The week in higher education – 31 January 2019

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

January 31, 2019

Kylie Minogue will play the Legends slot at the Glastonbury Festival in June, but a far greater honour awaits the “princess of pop” later in the year: her own academic symposium. Maynooth University, near Dublin, will host the conference on the 50-year-old Australian singer in November, the Irish news site reported. “I can clarify this is certainly not a hoax,” said Stephen O’Neill, a Shakespearean scholar who is one of the conference organisers. “I’ve seen her eight times live, and there is a joy to her music that just lifts your day,” he added. The symposium is seeking contributions on topics such as “Kylie as a singer, performer, songwriter, her status as a pop diva, her artistic reinventions over the years [and] notions of legacy”, with a yet-to-be-named “high-profile speaker” set to appear. Although Kylie is yet to be invited, a cameo is surely not too fanciful. Maybe the organisers will be lucky (lucky, lucky, lucky)?

Could 2019 one day be remembered as the year when robots started their world takeover by delivering pizza to students? More than two dozen delivery robots are now roaming the campus of George Mason University in Virginia, allowing students to get pizza, doughnuts and coffee after placing an order via a smartphone app, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle. The six-wheeled devices – made by San Francisco firm Starship Technologies – can climb kerbs and carry about 20lbs (9kg). Thankfully, they have also been described as “super deferential” to pedestrians and, possibly more importantly, like early incarnations of Dr Who’s enemy the Daleks, they cannot climbs stairs. So in the event that they do take over the world, just head for the back of the lecture hall.

Describing Donald Trump as a president “who gleefully flouts the norms of governing and presidential behaviour” and who is viewed by some as “a spectacularly unqualified and catastrophically unfit egomaniac” might not seem like fake news to many. But its inclusion in a course syllabus prompted a Republican politician to send a letter to a politics professor saying that such a statement did a “disservice” to students, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. Dave Murphy, a member of the Wisconsin state assembly, claimed in the letter that despite his criticisms, he was a “fierce advocate for academic freedom” and respected the right of Kenneth Mayer, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to use the description. But perhaps rather undoing his argument, he then sent copies to senior officials in the University of Wisconsin system as well as to state and federal education committees. In a statement, Wisconsin’s chancellor, Rebecca Blank, defended Professor Mayer, saying that “universities’ greatest value to society is that they are places where any idea is thinkable and debatable”.

Former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld – who is entering the world’s consciousness again thanks to the film ­Vice ­– famously talked of “knowns” and “unknowns”. But could the same semantic approach soon be applied to types of UK university offers? That is one possibility following the growth of “conditional unconditional” offers – where an applicant might be guaranteed a place at university with any exam grade provided they decide to accept a conditional offer. The Office of Students’ chief executive Nicola Dandridge last week said that unconditional offers “with strings attached” were “akin to pressure selling” as the practice came in for scrutiny from the regulator. Could it lead to a situation in which acceptable offers are relabelled as “unconditional unconditional” and “unconditional conditional”, while application processes with interviews become known as “conditional conditional” offers? Let’s hope not, for all our sakes.

Forget exiled African millionaires or family members seeking help from overseas – there is a new fake identity proving popular in online phishing scams: the university dean. Appealing to academics’ desire to please middle managers, internet scammers have been posing as senior faculty to ask more junior staff to buy gift cards from iTunes and Amazon on their behalf because they are “in a meeting”, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. The scam – using publicly available personal information scraped off websites – has been sent to staff at numerous US institutions, often targeting departments with new leadership. Their modus operandi, however, suggests more than just a passing acquaintance with modern academia. One Harvard University dean impersonated by would-be con artists admitted that she was deep into a lengthy meeting on Saturday when a phoney email appeal was sent out in her name to colleagues.

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