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Wei Dongyi is an assistant professor at Peking University who recently appeared in an interview that went viral.

South China Morning Post writes:

His high school teacher Zhang Yonghua told Shandong Business News that Wei once refused an offer from Harvard to study as a Ph.D. candidate even after the American university said he did not need to take an English entrance test and that they would provide an interpreter.

(A similar claim, in Simplified Chinese: Baidu Baike)

This seems suspect because I cannot understand how Wei can study at Harvard if he cannot understand what the teachers are saying.

Will Harvard enroll someone who is not fluent in English?

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    Is your question can anyone skip the test or is it possible for exceptions to be made? – Joe W Jun 3 at 13:39
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    I'll mention that there have been deafblind graduates of Harvard, so it's certainly possible to earn a degree even if one is unable to communicate with professors by the usual methods. – Nuclear Hoagie Jun 3 at 14:05
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    It would also be possible to waive the English test but require English classes. – DJClayworth Jun 3 at 14:15
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    In what capacity was he going to "go" to Harvard? If he already has a PhD, it doesn't make sense that he would enroll as a student; there is no higher degree they could award him. Were they proposing to hire him as a faculty member? Or is he talking about an earlier time, before he earned his current degrees? If so, what level of degree program would he have enrolled in? They have different admissions rules for different degrees (though presumably all of them allow for exceptions). – Nate Eldredge Jun 3 at 14:36
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    He got perfect marks in the 2008 International Mathematical Olympiad (one of only three in the world that year) and again in the 2009 IMO (one of only two). No doubt he achieved other things as well. It is totally credible that somebody senior at Harvard might have made the offer for him to study there, guaranteeing there would be no barriers or fees. – Henry Jun 4 at 0:12
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Maybe, but it seems unlikely and more details are needed to say for sure since policies change over time.

Since the article mentions a PhD, they would be subject to the policies of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) (not Harvard College) since they would presumably be studying for a PhD in Mathematics. As of 2021, GSAS requires a minimum score of 80 on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and admissions for scores below 90 are "not common" (see FAQ, minimum TOEFL/IELTS score).

One thing that is unclear is if the article is referring to Wei Dongyi enrolling at Harvard as a degree seeking student, or attending as a visiting student while enrolled elsewhere. The phrase "Ph.D. candidate" in the article might support this since PhD seeking students start as "PhD Students" and then are advanced to candidacy later on in their studies (nomenclature note). If that is the case then they would have been subject to the policies for Non-Degree Programs, Special Students (likely necessary for visa purposes), but as of 2021 TOEFL scores are still a requirement.

However, it is also worth noting that it is their high school teacher that is reporting this, so it is entirely possible that someone might be mistaken as to the exact situation.

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  • Are the regulations binding? Binding to the school, I mean? The way I see it they are simply a first filter against unqualified applications and an official reason to deny them if made anyway (instead of saying "we don't want you period"). The situation here is entirely different: Harvard was actively pursuing him. I don't think the school's own regulations are relevant at all with respect to the school's sovereign decisions: They are only restricting active applicants, and only when the school wants them to be restricting. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jun 4 at 15:16
  • @Peter-ReinstateMonica Harvard was allegedly actively pursing them, all we really have to go off of is some hearsay that they reached out and incomplete details about that as well. To the best of my knowledge, and from what I was able to find on their sites, Harvard doesn't seem to admit degree seeking students who don't have a degree of English competency, but things tend to be more vague for non-degree Special Students. – rjzii Jun 4 at 16:52
  • In particular, he wasn't seeking. They were seeking ;-). But of course modern math is very collaborative; was it Terence Tao who wrote an essay about how he can recognize quacks? The telltale sign: No collaboration. Arriving at interesting results alone simply does not happen except to Gregori Perelman ;-). – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jun 4 at 17:07
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    Also worth noting that this is a puff piece produced in China, and appears to be moderately heavy on the propaganda. It's certainly possible that every word of it is true... but it's also possible that some of it is not. – Ben Barden Jun 4 at 17:36
  • A citation is needed for the claim about the distinction between Ph.D. students vs. Ph.D. candidates. There is no evidence for it on Harvard's website. – phoog Jun 6 at 12:08
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According to a Harvard official website:

First-year and transfer applicants are not required to take an English proficiency exam, but you may submit scores if you wish to do so.

(boldface in original)

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  • Right above, it says you need a strong knowledge of English. It would seem that the guy in question didn't have that, since otherwise there wouldn't be a mention of an interpreter in the question – Laurel Jun 3 at 19:28
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    This quote is for Harvard College, which is for undergraduate education. We do not know whether the OP refers to that, or perhaps to GSAS (for graduate education). – GEdgar Jun 3 at 21:07
  • @GEdgar we know it's not undergraduate because it says "as a Ph.D. candidate." – phoog Jun 6 at 12:15

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