The week in higher education – 18 August 2022

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

August 18, 2022
Cartoon 18 August 2022
Source: Nick Newman

August is traditionally known as silly season in the media with hacks forced to work a bit harder to secure front page scoops. It was in such circumstances that The Times’  famed investigative team turned its focus on to the perennial “cancel culture” issue of whether texts are being left off university reading lists because they risk offending “woke” minds. Almost 300 freedom of information requests were sent out, yielding a total of two books that were no longer required reading because of concerns about their content, one of which was omitted by the University of Essex only because it was felt a “different text was better suited to the module’s learning aims”. Despite seemingly scant evidence, the paper published a long investigative piece on the dangers of – in the words of the most likely future prime minister Liz Truss – “mollycoddling students”. The issue of campus censorship really is getting out of hand.

For some students at Imperial College London, size is everything. The Imperial College Union recently received a motion to block the installation of a giant human sculpture by acclaimed artist Sir Antony Gormley, over a protruding knee that the motion claims is an “exclusionary” three-metre phallus. While making clear there is “nothing inherently wrong with phallic imagery in art”, the alleged example in Sir Antony’s 2022 sculpture was “inappropriate for a grand public display, especially given the statue’s size”. Sir Antony, the UK’s most famous living sculptor, has described the figure, Alert, as “balancing on the balls of the feet while squatting on its haunches”. The anonymous postgraduate researcher who submitted the motion told The Art Newspaper they were sceptical the gift to the college from the billionaire venture capitalist and alumnus Brahmal Vasudevan would be turned away. “This is not the sort of thing that the college would pull out of or listen to students about,” they said.

Some vice-chancellors struggle to capture the imagination of students. Perhaps they could learn from the head of the Arts University Bournemouth, Paul Gough, who is suspected of being the anonymous graffiti artist Banksy. A video on TikTok draws connections between Professor Gough’s CV and the activities of the pseudonymous street artist: the professor trained as a fine artist, for example, and a lull in Banksy’s output overlaps with his time as vice-president of RMIT University in Australia. Professor Gough, who has written a book on Banksy’s art, told The Tab it was “easy to become fascinated by the anonymity of the artist”, but said he was always more interested in their art. “It’s tempting to consider Banksy as a man, but it could just as easily be a woman, a non-binary individual, or a group of people who wilfully protect each other’s identity,” he said.

Any university would consider it essential that students and staff can stroll about campus unmolested, but for Kansas’ Fort Hays State University, such a promise is impossible, due to a nesting pair of Mississippi kites. One of the protected predators has been swooping at people as they walk around campus, rapping them on the head with curled talons. A student told local TV channel KWCH the bird had a “nice dive-bomb technique”. The university has responded by erecting a 20-foot perimeter of barricades and bright yellow warning tape around the kites’ tree and telling anyone who is cut by their talons to seek medical attention to avoid possible infection. Medhavi Ambardar, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the university, told KWCH that only about one in five kites were so aggressive and added reassuringly that the many kites moving through the area would soon migrate south.

Vice-chancellors’ tenures are known to be shrinking but even by these standards, six months may well be one of the shortest stints in the top job. Craig Mahoney, the former leader of the University of the West of Scotland, took his talents to the University of Law in February, tasked with expanding the remit of one of the UK’s leading private universities. Fast forward to August and Mr Mahoney is now rather euphemistically describing himself as a “self-employed vice-chancellor” on his LinkedIn page. The university confirmed the performance psychology expert was no longer in charge, saying he had had a “reassessment of his priorities”. It has brought back its old leader Andrea Nollent to steer the ship.

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