The week in higher education – 27 June 2019

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

June 27, 2019
Cartoon 27 June 2019

US higher education has been hit by more potential bribery allegations as federal prosecutors investigate the above-market-price sale of a sport coach’s home to a businessman whose sons were admitted to Harvard University. A grand jury has been assembled to hear evidence in the case of Harvard’s fencing coach, Peter Brand, who sold a house in a Boston suburb in 2016 for $989,500 (£787,000) to Jie “Jack” Zhao despite the property’s having been valued at just $549,300, The Boston Globe reported. At the time, Mr Zhao had one son at Harvard and another making plans to apply. Mr Zhao never lived in the house and sold it 17 months later for a $324,500 loss, the Globe reported. Mr Zhao has said he acted only out of friendship towards Mr Brand and not to influence Harvard’s treatment of his sons. Harvard said it did not know of the sale and was conducting its own internal investigation. In the meantime, the university has kept Mr Brand – who also denies any wrongdoing – as its fencing coach.

Perhaps admissions could be simplified by following the example of a university in Indonesia that is offering places to YouTube stars. The special scheme at the National Development University Veteran Jakarta is open to YouTubers who have a channel with at least 10,000 subscribers and who have made videos reaching more than 100,000 people, the Agence France-Presse reported. Would-be students will also need to create a new video of between three to five minutes as part of their application. The university’s rector, Erna Hernawati, told the Jakarta Post that the university wanted students who could “influence society”.

University and College Union members might boycott Trinity College, Cambridge after its decision to withdraw from the Universities Superannuation Scheme was confirmed on 21 June. The UCU officially censured Trinity after college fellows voted down a motion to reconsider its departure from the pension fund by 76 to 43. Trinity, which has assets worth £1.3 billion, said last month that it was leaving the fund because of the “remote but existential risk to the college from continued participation in USS”. Apparently more secure, though, is Trinity’s confidence in the fossil fuel industry. The college had £9.1 million invested in companies involved in oil and gas exploration, production and refinement, the most of any of the 45 Oxbridge colleges that responded to Freedom of Information requests on fossil fuel investments from student papers Varsity and Cherwell, it was reported in 2018. Trinity must have judged that any potential “existential risk” involved in fossil fuel investments was to humanity and all life on earth, not to the more pressing concern of the college’s balance sheet.

A woman made headlines around the world after earning her PhD in higher education leadership from Cardinal Stritch University in Wisconsin. That was all because of her name: Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck, or “Dr Marijuana” as some reports styled her. There is a serious point to the story: Dr Vandyck, who has “spent her life being made fun of because of her distinctive name”, has “used her experience to research black names and how they affect the education of children in the United States”, BBC News reported on 21 June. After her thesis, titled “Black names in white classrooms – teacher behaviours and student perceptions”, she is now “working on a programme to help college students”, the BBC said. “We’re human, when we first hear a name, we form opinions and judgements. It’s the next thing that one does that makes a difference,” said Dr Vandyck.

A multibillionaire made huge donations to universities with large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, hoping to boost national economic performance by improving these students’ life chances. Actually, that didn’t happen this week – it probably won’t in any other week between now and the end of time – but Stephen Schwarzman did donate £150 million to the University of Oxford. The gift, announced on 19 June, will fund a new humanities research centre, to be named after Mr Schwarzman. The investment bank chief executive is a prominent friend of Donald Trump and has been a big Republican donor. Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson has some questions to answer: the concerns about Mr Schwarzman’s fondness for a buffoonish individual and about his dubious use of his immense wealth are too serious to ignore. We are talking here about reports that Mr Schwarzman paid Rod Stewart $1 million (£784,000) to sing at his 60th birthday party. But Professor Richardson can offer critics of the benefaction a simple rejoinder: “I don’t want to talk about it.”

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