Harvard launches review into lucrative sale of coach’s home to father of a prospective student

Harvard University Cambridge
–The Associated Press

Harvard University has launched an investigation after The Boston Globe reported that the school’s legendary fencing coach received almost double the asking price for his suburban home from a Maryland businessman not long before the man’s son was admitted to the school.

The Globe story, “He bought the fencing coach’s house. Then his son got into Harvard” – includes details about a real estate transaction so unusual that a town assessor in Massachusetts noted it “makes no sense,” according to the newspaper. The buyer’s son was a junior hoping to be admitted to Harvard and compete on the fencing team, according to the Globe.

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The allegations arrive at a fraught moment, just weeks after federal prosecutors unveiled a scheme involving coaches, athletic department officials and 33 wealthy parents who allegedly conspired to get their children admitted to elite colleges. The admissions process, especially at the most sought-after institutions, is under scrutiny.

The allegations that came to light Thursday in the newspaper report appear to be unrelated to the national scandal, according to a Harvard University official.

Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane said the school was unaware of the circumstances until it was contacted by the Globe and that it is undertaking an independent review. “We are committed to ensuring the integrity of our recruitment practices,” she wrote in an email.

Claudine Gay, dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote in an email to the campus, “Three days in, there is a lot we still don’t know.” But she said officials’ understanding is the allegations are not related to the Operation Varsity Blues scheme to influence admissions decisions, a federal case that has rocked the higher-education world.

Harvard has not been named in that investigation.

The allegation this week involves one coach and transactions related to one family, Gay noted. “I say this not to minimize the concerns that this allegation raises. I take them very seriously,” she wrote. “Instead, I want to ensure that we consider them in the appropriate context.”

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Peter Brand, head coach of the men’s and women’s fencing teams at Harvard, where he is in his 20th season, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Thursday.

Jie Zhao, the father in the case, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Thursday. He told the Globe the home purchase was an investment and a favor for Brand, whom he considered a friend.

Gay noted the allegations naturally raise questions about Harvard’s recruitment practices for student-athletes, and how those compare with other universities. Harvard’s process is distinct in two ways, she wrote: Applications of all recruited student-athletes are reviewed and voted on by the full admissions committee of about 40 people. And all recruited student-athletes must be interviewed by an admissions officer or alumni interviewer.

Gay wrote that if there are ways to clarify practices and strengthen procedures, Harvard should do that with urgency. “This work is critically important to our academic mission and to the integrity of our athletics program,” she wrote, “and it has my full attention.”

Dane noted that staff members will undergo training on the requirements of the university’s conflict of interest policy, which includes a provision noting that “a conflict of interest exists when individual commitment to the University may be compromised by personal benefit.”