The week in higher education - 7 August 2014

August 7, 2014
  • An Australian academic will keep his job after being suspended for describing alleged Twitter trolls as “stupid as fuck”. The row over Martin Hirst, associate professor of journalism and media at Deakin University, started in 2008 “when Hirst posted a photo of himself at Karl Marx’s grave at Highgate cemetery in London, which he later used as a profile picture on his personal Twitter account”, The Guardian reported on 30 July. In April 2014, Australian Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Blair posted the photo on his blog, describing it as “the finest leftie selfie ever taken”, prompting others to criticise Dr Hirst on Twitter. Dr Hirst then “adopted a tweet by US actress Kirstie Alley” and said: “…dear stupid as fuck people who just like to be stupid, go be stupid with other stupid people. #stupidfuckcity”. Dr Hirst was suspended without pay for serious misconduct, but reinstated after 150 academics and PhD students signed a letter in his support that was sent to the university authorities.
  • The University of Leicester and the city council have been accused of displaying a “grotesque” model of Richard III that resembles “a storm trooper from Star Wars”. Annette Carson, author of Richard III: The Maligned King, objected to the model being depicted in white armour at the £4 million Richard III Visitor Centre and accused Leicester City Council and the university of “rowing back on written agreements to ‘prevent exploitative use’ of the king’s remains”, The Daily Telegraph reported on 29 July. While it is sad to see the scholarly dignity of the university’s Richard III find traduced, there could be an upside if they go the whole hog and depict Richard III as that other great villain, Darth Vader: would it do any harm to visitor numbers and student applications?
  • The interim president of Kentucky State University has given up $90,000 (£53,400) of his salary so that university workers earning the minimum wage can have their earnings increased to $10.25 an hour. Raymond Burse’s salary had been set at $349,869 but will now fall to $259,745, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported on 1 August, in a story later picked up by national US news outlets. “My whole thing is I don’t need to work,” said Professor Burse. “This is not a hobby, but in terms of the people who do the hard work and heavy lifting, they are at the lower pay scale.” British vice-chancellors will be hoping that none of their number gets any funny ideas; if they do, they will be standing on their own at the buffet at every Universities UK event for the rest of time.
  • “Students face £16,000 fees for Oxbridge”, ran a headline in The Sunday Times on 3 August. The newspaper reported on the well-aired plans by David Willetts, the former universities and science minister, to sell graduate debt to universities, adding that “top universities” with high repayment rates would expect to raise fees above £9,000 in return. One problem is that research for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found last year that the graduate earnings premium from attending a Russell Group university compared with a former polytechnic was “statistically insignificant”, once family background and prior educational attainment were taken into account. But that salient fact mysteriously failed to make it into the BIS press release on the research, and for unknown reasons has failed to feature in any of Mr Willetts’ many observations on loans and graduate earnings.
  • A senior Japanese scientist embroiled in a high-profile stem-cell research scandal has apparently committed suicide, it was reported on 5 August. Yoshiki Sasai, deputy chief of government-affiliated science institute RIKEN’s Center for Developmental Biology, had supervised and co-authored papers that had to be retracted from Nature owing to falsified contents. Public broadcaster NHK said that he had left three letters, each addressed to Haruko Obokata, a co-author of the research papers, as well as senior members of the research centre. RIKEN had held Dr Obokata responsible for falsifying data, AP said. The investigation also focused on Dr Sasai and two other employees, although the three were not accused of research misconduct.
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