The week in higher education – 25 September 2014

September 25, 2014
  • Times Higher Education was able to reveal this week that the University of Warwick is at last preparing to lift the suspension imposed on lecturer Thomas Docherty 268 days ago (and counting). The professor of English and comparative literature will have to wait a little longer for the freedom of the campus, however. Our sources report that this will officially happen on 29 September, the first day of term. Warwick has not commented on his suspension, but THE revealed in July that he had been charged with under­mining the authority of the former head of the English department, Catherine Bates. Professor Bates will not return to the campus this month, it seems, as she is away on study leave. It is believed that Professor Docherty will still face a tribunal, so his return could be a temporary one.
  •  The baffling goings-on at Plymouth University continued this week when the institution responded to criticism of its purchase of seven chairs at an alleged cost of £150,000 by issuing a release seemingly blaming its vice-chancellor. On 20 September, The Daily Telegraph reported the University and College Union’s displeasure with the outlay and quoted a defence by deputy vice-chancellor David Coslett - the most senior staff member on deck after the consignment of vice-chancellor Wendy Purcell to her garden – who noted that the handcrafted chairs, for use in graduation ceremonies, would be a “symbol of success”. The next day, however, Plymouth issued a statement clarifying that Professor Purcell had not sought approval for the project - which had actually cost £95,000 - from the “university executive” or the board. Professor Purcell’s long-term status remains uncertain, but such statements don’t suggest that a resolution is imminent.
  • With many freshers’ weeks in full swing, newspapers have highlighted two novel measures taken by universities to try to prevent undergraduate excess. The Guardian reported on 19 September that Oxford and Cambridge freshers will have to attend half-hour sexual consent “workshops”, and similar schemes are being run by the National Union of Students at 20 further and higher education institutions. Meanwhile, The Times reported that Lough­borough University is among several institutions intending to breathalyse students outside its union bars and to refuse entry to anyone who is a bit too squiffy. Naturally, any sporty, testosterone-soaked Loughborough type told they are too drunk to be allowed inside will apologise profusely, hail a taxi and go home for an Ovaltine without another peep.
  • Still on freshers’ week, a press release from Birmingham City University about “fresher’s flu” unaccountably failed to go viral. Mel Wakeman, a senior lecturer in applied physiology at the institution, offered the insight that the terrible affliction that strikes participants in ­freshers’ week (not to be confused with gonorrhoea) is the result of “some unavoidable circumstances”. These amount to “large numbers of students being thrown together – along with all the bugs they each bring; warm, stuffy classrooms; anxiety; less sleep; drinking more alcohol and a less than healthy diet”. But happily, fresher’s flu is “nothing some sleep, plenty of fluids and some decent food won’tcure”. Naturally, any student who feels a bit iffy halfway through the Trapeze Society’s annual “Welcome, swingers!” party will leave discreetly, hail a taxi and go home for an Ovaltine without another peep.
  • A US professor charged with starting fires and with burglary may have been trying to gauge the response times of Washington DC’s fire services, police have said. The Washington Post reported on 15 September that David Pitts, associate professor in the department of public administration and policy at the city’s American University, was seen setting fires near his apartment, in front of a Starbuck’s and in some woods. However, it is not obvious where such activity might fit among Dr Pitts’ research interests, which focus on “diversity issues in public management and policy”. Police are also investigating whether Dr Pitts, who is in jail awaiting trial, was selling prescription drugs to students after they found 5,000 pills in his apartment, including large numbers of a type often used by students to help them “focus”.
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