The week in higher education – 10 October 2019

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

October 10, 2019
Cartoon 10 October 2019

Freshers at the University of Bristol have long felt aggrieved by the two-mile slog from their student halls to lectures every morning. But that daily windblown trek across the Clifton Downs will sound positively alluring to a band of first-years placed in rooms in Newport, South Wales and in Somerset’s Mendip Hills as a result of a shortage of accommodation. Indeed, more than 1,500 undergraduates across the UK may have been forced into temporary rooms after developers failed to finish projects on time, The Times reported. Universities affected included Exeter, Portsmouth, Swansea, Lincoln and Stirling, it said, highlighting the side-effect of aggressive recruitment by institutions that were seemingly unable to cope with demand. Universities minister Chris Skidmore – whose Kingswood constituency covers several unstudenty Bristol suburbs – has said he was “deeply concerned” by the situation and would speak with universities to ensure that there is no repeat next year, The Times said.

A US university head who was seen dancing and drinking in a student hangout has paid the price for being “approachable”, it seems. Dan Gerlach, interim chancellor at East Carolina University, was placed on administrative leave after photographs and videos showing him at a bar in Greenville were posted on social media, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. In several images, Mr Gerlach has his arm around women. Mr Gerlach said he was just trying to be “approachable”, adding that he “regret[s] that these photos are being perceived as anything more than what they are”. But the university’s leadership was less understanding, with trustee Robert Moore calling the episode “very concerning without question”. Mr Gerlach did have one supporter, however. “It really is a damn shame,” the bar’s owner told a local reporter. “The guy came in with some off-duty cops to have some beer. Just wrong place, wrong time.”

Being regarded as a “good ol’ boy” wouldn’t normally be considered a priority qualification for a university leader – especially since the term refers to a white US southerner, and the person offering the praise was an advocate of segregationist policies. However, it still appears to count for something at the University of Mississippi, where the announcement of former state higher education commissioner Glenn Boyce as chancellor on 4 October triggered protests by staff and students. The university’s student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian, reported that Dr Boyce, who had been serving as a consultant in the university’s search process, had previously worked as a sports coach at three white-majority private schools in black-majority communities – while it was Trent Lott, a former Republican leader of the US Senate, who made the “good ol’ boy” comment to The Clarion-Ledger newspaper. Bradford Dye, chair of Mississippi’s search committee, said that Dr Boyce emerged in the search process because staff, students and alumni said that they wanted an experienced leader “who knows and understands our state”.

Having had numerous run-ins over alleged antisemitism, the failure of the UK’s University and College Union to mention Jewish people in an email about Holocaust Memorial Day was unfortunate. While an email circular mentioned a long list of groups persecuted by Nazis – such as “trade unions, including social democrats and communists” – it did not specifically mention the Holocaust’s 6 million Jewish victims, despite reference to “non-Jewish Poles”. A UCU spokesman said that “human error” had led to an “incomplete version” of a message detailing plans for the event on 27 January being sent out, adding that the union was “deeply sorry…for the offence this caused”.

Students making an effort to sleep well the day before an exam may be wasting their time, research suggests. Academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University made the discovery after giving Fitbits to 100 students in an introductory class on solid-state chemistry over a whole semester and then comparing the data with their grades. Co-author Jeffrey Grossman said that, while there was a very striking link between the average amount of sleep a student got and their grades, the night before a test appeared to have little impact. “Instead, it’s the sleep you get during the days when learning is happening that matters most,” he said. Equally unexpected was the fact that there seemed to be a sort of cut-off point around when students went to bed. For those who got, say, seven hours’ sleep, explained Professor Grossman, it made no difference to their performance whether they “go to bed at 10pm, or at 12am, or at 1am…but if you go to bed after 2am, your performance starts to go down even if you get the same seven hours.”

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