The week in higher education − 27 February 2020

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

February 27, 2020
gardening leave cartoon

Being placed on “gardening leave” is not usually a desirable state of affairs, but things may be different at the University of Aberdeen, given that it shells out in excess of £300,000 to cultivate the practice. The Scottish institution has repaid £119,000 of taxpayers’ money after a review found that it had flouted financial rules by authorising payments worth a total of £349,000 in relation to its retiring former principal. Sir Ian Diamond called time on his university career in July 2018, and the university claimed that he was due a sum of £289,000 that constituted a “contractual notice period payment and related expenses”, while Aberdeen also paid £60,000 to a third party. Of course, this all came on top of Sir Ian’s £282,000 annual salary and £30,000 worth of pension contributions. Nice work if you can get it.

Classics students may be regarded as peaceful aesthetes interested only in ancient texts and temple ruins. However, a proposed change at the University of Oxford has them up in arms. The outrage that has sparked this revolt: news that Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid could soon be dropped from the course’s compulsory study list. The move towards making both texts optional rather than mandatory is being mooted as a means of modernising the course and attracting more state school students. However, alumni and current undergraduates alike have issued stern statements warning against it, The Times reported. Jan Preiss, a second-year student at New College, Oxford, has started a petition to stop the proposed changes, arguing that the texts are crucial to securing an appreciation of the subject. “This change would deny future students the opportunity to gain a meaningful understanding of the classical tradition built on them early enough in their studies,” he said.

She may have provoked ire for wearing a $50,000 (£39,000) coat within days of her husband’s gutting of the Affordable Care Act, as well as sporting a jacket emblazoned with the words “I really don’t care, do u?” while visiting a migrant child detention centre, but Melania Trump, the US first lady, was nevertheless honoured with a Woman of Distinction award from Florida’s Palm Beach Atlantic University. The news did not go down well with some students. Graysen Boehning, a senior at the institution, told The Hill: “While many students were excited that the school was bringing in the first lady of the United States to speak, others felt that her character was not representative of the community of love for people of all backgrounds and beliefs that [Palm Beach Atlantic] houses and fosters.” Some, however, might think that being married to Donald Trump attests to a superhuman disposition and endurance that cannot be overpraised.

The history of liaisons between teachers and students may stretch as far back as academia itself, but the introduction of new rules at UCL means that, effective immediately, tutors will no longer be allowed to sleep with their students. The universities of Greenwich and Roehampton had already banned sexual relationships between lecturers and students, but UCL has now become the first Russell Group campus to impose such a prohibition. The “personal relationships policy” is designed to counteract potential abuses of power, as well as conflicts of interest, according to the university. “Given the public focus on sexual misconduct in higher education and elsewhere, we would hope and expect more universities to revise their policies in similar ways,” said Rachel Watters, the women’s officer for the National Union of Students, in The Guardian.

In further news that can be filed under “questionable behaviour of older, male academics”, it has emerged that University of Cambridge fellow Peter Hutchinson surreptitiously published erotic fiction about campus life in the same year that sexual harassment complaints were made about him. Dr Hutchinson had stopped teaching at Trinity Hall in 2015 after complaints of “inappropriate” comments from 10 different students. However, the very same year, he self-published a novel titled First Time: Ooh-la-la! under the pseudonym Barry Able. The text brands one female student a “brazen hussy”, and others are depicted in suspenders and garter belts. The cover features an image of the stocking-clad leg of a female former Trinity Hall student. Dr Hutchinson claimed that the book presented a “progressive view of women” who were “totally liberated” and that “it needs to be emphasised that an author rarely thinks the same way as his main character”, reported the BBC. Trinity Hall faces wider questions about its response to allegations of sexual abuse, which have prompted its master and senior tutor to stand down temporarily.

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