The week in higher education – 20/27 December 2018

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

December 20, 2018
THE cartoon 20/27 December 2018 issue

The toxic environment of the laboratory gained a new and sinister meaning at a Canadian university after a chemistry researcher was jailed for poisoning a colleague, the Ottawa Citizen reported. Queen’s University researcher Zijie Wang, 26, received a seven-year jail sentence for what were described by a judge as “calculated and evil” attempts on the life of a fellow researcher. Wang, a Chinese national, was arrested in January after video footage caught him tampering with a loaf of bread in the victim’s bag – with the loaf later found to have been laced with a compound used to induce cancer in lab animals. The victim had started filming covertly after noticing that food and water taken to the lab over the previous four weeks had acquired a chemical smell. What motivated Wang’s action remains a mystery because he claimed that there was no reason for his attacks – a claim that the judge, Allan Letourneau, refused to accept. “He knows why, but chooses to keep that to himself,” the judge said.

The stand-up legend George Carlin once remarked that it was the “duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately”. That sentiment is not shared, it seems, by the student society supporting the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) at Soas University of London, which asked the comedian Konstantin Kisin to sign a “behavioural agreement form” that prohibited “racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia or anti-religion or anti-atheism” from his planned performance. “Students are being taught to prevent offence rather than to seek truth and pursue experiences,” reflected Mr Kisin, who withdrew from the gig in protest. The group has since apologised, BBC News reported, and Soas’ students’ union has stated that it “believes fully in freedom of speech”.

Although there is often a debate over how much pastoral care a PhD student should get from a supervisor, few might expect them to instigate a student’s rescue from a war zone. But that is exactly what happened when Charlotta Turner, professor in analytical chemistry at Lund University in Sweden, received a text message in 2014 from her doctoral student Firas Jumaah saying that he and his family, who are Yazidis, were hiding from Islamic State, The Daily Telegraph reported. Professor Turner reported this to Per Gustafson, who was then Lund’s head of security, and days later heavily armed mercenaries rescued Dr Jumaah (who has since graduated) and his immediate family before they were flown to safety. “It was almost as if he’d been waiting for this kind of mission,” Professor Turner said of Mr Gustafson, who hired a security company to arrange the rescue.

An Iranian law student has been told that his only option to pay his tuition fees might be to travel back to his home country and return with the payment of almost £5,500 in cash. Parsa Sadat, who is studying at the University of Reading, faces being unable to graduate because US financial sanctions mean that his family is unable to transfer the money to him. An email from a Reading official, published by The Guardian, suggests that he has leeway until after the Christmas break, provided he returns from Iran with the money. His tutor, Mai Sato, associate professor in criminology, said that the university was exposing itself to “justifiable criticism” if his only option was to “transport large amounts of cash within and from a country classified by the Foreign Office as a high-risk country”. The university said that it recognised Mr Sadat’s “exceptional circumstances” and was “working with him to try to resolve this issue”.

Ivy League universities are well known to be sitting pretty on endowments worth billions of dollars, fuelled in part by six-figure donations from rich alumni. Therefore, it is perhaps a refreshing change to hear about a large donation going to US community colleges from a bunch of famous people. The $1 million (£790,000) donation from the rock band Metallica is going to 10 community colleges in the US as part a partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges, Inside Higher Ed reported. The band’s charitable All Within My Hands Foundation is hoping to support students entering a traditional trade or community work programme. The colleges selected will each get $100,000 and are based in and around stops on Metallica’s ongoing world tour.

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