The week in higher education – 25 April 2019

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

April 25, 2019
Cartoon 25 April

One of the main questions lingering over the US college admissions scandal has been whether any of the wealthy and well-connected parents implicated in the case will actually end up serving time. The latest developments suggest the answer could be “yes” after prosecutors argued that Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman should get a prison sentence of between four and 10 months “for paying a college consultant to arrange for cheating on her daughter’s SAT”, The New York Times reported on 16 April. Prosecutors added that they would recommend a sentence at the low end of that range, along with a fine of $20,000 and 12 months of supervised release. Ms Huffman, who is the best known of the 33 parents charged in the scandal, previously said that she intended to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.

The University of Notre Dame in Indiana has pledged to donate $100,000 (£77,000) towards the renovation of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, after a fire destroyed the spire and tore apart the roof of the Gothic masterpiece. John Jenkins, president of the private Catholic research university, which was itself devastated by fire 140 years ago, said he was “deeply saddened” to see the damage to a church whose “exquisite Gothic architecture has for centuries raised hearts and minds to God”, in a statement released by the university on 16 April. The university, which is not affiliated with the church in Paris, tolled the bells of its basilica 50 times last week, as did a number of other churches around the world, to mark the start of the rebuilding process. 

Further light has been shed on UK universities’ use of non-disclosure agreements to prevent misconduct allegations becoming public. BBC News reported on 17 April that 96 universities had spent a combined £87 million on the “gagging orders” over the past two years – a figure uncovered in Freedom of Information requests. Several academics told the BBC they were “harassed” out of their jobs and made to sign non-disclosure agreements, after making complaints about bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment. One academic said she had been made to sign an NDA and leave her university after she was bullied by a senior academic. “Universities would rather pay off people to leave, than push out the person doing the bullying,” she said. Earlier this month, Times Higher Education reported that UK universities had issued nearly 11,000 NDAs in the past five years

Tired of providing long-winded and detailed feedback to students? Well there may be no need, as researchers from the University of Edinburgh Business School have revealed that university staff who use emoticons, such as the smiley face, to communicate with students are perceived as warmer and more likely to receive a positive evaluation, The Times reported on 13 April. There is, of course, a downside to academics peppering their correspondence with smiley faces, because students perceive staff who use emoticons as less competent. Either way, the research does not tell us what the students think of staff who use the much less friendly angry face or the, perhaps more apt, crying emoji.

Speaking of smiley faces, a professor at a Japanese university has been referred to prosecutors after allegedly teaching his students and a colleague how to produce MDMA, or ecstasy. “Tatsunori Iwamura, 61, a professor at the College of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Matsuyama University in Ehime Prefecture, admitted to the allegation, telling investigators that he did it in order to help his students’ ‘learning’,” The Japan Times reported on 17 April. The professor had previously secured a licence to produce the drug for research purposes, but that had expired, according to the report. Not as exciting, then, as the chemistry teacher-turned-drug-dealer of Breaking Bad, but just another academic who is bad at paperwork.

The University of Aberdeen has revoked the honorary degree it awarded to the Sultan of Brunei after his country made gay sex an offence punishable by death, the BBC News website reported on 17 April. The 1995 award to Hassanal Bolkiah was made “at a time when the university had operated a successful exchange programme with its counterpart in Brunei, and when the Sultan had encouraged links between Brunei and Aberdeen”, the BBC reported. It was revoked following a vote in the university’s senate. George Boyne, Aberdeen principal and vice-chancellor, said: “While it is deeply regrettable to be in this position, which is unprecedented for the University of Aberdeen, I fully support the decision.”

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