The week in higher education – 28 November 2019

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

November 28, 2019
Week in HE cartoon

A University of Cambridge college has removed a renowned artwork depicting animals bound for the dinner table from its dining hall because it offended vegetarians, The Times reported. The Fowl Market, from the studio of the 17th-century Flemish master Frans Snyders, had been hanging in Hughes Hall, but it was taken down after vegetarians complained it was putting them off their food. The painting, which shows dead game, including a swan, a boar and a deer, had been on loan from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where it is about to go on display in a new exhibition. “People who don’t eat meat found it slightly repulsive,” said a museum spokesman, who said the furore highlighted how the “debate about vegetarianism, about veganism, is nothing new”.

The eccentric and offensive views of certain maverick professors have often caused a headache for university leaders, with most choosing to ignore all but the most egregious of comments. An extraordinary message from Indiana University’s provost Lauren Robel shows, however, that some are taking a different line. Addressing the latest outrage caused by economist Eric Rasmusen, Professor Robel wrote that he had long used social media to share “racist, sexist and homophobic views”, which relied on “pernicious and false stereotypes”. The controversy follows posts in which he quoted a headline asking “Are Women Destroying Academia? Probably”, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. However, Professor Robel added that, despite his “wrong and immoral views”, Professor Rasmusen would not be fired, as some had requested, because it would breach his right to free speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Students would, however, not need to “add the baggage of bigotry to their learning experience” by taking his classes, Professor Robel said, adding that Professor Rasmusen would be made to use double-blind grading on assignments.

The classic Daily Mail formula of a screaming moral-panic headline followed by a more considered news report of something going on in academia was in clear evidence with a story about emojis being studied on some courses. “University students now study EMOJIS in degree courses” was the headline bound to rile its readership. But, as we discovered further down the piece from Open University emoji expert Philip Seargeant, their increasing use in everyday language makes them obviously relevant to degrees where communication is a central theme. Such is the way of the world, maybe the Mail headlined pieces about the internet, email, the telephone and even letters in a similarly incredulous tone once upon a time.

An academic expert on corruption and organised crime in South America is facing charges of laundering money from Venezuela. Bruce Bagley appeared in court in Miami on federal charges and could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted, The Guardian reported. The University of Miami professor co-wrote Drug Trafficking, Organized Crime and Violence in the Americas Today, and has testified in Congress on the topic. According to US attorney Geoffrey Berman, Professor Bagley opened bank accounts specifically to launder money from the “proceeds of bribery and corruption, stolen from the citizens of Venezuela”. The academic’s attorney, Daniel Forman, told the Miami Herald that Professor Bagley planned to “diligently defend his case” and was “confident [that] at the end of the day he’s going to be vindicated”. The university said the professor – who is on bail – had been placed on administrative leave.

The former head of a college at the University of Oxford says the Oxford Union debating society is “palpably in disgrace” and should be shut down following an incident where a blind, black student was violently forced to leave a debate. Writing in The Times, Mark Damazer, until recently head of St Peter’s College and former controller of BBC Radio 4, said the treatment of Ebenezer Azamati “exposes the weirdness” of the club. Brendan McGrath resigned as president of the union – which has been a debating ground for a host of future politicians including the UK’s current prime minster – over the response to Mr Azamati’s ejection last month. “Why should Oxford’s principal forum for debate and controversy be a private club which costs you £170 to join or £300-plus for life?” wrote Mr Damazer, who said the university and colleges should instead run a debating society that “for all students and staff, and for nothing”.

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