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Harvard Will Train Athletics Coaches in Conflict of Interest Policy Following Investigation Into Fencing Coach

Fencing Scandal Coach Training
Harvard is holding Conflict of Interest training for coaches in wake of the fencing scandal.

Harvard will train its athletics coaching staff on its conflict of interest policy in the wake of an investigation into head fencing coach Peter Brand for engaging in a real estate transaction with the parent of a current and then-prospective fencer.

The planned training, first covered by the Boston Globe Saturday, comes after the Globe reported Thursday that Brand sold his home in Needham, Mass. to iTalk Global Communications, Inc. co-founder Jie Zhao in 2016 for approximately $300,000 above its market valuation. Zhao’s younger son was admitted to the College shortly thereafter to fence for Harvard. Zhao’s older son, who was already on Harvard’s fencing team, graduated in 2018.

Zhao told the Globe that the purchase was not meant to help his son gain admission.

The University’s conflict of interest policy, published on the Harvard Information for Employees website, states that those who violate the policy could face disciplinary action as serious as termination.

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“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,” the policy reads.

“Failure to disclose possible conflict of interest or commitment or refusal to cease activities that are determined to be in conflict with the University's best interests may be grounds for disciplinary action and may lead to termination,” the policy adds.

Head Varsity Squash Coach Mike Way wrote in an email to The Crimson Monday that his office has not heard anything about the conflict of interest training yet. Three other varsity coaches declined to comment on past conflict of interest training.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay wrote in an email Thursday to FAS affiliates that Harvard had commissioned an “independent review” of the transactions between Brand and Zhao.

Brand is still listed as the head coach of the men’s and women’s fencing programs on GoCrimson.com, the official website of Harvard Athletics.

Zhao first became friends with Brand during his older son’s freshmen year of college, according to the Globe. Zhao’s sons had trained at the Virginia Academy of Fencing in high school under the direction of Alexander Ryjik. Ryjik’s son also fenced at Harvard under Brand and graduated in 2015.

Gay stressed in her email that Harvard’s admissions practices are rigorous and different from other institutions in that all applications are reviewed by a full committee of approximately 40 members. She also wrote that all recruited student-athletes receive interviews by admissions officers or alumni interviewers.

Athletics Director Robert L. Scalise said in an interview March 28 that though coaches can recommend applicants to the admissions office, the admissions committee makes its decisions separately.

“What we have is a situation where the coaches recommend to the admissions office the people that they feel are the best candidates to both help the team and to be a part of our Harvard community. But it's the admissions office that actually admits them,” Scalise said. “It's a little bit more of a safeguard. I mean when we talk about admissions in athletics, we don't really talk about slots or spots.”

The official website of the Ivy League, an intercollegiate athletic conference that includes Harvard, states that Ivy League coaches can advise applicants through the college admissions process.

“Ivy League coaches are knowledgeable about admissions policies, can be valuable resources in guiding prospects through the application process, and may offer advice and counsel based on feedback from admissions,” the website reads.

Coaches are then able to relay their support to the admissions office.

“Coaches may communicate to the Admissions Office their support for candidates who are athletic recruits,” the website adds.

The investigation into Brand comes at a time when the admissions processes of top universities are under intense scrutiny, specifically in the wake of the nationwide “Operation Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal and the affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard filed by Students for Fair Admissions last year.

Thirty-three parents were charged in the scandal. Several of them are accused of bribing coaches at various elite colleges across the country to list their children as recruited athletes to give them a leg up in the admissions process. These schools included Yale, Stanford, and the University of Southern California, but no Harvard coaches were implicated.

—Staff writer Olivia C. Scott can be reached at olivia.scott@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Devin B. Srivastava can be reached at devin.srivastava@thecrimson.com.

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