Academics are working the system

By Huang Juei-min 黃瑞明  / 

Tue, Jan 15, 2013 - Page 8

A shock wave reverberated through Taiwanese academia recently when Changhua County prosecutors indicted 12 university professors and researchers on corruption charges. As a result, National Science Council Minister Cyrus Chu (朱敬一), Academia Sinica President Wong Chi-huey (翁啟惠) and Minister of Education Chiang Wei-ling (蔣偉寧) issued an open plea for the judiciary to go easy on the people involved.

In the view of Chu, Wong and Chiang the 12 were indicted, for example, for purchasing a monitor and using a receipt for toner cartridges to obtain reimbursements. Prosecutors also said the suspects had deals with manufacturers, and were inflating their expense reports and putting the discrepancy into a “secret money jar.”

Anyone familiar with the workings of academia will know this could well be true.

Strange things happen in the Taiwanese academic world and a secret money jar is a small issue compared to other goings-on.

One alleged incident involved two professors from a well-known university giving receipts to their advisees to sign just before graduation. The receipts were supposedly for “assistant fees,” but the money went straight into the professors’ pockets.

If the students wanted to graduate, they had no choice but to sign the receipts.

Legal issues aside, this situation might be more understandable if the people taking money in this way completed some decent research. The problem is that the research of many academics is often perfunctory, yet considerable financing is still given for their projects. Why?

The situation can be likened to drug addiction: If a dealer has a steady supply, why would an addict stop taking drugs?

To those involved in academia, the council is the biggest drug dealer.

In most modern universities professors have to conduct research in addition to teaching classes. The pay they receive includes both a basic salary and funding for academic research.

Since the council was established, applying for research projects has become routine for academics because each time a research project is completed, the government will give out more money for another one.

Also, those in science and engineering receive higher funding than those in the humanities, who get very little.

A monthly sum of NT$10,000 (US$345) for administrative expenses might not seem like much, but those who know the system have ways of manipulating it to increase that amount.

There is a procedure for applying for research funding, but because it does not apply to every project or academic, there are cases where talent goes unrecognized.

Professors at well-known universities have an especially high chance of obtaining funding, in line with public expectations. However, some professors appear to be more talented than others because they are running so many research projects and receive a lot of funding.

Those with a knowledge of the inner workings of academia know only too well that it is all about connections and seniority, and individuals who have these advantages can easily obtain funding.

Once funds are received they do not have to be overly serious in their research because the council merely requires a report to be handed in at the end of each semester; the length and content of which nobody cares less about.

The Ministry of Education is another big “drug dealer.” After a five-year, NT$50 billion program aimed at improving the international ranking of Taiwanese universities was released, many professors wanted an equal share of the action.

Other ministries also have ways of dividing up funds. For example, the Council of Labor Affairs, which is a small department, seems to have a lot of resources for its size. Although the topics may be different, the research reports are not very different and frequently have very similar contents.

There is a lot of money in Taiwanese academia and those in the know can get money from numerous sources. This essentially means that standards in academic research keep going down while ethics increasingly worsen.

Chu, Wong and Chiang are not new in the field of academia and they should understand that the recent problem has resulted from an excessive amount of research funding.

As long as drug dealers keep dealing their drugs, addicts will keep using them. The same can be said for academia and funding in Taiwan.

Huang Juei-min is a law professor at Providence University.

Translated by Drew Cameron