The week in higher education

November 6, 2008

"He surfs, wears a pink hoodie and worships Arsenal," making him "the world's least likely maths professor", said The Guardian. Marcus du Sautoy is to succeed Richard Dawkins as the Simonyi professor for public understanding of science at the University of Oxford. He said on 29 October that he was "bracing himself" for questions about whether he believes in God after Professor Dawkins' high-profile promotion of atheism while in the post. "There are great fears about the power of the intelligent design movement in America, but my focus is mainly on trying to excite people about science," he said.

The dean of a Cambridge college has been accused of snooping on students online. Peter Linehan, dean of St John's College, used an assumed name to join a Facebook group set up by students to complain about a policy restricting boozing at formal dinners. According to student newspaper Varsity, students became suspicious when several outspoken group members were summoned to his office. The university said Dr Linehan was "required to investigate allegations of misbehaviour", but a student told The Daily Telegraph on 29 October that his actions were "morally repugnant".

The media's Oxbridge obsession continued with reports that half of Cambridge students are cheats. A survey of 1,000 undergraduates by Varsity found 49 per cent admitted cheating, with law students the worst of the lot. An unnamed member of the university council told The Daily Telegraph on 31 October: "It stands to reason that students performing less well will resort to underhand means."

A fresh salvo was expected this week in the battle over the use of primates in experiments. Scientists, politicians and animal-rights campaigners were due to confront each other at a public meeting, kicking off a campaign that could lead to a Europe-wide ban on experimenting on monkeys, The Observer reported on 2 November. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail reported on the trial of Mel Broughton, an activist who is alleged to have blown up a building at Oxford as part of an animal-rights campaign.

Dozens of suspected terrorists have tried to infiltrate Britain's top labs to develop expertise in biological and nuclear weapons. The claim is made by the security services, which have intercepted up to 100 potential terrorists posing as postgraduates, The Observer said on 2 November. It follows an MI5 alert that al-Qaeda is trying to recruit individuals with access to labs holding deadly viruses and weapons technology. A Foreign Office spokesman said: "There is empirical evidence of a problem with postgraduate students becoming weapons proliferators."

As the US election campaign wound up, Republicans apparently made a last-minute bid to get an Oxford academic to help scupper Barack Obama's chances. Peter Millican, a philosophy don, was contacted about using software he had devised to "prove" that Obama's autobiography had been ghostwritten by a former terrorist. Dr Millican's computer program compares words and phrases to try to detect when two works are written by the same author. The Sunday Times reported he was offered $10,000 (£6,200) to compare Obama's book and one written by William Ayers, a co-founder of a radical group that bombed government buildings in the 1960s who is now a US academic. The offer was allegedly made by a Republican congressman's brother-in-law; but interest waned when Dr Millican warned that the results of any comparison would have to be made public, whether or not a link was found.

The Interior Minister of Iran has been sacked after admitting that a degree he claimed to hold from the University of Oxford is a fake. Ali Kordan maintains that he received the doctorate "in good faith", but his certificate was revealed to be a crude forgery, the BBC reported on 4 November.

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