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Harvard fires fencing coach over Needham house sale

Harvard’s head fencing coach, Peter Brand, in March 2019.
Harvard’s head fencing coach, Peter Brand, in March 2019.(NCAA Photos via Getty Images/File)

Harvard on Tuesday fired its longtime fencing coach, finding that he violated the university’s conflict-of-interest policy by selling his home to a wealthy businessman whose teenage son was looking to apply to the university and fence on the team.

The university retained a private law firm to review the deal in April, when the Globe first reported that the coach, Peter Brand, and his wife, Jacqueline Phillips, had sold their home in May 2016 to Jie “Jack” Zhao, whose son, then a high school junior, was interested in fencing for Harvard. Zhao’s older son, then a Harvard student, fenced for Brand’s team.

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The property, a modest three-bedroom Colonial in Needham, was assessed at $549,300 and sold to Zhao for $989,500. Zhao’s younger son later gained admission and joined the team. And Zhao, who never lived in the house, sold it 17 months after he bought it for a $324,500 loss.

Details of the transaction not only drew the attention of federal investigators involved in the unrelated nationwide college admissions bribery scandal, they also sparked the university’s own months-long review.

“An independent investigation of the matter is now complete, and Mr. Brand has been dismissed from his position for violating Harvard’s conflict-of-interest policy,” Bob Scalise, Harvard’s athletic director, said in a brief statement released Tuesday. “Harvard Athletics is committed to upholding the integrity of our athletics program, and it is our expectation that every coach and staff member adhere unambiguously to our policies.”

In a separate e-mail to university coaches and athletics staff, Scalise pointed to Harvard’s conflict-of-interest policy, which notes that violations could lead to termination.

Rachael Dane, a Harvard spokeswoman, said the university would not share the details of its outside review into the matter.

But Dane said, “This situation involved the actions of one individual who violated a clear and expressly stated policy that all coaches receive and acknowledge understanding and agree to comply with, in writing, on an annual basis.”

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Brand’s lawyer, Douglas Brooks, blasted Harvard’s decision, saying Brand denies any wrongdoing and is considering his legal options.

“Harvard’s termination of him is unfair, unwarranted, and an egregious disservice to a loyal employee,” Brooks said.

He added that, “Harvard itself acknowledges that Coach Brand committed no recruiting irregularities,” and said, “The school’s reliance on its conflict policy is nothing more than a cover for its own failure to advise its coaches of the policy, the statements of its dean of [Faculty of Arts of Sciences] and director of athletics to the contrary, notwithstanding.”

He said Harvard’s first meeting with its head coaches to discuss the conflict policy occurred on April 17, 2019 — two weeks after the first Globe story on the home sale — “and any statements by Harvard claiming otherwise are untrue.”

Zhao, a Harvard donor who also spread his wealth to the sport of fencing, previously told the Globe he bought Brand’s house as an investment and a favor to a friend. A lawyer for Zhao said Tuesday that he did not have any comment on Brand’s dismissal.

Last month, the Globe reported that a federal grand jury is investigating the home sale.

The US attorney’s office for Massachusetts sent a subpoena in April to the Needham Board of Assessors, ordering the town to turn over years of documents and records relating to the valuation of the property. The subpoena was sent by Assistant US Attorney Eric S. Rosen, the lead prosecutor in the nationwide college admissions bribery scandal that has ensnared Hollywood celebrities, wealthy investors, and college coaches and consultants.

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Dane declined to comment Tuesday when asked whether the university has received a subpoena. A spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office also declined comment.

Brand’s dismissal marks an ignominious capstone to a celebrated career.

Raised on an Israeli kibbutz, he immigrated to the United States when he was 13 and coached at Brown and MIT before becoming Harvard’s men’s and women’s fencing coach in 1999. He was only the team’s fourth coach since 1931 in a program that recently saw one of its fencers go to the Olympics and traces its roots to 1889. Among other laurels, Brand led Harvard to its first NCAA team championship and delivered 12 Ivy League titles, four by the women and eight by the men.

Zhao, a Maryland resident and cofounder of an international telecommunications firm, has lavished donations on the clubby world of fencing, including a $1 million gift in February 2013 to the fencing foundation led by his sons’ coach in high school. But he has said his purchase of Brand’s home wasn’t meant to help get his son into Harvard.

“I want to help Peter Brand because I feel so sorry he has to travel so much to go to fencing practice,” Zhao told the Globe in April, of the coach’s approximately 12-mile commute to Cambridge.

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Zhao has said his son didn’t need any help getting into Harvard. Zhao noted his son was a successful fencer who received nearly all A’s in high school, notched a nearly perfect SAT score, and had Harvard family connections — his older brother was then a student and a fencer, and his mother has multiple Harvard graduate degrees.

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.

Scalise said Harvard will launch a national search for a new fencing coach and hopes to have that person in place in early fall.


Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson. Joshua Miller of the Globe staff contributed to this report.