EDITORIAL: A chance for reform in academia

Tue, Jan 15, 2013 - Page 8

A dozen Changhua County professors and researchers have allegedly forged receipts to make false claims for reimbursement and are being prosecuted under anti-corruption legislation. Now that a large-scale investigation has been launched, people are on tenterhooks, and there are many professors and research assistants who are worried that they too will be implicated.

Major figures in academia, such as Minister of Education Chiang Wei-ling (蔣偉寧), Academia Sinica President Wong Chi-huey (翁啟惠), National Science Council Minister Cyrus Chu (朱敬一) and National Taiwan University president Lee Si-chen (李嗣涔) have called on prosecutors not to charge the professors and researchers with corruption, as not all were lining their own pockets. They reason that the prosecutions will scare talent away from working in academia in Taiwan.

The law stipulates that exploiting one’s professional status to illegally procure public funds for personal gain constitutes corruption: There is no room for discussion.

Everyone is equal in the eyes of the law and it is right to say there is no room for discussion. The academics who have come out in defense of the professors have not done so to cover their own backs, they have done so because they are aware that the rigid nature of the government’s reimbursement and audit system for research funds has forced many researchers to doctor the system to fund their projects.

Similar cases have been seen in the world of politics, with department head special allowances and the president’s state affairs fund. Such behavior has been occurring over a long period and has come to be seen as the norm in academic circles.

The answer to this problem does not lie in academia alone, other sectors must throw in their hats too. The judicial authorities need to follow the money so they can differentiate between self-serving corruption and cases where people have diverted money to fund projects as a matter of necessity. The full weight of the law should be brought down upon those who are simply trying to line their own pockets.

At present, anyone who obtained funds in advance for services yet to be rendered is liable for prosecution. Many more could still be implicated. If those concerned did not seek to pocket the money themselves or confessed and offered to return the money, then they should be able to avoid prosecution for corruption. This would certainly reduce the impact the case may have on academia.

If the judiciary finds itself encumbered by legal restrictions the Legislative Yuan should replicate the way it dealt with the case involving heads of government special allowances, when it made amendments to the Accounting Act (會計法), effectively decriminalizing 7,500 individuals involved, including department heads, their aides, secretaries and administration staff. This would absolve liability for people who were unaware of the legal ramifications of their actions and preserve the integrity of Taiwan’s academia.

It is comforting to see important members of the academic world join forces to plead on behalf of their colleagues, even though the institutions they represent are part of the problem, or at least implicated.

There should be a debate between the National Science Council, the Ministry of Education, Academia Sinica and universities on how to remedy the flaws in the current research fund reimbursement and audit system, to make it more flexible and reasonable. This is the only way one can be sure these problems will not be repeated by the next generation of academics.

This corruption scandal has come as an unwelcome surprise, but offers an opportunity to take a good look at academia and improve the funding system.

Individual corruption is a matter of moral character, but when it is carried out by many it suggests the problem is more systemic than individual. The scandal means that we need to weed out individuals letting the group down and look at the systemic failings.