The week in higher education – 3 September 2015

The good, the bad and the offbeat: the academy through the lens of the national press

September 3, 2015
The week in higher education cartoon (3 September 2015)

Buzz Aldrin has teamed up with a US university to develop a “master plan” for colonising Mars within 25 years, The Guardian reported on 27 August. The second man to walk on the moon will serve as a research professor of aeronautics at the Florida Institute of Technology, which hopes to have its plan adopted by Nasa, the paper said. Aldrin, 85, envisions using Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos as stepping stones to the Red Planet, and is pushing for settlement there by 2039 – the 70th anniversary of his Apollo 11 mission. His move into academia follows a string of celebrity pursuits, which were acknowledged by his new employer. “Everyone knows what Buzz Aldrin is most famous for, and that is being a contestant on Dancing with the Stars,” joked Florida Tech’s executive vice-president T. Dwayne McCay at the press conference announcing the Mars plans. “Big Bang Theory,” Aldrin retorted.

An elite band of Chinese and South Korean “super-authors” appear to be putting British scholars to shame, The Times reported on 1 September. Authors named Zhang, Wang, Li, Kim or Lee dominate the world’s top 100 academics by citation as measured by science indicators published by Thomson Reuters, making up more than half of those on the elite list, the paper said. But the prolific output of the top 100 academics – who published as many as three journal papers a day – suggests that these super-scholars are not what they seem. Their extraordinary performance in the Web of Knowledge rankings is actually attributable to the database’s failure to tell the difference between the dozens of East Asian researchers who share a surname. Eighty-five per cent of the population in China shares 129 surnames, while one in five Koreans is a Kim, The Times reported. The problem with the rankings was identified by Anne-Wil Harzing, professor of international management at Middlesex University, in a paper published in Scientometrics titled 'Health warning: might contain multiple personalities—the problem of homonyms in Thomson Reuters Essential Science Indicators'. David Pendlebury, who designed the database, said that a separate analysis listed the full names of the top 3,000 authors, but the surname issue was a problem that they were grappling with.

With bra tycoon Michelle Mone and expenses scandal MP Douglas Hogg among the Tory “cronies” elevated to the House of Lords, the life peerage awarded to David Willetts was largely overlooked. Very few media outlets bothered to mention the former universities minister’s ennoblement and instead focused their outrage on others soon to be draped in ermine. But the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts did not let Lord Willetts off so lightly. In an attack on 27 August, Letts lambasted the “supposedly intellectual Tory business minister who drifted Leftwards in some sort of political mid-life crisis and appointed egalitarian meddler Les Ebdon as ‘universities access tsar’”. Lord Willetts’ former constituents in Havant were apparently happier about the honour. One commenter on the Portsmouth News’ story on 27 August praised the “hard-working MP”, while another congratulated him on his “deserved” peerage, although this seemed to be based on an encounter at a Shell garage 15 years ago, in which he “seemed like a nice fella and had a decent suit on”.

A PhD student at Imperial College London sung hymns during a life-saving brain operation, Metro reported on 27 August. Ruben Hill, 22, was asked by surgeons at Charing Cross Hospital to sing while they removed a tumour so that they could see if they had damaged his language and communication skills, the paper said. The physics student was filmed crooning the hymn 10,000 Reasons during the pioneering laser surgery undertaken a few months ago. Mr Hill has now been given the all-clear and can be heard singing in Imperial’s choir.

“Ze, hir, zir, xe, xem and xyr” are among the “dozens” of “gender neutral” terms recommended for use by staff at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Fox News has claimed. In an online editorial on 27 August, chat show host Todd Starnes said that the university’s inclusion and diversity office had advised staff to get to grips with the new lexicon to identify students. “These may sound a little funny at first, but only because they are new,” wrote Donna Braquet, director of the university’s Pride Center, on Tennessee’s website. Staff should collect students’ preferred gender term at the start of the academic year to ensure “you are not singling out transgender or non-binary students”, Professor Braquet added. Of course, Fox News has its own neutrality issues and the advice, which the university later made clear was not official policy, inevitably ruffled right-wing feathers. “It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Republican Senator Mae Beavers told Mr Starnes.

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