Harvard Investigates Fencing Coach Over Transactions Involving Parent of a Prospect

Head fencing coach Peter Brand allegedly sold his Needham home to the father of a prospective fencer at an inflated price.

The front page of The Boston Globe on Friday April 5

The front page of Friday morning’s Boston Globe reported—under the headline, “A Very Good Deal for Harvard Coach”—that Peter Brand, head coach of Harvard’s fencing team since 1999, had engaged in real-estate and non-profit financial transactions with the parent of a current and former College student. Specifically, Brand sold his Needham home in 2016 for more than $400,000 above its assessed value to the parent of a fencing recruit, then a junior in high school, who is now a sophomore at the College. Brand then reportedly purchased a condominium in Cambridge, offering more than $300,000 above the asking price. The inflated price of the home sale drew the attention of the Needham assessor at the time, and when the nationwide admissions scandal uncovered by the FBI was reported in March, a prospective buyer of the property, which was later sold at a loss of more than $300,000, brought the transaction to the attention of the newspaper. 

In an interview with the Globe, Jie Zhao, a Maryland businessman who is the father of the sophomore fencer, maintained that he was not attempting to influence Harvard’s admissions process. His son, an A student at St. Alban’s (as confirmed by the newspaper’s review of his transcript) with “near perfect SAT scores,” also had Harvard family connections: his older brother, also a fencer who graduated in the class of 2018, and his mother, who holds multiple Harvard degrees. “It’s a no-brainer, I don’t have to do anything,” Zhao told the paper.

Zhao reportedly met Brand at the end of his elder son’s freshman year, and purchased the house from him to facilitate the coach’s move to Cambridge, whence he would have a shorter commute to the team’s afternoon practices. Even if the unusual series of transactions was not undertaken to influence the admissions process, as Zhao maintains, the Globe report noted that Harvard officials had pointed out that the University has “a clear conflict of interest policy.” The policy states that “a conflict of interest exists when individual commitment to the University may be compromised by personal benefit.” 

The news was also reported in The Washington PostThe Harvard CrimsonInside Higher Edand The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Claudine Gay, who as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) oversees Harvard’s athletics program, has issued a statement about the allegations against Brand. In a letter addressed to members of the FAS community, she wrote that she learned of the allegations on Monday [April 1] when contacted by the Globe. “We are now moving quickly to learn more about these claims through an independent review.” 

Gay continued: “Our current understanding is that these allegations are not related in any way to the “Operation Varsity Blues” scheme to influence student college admissions decisions at several prominent American research universities, alleged by United States federal prosecutors. Harvard has not been named in that allegation.”

The news broke after this magazine’s May-June issue had gone to press. This is a developing story and will be updated.  

Read more articles by: Jonathan Shaw

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