A father from the Maryland suburbs is at the center of a Harvard University investigation prompted by a news report that the man paid almost twice the assessed value for the home of Harvard’s legendary fencing coach. The purchase happened shortly before the man’s son was admitted to the school.
The report from the Boston Globe 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 at St. Albans School in the District and was hoping to be admitted to Harvard and compete on the fencing team, according to the Globe.
The father, Jie Zhao, did not respond to telephone messages from The Washington Post seeking comment. He told the Globe the home purchase was an investment and a favor for Peter Brand, head coach of the men’s and women’s fencing teams at Harvard, whom he considered a friend.
Zhao, who lives in Potomac, Md., co-founded a global telecommunications business. He gave a $1,000 campaign donation to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in August 2018, and a $1,000 donation to Hogan’s Democratic challenger, Ben Jealous, in September 2018.
Zhao had been a member of the Maryland Governor’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs but resigned from that advisory commission Thursday evening, according to Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci.
“Governor Hogan expects every member of this administration to maintain the highest ethical standards, and will certainly hold accountable those who fail to do so,” Ricci said.
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.
Zhao told the Globe that his son had excelled at St. Albans School with almost straight A’s each year, had received an almost-perfect SAT score and had family connections at Harvard including his older brother, who is an undergraduate there.
St. Albans spokeswoman Molly Dewsnap Meinhardt said the school supports the university’s commitment to a full, independent investigation.
“We teach students that getting in to the colleges that are right for them is a byproduct of their hard work, their intellectual growth, their self-awareness, and their ability to accept challenges,” she wrote in an email.
She said the school “does not, has not, and would not ever encourage parents to be generous with college coaches or other college employees."
In an email to the campus Thursday, Claudine Gay, dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, acknowledged that “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.”
Brand, in his 20th season at Harvard, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
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.”
Erin Cox and Jennifer Jenkins contributed this report.