At first glance, Robert Kirshner took the e-mail message for a scam. An astronomer at King Abdulaziz University (KAU) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was offering him a contract for an adjunct professorship that would pay $72,000 a year. Kirshner, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, would be expected to supervise a research group at KAU and spend a week or two a year on KAU’s campus, but that requirement was flexible, the person making the offer wrote in the e-mail. What Kirshner would be required to do, however, was add King Abdulaziz University as a second affiliation to his name on the Institute for Scientific Information’s (ISI’s) list of highly cited researchers.
Obviously this kind of straightforward transaction violates all kinds of norms of academic behavior and likely represents a massive overreach that will create a backlash. But as overreaches tend to, it does lay bare some of the very real dynamics underlying the relevant market. The way the higher education game works is that you become a “better” university not by teaching students more effectively or undertaking valuable researchbut by being more prestigious. And you obtain prestige by having famous faculty and freshmen who had high SAT scores. Consequently, the tendency is for universities to take money and invest it in buying more famous professors or applicants with higher SAT scores. The good news for everyone involved is that social norms, basic ethics, and professional pride tend to mute the most wildly dysfunctional apects of this objective incentive structure and prestigious universities do in fact undertake a fair amount of socially valuable teaching and research. It takes a certain kind of clumsiness to stumble into what KAU has done here. But the bad incentives that led them into this exist throughout the system, with pernicious consequences.