a smart person,” he continued. Mr Trump’s latest mention of his uncle to demonstrate his family’s disposition to intelligence (“good genes, very good genes”, he told a rally in April 2016) has not, however, reassured many US scholars. Indeed, it seems that the Donald had little in common with his genius uncle, at least in temperament. In Physics Today’s obituary of John Trump, he was spoken of as “remarkably even-tempered, with kindness and consideration to all, never threatening or arrogant in manner, even when under high stress” – a description that few would ever give to his more famous nephew.

“Fake news”, “alternative facts” and “post-truth” have quickly entered the mainstream lexicon, but two US academics have returned to an old favourite for a new course on identifying plausible-sounding nonsense. Developed by two professors at the University of Washington in Seattle, the proposed “Calling Bullshit” course will explain to students how to “identify BS, sift through the BS, to be able to respond to BS”, reported Russia Today on 26 January. “It’s something you can use in any circumstance,” said one of the course’s creators, Jevin West. The course’s syllabus, which was posted online last week, has already been viewed more than 100,000 times, but it has yet to be endorsed by the university, Dr West said.

A university lecturer has been disciplined for “repeatedly bonking” in his office, The Sun reported on 23 January. “Dr Alec High’s romps were overheard by colleagues” at the University of Leeds despite the fact that he had been warned about his inappropriate behaviour at the university’s School of Dentistry, explained the newspaper. On one occasion, a support officer was next door comforting a grieving student, a practice committee at the General Dental Council was told, when she “began to hear the loud noise of what she was clear was two people having sex”. Dr High, who refused to attend the hearing in London, resigned from his position as a senior lecturer in dentistry after a university investigation. He has now been struck off by the GDC for “inappropriate and unprofessional behaviour”, BBC News reported on 24 January.

A UK university has been fined £400,000 for mistakenly giving two students 100 times too much caffeine in an experiment, BBC News reported on 25 January. Admitting a health and safety breach, Northumbria University told Newcastle Crown Court that it was “deeply, genuinely sorry” for giving sports science students Alex Rossetta and Luke Parkin the equivalent of 300 cups of coffee. Both students were admitted to intensive care for dialysis after the “life-threatening” calculation error led to violent side-effects. The calculation had been done on a mobile phone, with the decimal point in the wrong place, and there had been no risk assessment, leading to a dose of 30g of caffeine, rather than 0.3g, the court heard. Death had previously been reported after consumption of just 18g of caffeine, although both men have made a full physical recovery, the court was told. Mr Rossetta has, however, reported some short-term memory loss.

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