The week in higher education – 6 August 2020

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

August 6, 2020
Vascular surgeon

The August issue of the Journal of Vascular Surgery contained a retraction of a manuscript featured in a previous issue, which created a social media storm for all the wrong reasons. The article, titled “Prevalence of Unprofessional Social Media Content Among Young Vascular Surgeons”, attempted to highlight “unprofessional” and “inappropriate” behaviour and content posted on social media by young vascular surgeons. So far, so good. However, it quickly came to light that not only had the investigators created fake social media accounts to surreptitiously gather their evidence, but the “unprofessional” behaviour highlighted included photographs of young, mainly female, surgeons wearing bikinis or “provocative” Halloween costumes. The hashtag #MedBikini quickly went viral, with scores of respondents pointing out that young surgeons are, in fact, human beings too, and their choice of beach attire shouldn’t be scrutinised – not least by researchers hiding behind fake Instagram and Twitter accounts.


Meanwhile, in other controversial publication news, Springer Nature has promised a “full investigation” after one of its journals, Society, published a commentary piece branded “unscholarly” and “overtly racist” by almost 1,000 academics who have called for its retraction. The piece, by Lawrence Mead, professor of politics and public policy at New York University, attempts to explain why “minorities – especially blacks and Hispanics – typically respond only weakly to chances to get ahead through education and work, and also why crime and other social problems run high in low-income areas”. The letter calling for the article to be retracted says the piece “has no place in a publication that purports to be a serious academic journal”, while a separate petition says it shows that “outdated and odious suppositions…still hold sway in the very academic circles that should be challenging, not strengthening, racism”. Professor Mead, for his part, told Times Higher Education that the article was “not racist”, arguing that “that the culture of a group or nation is all due to socialisation and has no necessary connection to race”.


Thought you’d left the issue of who to sit next to at lunchtime behind you after secondary school? Not if you move into academia, apparently. A new Policy Exchange report has suggested that UK academics on both the left and the right discriminated against one another in areas such as hiring, funding, making publishing decisions and, most importantly, who to sit next to at lunch, with 86 per cent of those surveyed saying they would be comfortable sitting next to a Remain supporter but just 54 per cent saying the same about a Leave supporter. Other results from the survey suggested that a third of academics who supported Remain in the Brexit referendum would seek to avoid hiring a known Leave supporter, while nearly a quarter of right-wing academics would rate a paper lower if it had a left-wing perspective, leading to troubling self-censorship across the sector.


The exasperated staff of Lund University in Sweden have appealed to Facebook users in India and beyond to provide them with a little respite from hundreds of joke comments concerning its name. Lund means “green area” in Swedish and is also the name of a medieval town in the country’s south but, unfortunately for its social media moderators, it is also a word for men’s genitalia in Hindi. The university’s statement read: “We have had this Facebook page for 10 years now and every now and then it is ‘rediscovered’ by students in certain countries who spread it to their friends. We are well aware that our name is entertaining to you and…there will of course always be words that sound funny in another language,” adding that staff are having to “spend hours deleting hundreds of comments to keep the page manageable, relevant and available for serious student questions”.


A University of California, Santa Barbara teaching assistant has, unsurprisingly, drawn the ire of the Twitterati after he tweeted about killing Jesus. Tim Snediker, also a doctoral student in religious studies at the university, wrote that he would “assassinate Jesus of Nazareth” if he was given the opportunity to travel through time, according to The College Fix. Mr Snediker followed that up with another tweet saying that he would consider “murdering him before his baptism”. Twitter, as ever, was quick to react to the provocation, with conservative writer Rod Dreher highlighting how Mr Snediker’s department says “that the study of religion teaches that ‘human life is holy because God is holy’”. The tweets and Mr Snediker’s Twitter account were soon deleted, but before deleting the account, he did change his profile to read: “Tim has repented, now he wants to save Jesus.”

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