In the December 9, 2011, issue of the journal Science there’s amazing story about new heights of audacity in the commodification of scholarship titled, “Saudi Universities Offer Cash in Exchange for Academic Prestige” (pp.1344). You’ll need to have a subscription or library access to read the news article. If your library keeps Science in the browsing periodicals its the issue with a microsope image of a mosquito on the cover.
The story concerns King Abdulaziz University (KAU) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and its extraordinary efforts to recruit top scientists to its faculty. Tellingly one such faculty recruit thought the offer was a email scam or joke: an adjunct professorship that would pay $72,000 a year with only a two weeks spent on campus but which would require one to add KAU as an affiliation on the Institute for Scientific Information’s list of highly cited researchers.
Here’s the deal: everyone thinks you’re awesome so I’ll pay you $6000 a month to basically not do anything, but you have to tell everyone that you work for me.
Science has learned of more than 60 top-ranked researchers from different scientific disciplines – all on ISI’s highly cited list – who have recently signed a part-time employment arrangement with the university that is structured along [these lines]. Meanwhile, a bigger, more prominent Saudi institution – King Saud University in Riyadh – has climbed several hundred places in international rankings in the past 4 years largely through initiatives specifically targeted toward attaching KSU’s name to research publications, regardless of whether the work invovled any meaningful collaboration with KSU researchers.
Academics who have accepted KAU’s offer represent a wide variety of faculty from elite institutions in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia. All are men. Some are emeritus professors who have recently retired from their home institutions. All have changed their affiliations on ISI’s highly cited list – as required by KAU’s contract – and some have added KAU as an affiliation on research papers.
I can hear my students talking back to me now. “Dr. Thompson, you’re just playa hatin’” True, for that kind of money I’d do much less dignified things than this! But I’m guessing an R1 emeritus isn’t exactly hurting either. Granted the individuals who get this incredible offer are leaders in their field, a status they have earned through years of hard work. I’m just incredulous that they’d be willing to traffic on that prestige for a quick buck.
Neil Robertson, a professor emeritus of mathematics at Ohio State University in Columbus who has signed on, says he has no concerns about the offer. “It’s just capitalism,” he says. “They have the capital and they want to build something out of it.”
Capitalism is now ethically neutral, apparently.
Another KAU affiliate, astronomer Gerry Gilmore of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, notes that “universities buy people’s reputations all the time. In principle, this is no different from Harvard hiring a prominent researcher.”
Except if you got a job at Harvard you would be contributing to the scholarly community at Harvard by teaching classes and interacting with your peers (at least more than two weeks out of the year).
A number of American universities have opened branch offices in oil rich nations in the Middle East. I remember in grad school Qatar waved a wad of cash at the University of North Carolina in hopes that it would set up an overseas franchise (this was ’01-’02). We debated the merits of the proposal in seminar with Judy Farquar. Maybe junior faculty would be willing to live abroad for two years and earn double the pay without having to pay rent? That would take care of those student loans real quick.
The UNC-Qatar marriage was over before it began. Too many found it objectionable to sell the school’s name to Qatar even if UNC faculty would be teaching the courses. Qatar can afford to buy its own school and hire its own faculty, but the cultural capital conveyed by a degree from the U of Q (QU?) is going to be less than a brand name American school – the very situation KAU is trying to remedy. Instead of buying an entire school as Qatar attempted to, they can cherry pick individual faculty for much less. It’s like Frazer’s Law of Contagion, the professor’s name touches the school and POOF! it’s prestigious. Action at a distance!
The $72,000 a year adjunct professorship: nice work if you can get it.