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.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

3 thoughts on “Cha-Ching!

  1. Matt – I’m not sure what the real difference is between this kind of purchased prestige and the kind that has a long history in American universities – except that this is not merely a “foreign” university, but an Islamic one.

    We’re all familiar with the high prestige, super-star realm of the academic market. Major player departments can pay the heavy hitters a lot of money to join their faculties. But what you do not seem to realize is the frequency with which appointments are offered at high salaries with little or no work required – just the affiliation.

    I first noticed this when I went to graduate school many years ago, at the top anthropology department in the country at that time – for the sake of discretion, I will not name it, but for ease of reference we might call it “The University of Chicago”. The department’s faculty roster was loaded with big names, many from European universities – and none of them made even an appearance the whole time I was there. One of our ‘real’ faculty members confessed to me that these big names were just a form of padding, boosting the prestige of the department; he didn’t know if these people were paid, but suspected that they got at least a token amount to allow their names to be used.

    In the 40 years since then I’ve seen this practice over and over. It’s not always so extensive – and Chicago seems to have dropped it a long time ago – but we still hear or read about it. It’s not uncommon to see major figures in academic fields listing positions at two or more major universities – do you imagine that this is an uncompensated public service? My own university has a basically standing offer to people with Nobel prizes, Fields medals, membership in the National Academy of Sciences, etc, that they can get a hefty salary and minimal work load if they sign on. They do have to do a little work, of course, but there is really no difference in kind from sort of offer you are so surprised to read about at KAU. And I don’t see much difference between this and the corporate world practice of paying famous people to sit on boards – we’re all trying to capitalize on our reputations.

  2. Professional academics is like parenthood. There’s a lot they don’t tell you when you join the club. Apparently I’m still operating under some antiquated and romantic notion that knowledge production is fundamentally different than other forms of labor such as in the “corporate world”.

    It’s still an interesting article if anyone cares to take a look at it. Especially the final three paragraphs that focus on one particular character, a zoologist named Khaled Al-Rasheid.

    The other initiative was a visiting professorship program, whose contract… stipulates that the visiting professor should publish five articles per year in ISI-indexed journals. The contract also offers to pay the visiting professor an amount for every paper co-authored with KSU’s staff in an ISI-listed publication.

    Al-Rasheid started as a professor at KSU in 1992… For the next 15 years at the university, he averaged about four research publications a year, many of them in Middle Eastern journals.

    Since 2008, however… Al-Rasheid has become amazingly prolific. He has been a co-author of 139 research papers, including 49 papers in 2010 and 36 to date this year.

    Speaking to Science, Al-Rasheid acknowledged that the dramatic increase in his footprint in the scientific literature had come about as a result of money invested by KSU. But he denied that he had earned authorship on any paper by virtue of the university’s providing financial support or direct compensation to foreign researchers.

  3. ISI has come to dominate estimations of university “quality” in the same way that US News dominates who Americans think about the quality of undergraduate institutions in the US. We all know that such rankings are of limited utility, and reflect values that do not well describe the overall mission of the university, or quality of research. But, still, we also know that such rankings have a lot of significance for Homo hierarchichus, and despite our best intentions, do tend to consume and reproduce them.

    Thank goodness though for Savage Minds and other upstarts who continue to challenge our assumptions about what academic quality really involves!

    Question: do you think that the high-minded bloggers here would ever sell out the blog King Abdulaziz University?

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