The pay-to-not-play college admissions scandal has already rocked the world of elite college admissions and second-tier sports most students didn’t know their colleges even competed in. It appears we’ve only scratched the surface of the college sports quid pro quo and for evidence of that we head to none other than the epicenter of academic and social gerrymandering, Harvard University. This latest case implicates Harvard’s iconic fencing coach, Peter Brand, in what the Boston Globe reports certainly looks like a sweetheart property deal engineered to pay Brand hundreds of thousands of dollars in return for a wealthy applicant’s admission. Sound familiar?
At the heart of the story, per the Globe’s reporting, is the May 2016 sale of Brand’s modest three-bedroom home in Needham, Mass., a suburb of Boston. The home was appraised at $549,300, but when the Harvard fencing coach went to sell it, it returned almost double its estimated value, going for nearly $1 million. The inflated sale price was baffling, but the Globe sketches a potential explanation of why it was so high—the buyer, Jie Zhao, had a fencer son who was a junior at St. Albans in Washington, D.C. and was eyeing a spot on the Harvard fencing team.
Zhao held on to the fencing coach’s home for 17 months, during which it sat unused, before turning around and selling it 17 months later at a loss of nearly $325,000. Zhao, a businessman originally from China who made a fortune in telecommunications connecting China and the U.S. in the 2000s, explained to the Globe that he understood what the purchase looked like, but that he just wanted to do Brand a solid. “I want to help Peter Brand because I feel so sorry he has to travel so much to go to fencing practice,” Zhao said of the longtime coach’s 12-mile commute to campus. Zhao pointed out his kid, with near perfect grades and SATs and multiple family connections to the university, including an older brother already on the fencing team, didn’t even really need help getting in. Harvard released a statement Thursday saying it is “now moving quickly to learn more about these claims through an independent review.”
So how did Zhao come to buy a house for twice its value that he never lived in? Here’s his explanation to the Globe:
Zhao couldn’t remember exactly when, but thinks it was over a dinner that he heard Brand bemoan his commute from Needham to Harvard fencing practice — which can take an hour during rush hour — especially in the winter snow. Zhao knew that Brand’s wife worked in Cambridge as well. “He did not ask me, ‘Jack, can you buy me a house?’ No. No. No. That is just not the situation,” Zhao said in the airport interview.
Zhao explained it was more that he offered to buy the house and Brand told him what he thought it was worth. “From my perspective, I’m just making his life better plus making a good investment,” he said. Zhao said he had eyeballed the house inside and out, and thought it was “pretty cozy” and a good deal, even though he didn’t do a formal inspection or get it assessed. “You can ask me why didn’t you check the market value of the house? I did not because I trust him,” Zhao said. “He gave me the price… I said, ‘fine.’ ”
He gave me the price, and I said fine. Sounds about right.