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Gay Doesn’t Rule Out Changes to Admissions Policies in Response to Fencing Scandal

University Hall in Harvard Yard.
University Hall in Harvard Yard. By Amanda Y. Su
By Jonah S. Berger and Molly C. McCafferty, Crimson Staff Writers

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay said in an interview Thursday that the College could alter its admissions policies after an external investigation into Harvard’s head fencing coach, Peter Brand.

The investigation — launched in the wake of allegations that Brand participated in improper real-estate and non-profit transactions with the family of a then-prospective fencer — is still ongoing.

Brand, the head coach of Harvard’s men’s and women’s fencing teams, sold his Needham, Mass. home to iTalk Global Communications, Inc. co-founder Jie Zhao in 2016 for $300,000 above its market value, the Boston Globe first reported last month. Zhao’s younger son, a sophomore and current member of the fencing team, was admitted to Harvard shortly after the transaction; his older son, who was also a fencer, graduated from the College in 2018.

In an email to FAS affiliates last month, Gay announced the University would initiate an “independent review” of the allegations, adding that she is obligated to act with a “sense of urgency” if FAS decides it must strengthen existing admissions and recruitment procedures.

Gay said Thursday she does not know when the investigation will conclude. She added that any potential policy changes that result from the probe would seek to “maintain the integrity” of the “College experience,” specifically the role of athletics. But she added that she would not institute alterations to admissions policies until the conclusion of the investigation.

“Depending on sort of what we learn through the independent review of this particular situation, we'll also see if there are other changes that we need to make to our policies or practices,” Gay said. “I think first, we just need to actually do the review and see what emerges from that, what it suggests about next steps.”

Gay declined to comment on whether Brand would continue to coach the team. As of Sunday night, he is still listed in an internal Harvard directory as the head coach of men’s and women’s fencing, though the team is currently in its offseason.

Asked what firm is heading the investigation into Brand, Gay said she could not recall the name at the moment, adding that it is one the University has worked with previously in situations “where outside counsel or an outside firm is helpful.” FAS spokesperson Anna G. Cowenhoven declined to name the firm after the interview.

In an interview last month, University President Lawrence S. Bacow also said he could not recall which firm Harvard had hired to conduct the investigation but that it was one the University has “retained in other capacities.”

Gay wrote in an April email — echoing Bacow’s remarks in a March interview — that the College’s admissions policies are more robust than other schools’ in preventing the types of impropriety that recently swept up dozens of students, parents, and coaches in a nationwide scandal involving bribes and fraudulent test-taking.

The University announced in April that it planned to conduct training for all of its athletics coaches on its conflict of interest policy. Gay said Thursday that such training is ongoing and largely amounts to “reinforcement” for the athletics staff.

“On a regular basis, the coaches do go through a lot of training, including around things around complicated ventures,” she said. “So it's not as if we're really starting from a blank slate.”

— Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jonahberger98.

—Staff writer Molly C. McCafferty can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mollmccaff.

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