Admissions Scandal Hits Harvard

A wealthy man bought the fencing coach's house, apparently overpaying significantly. Then the man's son was admitted to Harvard and joined the team. Also, Dartmouth announces new protocols to prevent abuses related to athletic admissions.

April 8, 2019
Peter Brand

As the admissions scandal hit last month, officials at Harvard University might have felt some relief when applicants to Yale and Stanford Universities were implicated, but no would-be Harvard students.

Harvard remains a step removed from the Varsity Blues indictments. But on Thursday, The Boston Globe reported that a wealthy man had purchased a home from the Harvard fencing coach, paying well over what the home was worth. A short while later, the man's son was admitted to Harvard and joined the team. Unlike the Varsity Blues scandal, the man's son appears to be committed to the sport and is still listed on the team roster.

Harvard is now investigating the matter. "Harvard University was unaware of these circumstances until it was contacted by The Boston Globe, and is now undertaking an independent review of this matter. We are committed to ensuring the integrity of our recruitment practices," said a statement the university provided to Inside Higher Ed.

According to the Globe, the home in question was owned by Peter Brand, the fencing coach at Harvard. In 2016, he sold the home for nearly $1 million, even though its assessed value was $549,300. The purchaser, Jie Zhao, never lived in the house and sold it 17 months later, taking a loss of $324,500. But in the interim, Zhao's younger son was admitted to Harvard and joined the fencing team. Zhao told the Globe that the purchase had nothing to do with his son's efforts to get into Harvard. His son was an excellent student and fencer, Zhao noted. But he did want to help out Brand, who has had a long commute from his home to work and could benefit by buying a home closer to the university. (Zhao's older son was on the team at the time.)

Brand did not respond to the Globe or Inside Higher Ed about the situation.

Harvard has a conflict-of-interest policy that would appear to apply to cases where a coach would sell a home at an inflated price to the father of an athlete and an applicant.

The policy states that “a conflict of interest exists when individual commitment to the university may be compromised by personal benefit. Employees are expected to avoid situations or activities that could interfere with their unencumbered exercise of judgment in the best interests of Harvard University.”

Failure to report potential conflicts, the policy says, "may be grounds for disciplinary action and may lead to termination."

Claudine Gay, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, sent professors a message Thursday about the situation. In the message, Gay said that the reports currently being investigated "are not related in any way" to the Varsity Blues scandal. In that scandal, some parents are accused of bribing coaches to place their children's names on lists of recruited athletes, even though those children did not play the sport and had no intention of doing so. Generally, being a recruited athlete has a major positive impact on the odds of admission, in particular at elite colleges that turn away many qualified applicants.

"The new allegation that came to light this week is against one individual regarding transactions that pertain to one family. I say this not to minimize the concerns that this allegation raises. I take them very seriously. Instead, I want to ensure that we consider them in the appropriate context," Gay wrote.

She added, "These revelations naturally raise questions about how Harvard’s recruitment practices for student athletes compare to those of peer institutions. I want to take a moment to describe them for our community. Our process is distinctive in two important ways. First, the applications of all recruited student athletes are reviewed by the full admissions committee and decisions are made through a vote of the entire committee. The committee has approximately 40 members. Second, all recruited student athletes must be interviewed by an admissions officer or alumni interviewer. It is my understanding that other institutions may have different practices."

New Procedures Announced at Dartmouth

Dartmouth College has not been touched by any of the indictments, either.

But on Thursday the college confirmed that it is taking steps to prevent the kind of abuses alleged in last month's indictments.

"In light of these revelations, the athletics office is strengthening its efforts to ensure the integrity of that process. We are committed to formalizing the protocols for administrative approval of each recruit and an annual review of all first-year students who were recruited athletes to ensure that they appear on the appropriate team roster," said a statement from the college. "Going forward, we will require that, before a coach communicates their support for a candidate to the Admissions Office, that candidate’s athletic credentials are reviewed and approved by an administrator as a legitimate recruit with the athletic talent necessary to contribute to our Division I varsity team. While the data from the last three entering classes demonstrates that no Dartmouth coach has supported an inappropriate candidate, this protocol is being instituted to further increase the rigor of the process in response to the 'Operation Varsity Blues' scandal uncovered at other institutions."

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