The week in higher education – 25 May 2017

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

May 25, 2017
Yale cartoon

“A dean at Yale University has been placed on leave after students objected to comments she wrote in online reviews of local businesses, and the university learned of what it calls ‘multiple reprehensible posts’,” The Washington Post reported on 18 May. Among the reviews that June Chu, dean of one of Yale’s residential colleges, had written on the Yelp website was one praising a cinema for not having “sketchy crowds (despite it being in New Haven)”; in another she described a cinema as having “barely educated morons trying to manage snack orders for the obese and also try to add $7 plus $7”. She wrote of one restaurant, “I guess if you were a white person who has no clue what mochi is, this would be fine for you,” and of another, “If you are white trash, this is the perfect night out for you!” The comments, first reported by the Yale Daily News, suggest that Dr Chu should have applied the insights from her PhD in social psychology to her own views.

The story of an 18-year-old who was blocked from accessing the University of Bristol’s wi-fi services after its IT department received a complaint that she had illegally downloaded a film was reported by BBC Newsbeat on 18 May as one that tapped into the concerns of its young, networked audience. Gianna Mulville-Zanetta had downloaded “the 2000 animated classic” Chicken Run. In any case, it “took about a day or more to download”, so she ended up watching it legally on Netflix. “Another person got caught for downloading Shrek and she’s still blocked,” added Ms Mulville-Zanetta, making modern youth sound rather old-fashioned – the ones at Bristol, at least.

US vice-president Mike Pence hailed the University of Notre Dame as “a vanguard of the freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas” when he gave a commencement speech at the institution on 21 May. Many students were not present to hear this, however, having walked out in protest against the Trump administration’s perceived scapegoating of Muslims. Mr Pence, a former governor of Indiana, where Notre Dame is based, referred to the growing student protests against conservative speakers during his address, complaining that “free speech and civility are waning on campuses across America”. While Notre Dame may be a “vanguard” of free expression, Mr Pence’s appearance came about only after demonstrations by students and staff against the prospect of Donald Trump himself being invited to deliver the speech.

The physical attractiveness of scientists and its bearing on the reception of their research has come under the microscope. For a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Cambridge and the University of Essex asked one group of people to rate the faces of about 600 scientists from US and UK universities for traits including attractiveness and intelligence, with further groups asked whether each scientist looked like someone who conducted important research. The researchers found that people were “more likely to find an attractive scientist interesting, but more likely to consider their less attractive colleagues to be better scientists”, according to a Cambridge press release on the paper. When even the existence of man-made climate change is under debate among some members of the public, the question is whether attractive but vapid scientists or unprepossessing but credible ones would offer the best long-term hope of persuading them.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg shared a video recording of the moment when he learned that he had been accepted into Harvard University. The multibillionaire released the clip, which was shot by his father, ahead of his speech in acceptance of an honorary degree at Harvard, where he dropped out of his undergraduate studies. Harvard “is widely regarded as…a one-way ticket to wealth, job security and freedom”, The Sun noted on 19 May. “But as the teenager” – who completed his schooling at the exclusive boarding institution Phillips Exeter Academy – “opens the email he simply lets out a monotone ‘yay’ as he reveals he’s been offered a place”, it added. Many believe that a pattern of recent attempts by Mr Zuckerberg to develop his public persona heralds a future run at the US presidency. So the Harvard acceptance video may have been more than just the routine oversharing on which his social network relies.

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