CAMBRIDGE — Harvard said it plans to train its athletic personnel to avoid conflicts of interest following the disclosure that its celebrated fencing coach sold his home for an unusually high price to the father of a teen eyeing admission to the prestigious university.
Harvard said Friday that there has been no change in fencing coach Peter Brand’s status at the college, where he has coached the sport since 1999. Meanwhile, some alumni and outside ethics experts expressed concern about the circumstances surrounding the home sale.
Harvard has said it is conducting an independent review after the Globe inquired earlier this week about Brand’s 2016 sale of his Needham home for $989,500 to Jie Zhao, whose younger son was then a junior in high school and actively looking to apply to Harvard with an eye toward being on the fencing team.
The sale price was hundreds of thousands of dollars above the assessed value.
Zhao, a Maryland businessman who never lived in the Needham house, sold it 17 months later for a $324,500 loss. Zhao’s younger son started at Harvard in 2017 and joined the fencing team.
Zhao has acknowledged that the sale may appear questionable.
But he told the Globe earlier this week that he bought the home as an investment and to help Brand, whom he considered a close friend.
“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 coach’s 12-or-so-mile commute.
Brand bought an East Cambridge condominium for $1.3 million shortly after selling his Needham house to Zhao.
Harvard has said that its policy states that “a conflict of interest exists when individual commitment to the university may be compromised by personal benefit.” Employees must avoid situations or activities that could interfere with their “judgment in the best interests of Harvard University,” the policy states.
Failure to disclose possible conflicts could lead to disciplinary action or termination, the policy says.
Brand has presided over the “most successful era” in the Harvard team’s 118-year history, according to the Harvard athletics department website.
Attempts to reach Brand this week have been unsuccessful.
Harvard says its training for coaches is upcoming.
Kirk O. Hanson, a senior fellow of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said it is critical for colleges to have strong ethics policies and ensure they’re not merely paying lip service to them.
“Good ethics training is not really about ‘teaching’ employees what is right and wrong,” Hanson wrote in an e-mail. “Instead, good ethics training signals unambiguously that the organization, in this case the university, will take these issues seriously and will not tolerate violation. It is also an opportunity to discuss the many creative ways others may try to compromise you.”
Harvard has emphasized that its admissions policies are strenuous. Each recruited athlete is interviewed, school officials have said, and the final decision on admission for everyone, including athletes, is made by a 40-person committee.
Still, coaches play a role in the admissions process, flagging favored recruits for the committee, which makes the final decision on which of the many qualified applicants to admit, officials say.
Zhao has said his son was a successful fencer, excelled at the prestigious St. Albans School with excellent grades (all A’s in high school except for one B freshman year, transcripts show), notched a nearly perfect SAT score, and had Harvard family connections.
“It’s a no-brainer, I don’t have to do anything,” Zhao, the father, told the Globe earlier this week.
The US attorney’s office for Massachusetts, which has charged 50 people in the college bribery case, declined Friday to comment on Brand’s home sale to Zhao.
Some Harvard alumni expressed dismay that the university, which has not been ensnared in the college bribery case, was investigating the actions of one of its longtime coaches.
“I think they really need to dig into this, and get to the bottom of it quickly, and fire people who need to be fired,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a Stetson University law professor and Harvard graduate. “It pains me as an alum.”
Robin Robinson, a Harvard freshman studying statistics, said the situation didn’t surprise her.
“It happens here. It’s just been buried or hidden,” she said.
While Harvard’s outside counsel investigates, Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland accepted Zhao’s resignation from the Governor’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, a spokesman said.
“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,” said Hogan’s spokesman, Michael Ricci.