CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Harvard is investigating its longtime fencing coach after learning that he sold his house for a vastly inflated price to the father of a current student, shortly before the student was admitted.
The inquiry into the coach, Peter Brand, comes as universities around the country are scrambling to respond to a sweeping investigation of college admissions fraud, which has raised questions about athletic recruitment and whether coaches have enriched themselves by essentially selling recruiting slots.
The United States attorney’s office in Boston has charged 50 people in the case, including eight coaches and 33 parents, among them Hollywood celebrities and prominent business people.
Harvard has so far not been tied to the scandal in court documents. A university official said in an email to students and faculty members on Thursday that she did not believe the circumstances surrounding Mr. Brand, first reported by The Boston Globe, were connected to that case.
In 2016, Mr. Brand sold his house in Needham, a suburb of Boston, to Jie Zhao, whom The Globe described as a wealthy Maryland businessman. At the time, Mr. Zhao’s older son was a student at Harvard and on the fencing team, and his younger son was still in high school. Mr. Zhao paid $989,500, some $400,000 more than the assessed value at the time, which was $549,300.
“Place is vintage 1960s in bad shape,” the town’s assessor wrote when he inspected the house after the sale. “Makes no sense.”
Shortly after, Mr. Zhao’s younger son was admitted to Harvard, where he is currently a sophomore and at least until recently was on the fencing team, according to a profile that was recently deleted from the website for Harvard’s sports teams. He is no longer listed as a member of the team.
A spokeswoman for Harvard, Rachael Dane, said that the university was unaware of the circumstances surrounding the sale until asked about it by The Globe, and that it was now conducting an independent review.
“We are committed to ensuring the integrity of our recruitment practices,” she said.
Ms. Dane would not confirm whether Mr. Zhao’s younger son was in fact recruited by Mr. Brand, although the brothers were referred to as student-athletes in the email sent to students and faculty members on Thursday.
In the email, Claudine Gay, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote that Harvard’s athletic recruitment practices were different from those of some other schools. The applications of student recruits are reviewed by the full admissions committee, which has roughly 40 members, and admissions decisions are made by a vote of the whole committee. Also, she said, all recruited athletes had to be interviewed by an admissions officer or alumni interviewer.
At this stage of the investigation into Mr. Brand, she said, there was a lot the university did not know yet.
“Regardless of what we eventually learn about these allegations, this is not a time for complacency,” she wrote. “Where there are opportunities to clarify practices and strengthen procedures, we must act on them, and do so with a sense of urgency.”
The university’s admissions practices have been under scrutiny for months. A lawsuit charging Harvard with discriminating against Asian-American applicants went to trial in October. In the process of defending itself, Harvard was forced to reveal many admissions secrets, including the advantages given to students whose parents went to Harvard, relatives of donors and recruited athletes. Documents showed that in recent years the admission rate of recruited athletes was 86 percent. A judge has not yet ruled in the lawsuit.