randombio.com | science commentary
Saturday, April 20, 2019

Faculty candidates are forced to bribe universities

While the country is outraged over parents bribing universities to admit students, faculty candidates routinely bribe them to get hired.

A ll last month, we've been hearing in the news about how wealthy parents are bribing school admissions officials to admit their children to school. The latest is Delaware State University taking $70,000 in bribes from out-of-state students.

This is considered unethical and illegal, and rightfully so. Why then is it standard practice for candidates for faculty positions to bribe the same universities to get hired?

If it's unethical to admit students on the basis of their willingness to pay extra, how much more so to use the same criteria to hire the faculty who teach them?

The only fundamental difference is that the bribe money comes from the taxpayer, in the form of federal grants, rather than the applicants' pockets. Universities say the ability to get a grant is a sign of good research, but my experience shows that the schools are not motivated by that; rather, they are interested solely in the money.

You can see this by considering an applicant who is between grants. To be considered, you must have a currently active grant: if your grant has already been closed out, which is to say the funds have been used up, and the next one is still in council review, they aren't interested.

Two weeks ago I interviewed with a big university. There were 57 applicants, three of whom had active grants. Three candidates were chosen. The other two had active grants; I was between grants, with one still in review and one just finished.

A faculty interview is an exhausting ordeal. Mine lasted five days, during which time I had to give seminars and lectures, discuss science, and answer questions from a variety of faculty members and bureaucrats. Most days there was not enough time to get food, so my lectures were given on an empty stomach. I lost fifteen pounds and returned with laryngitis and a fever.

The school wasn't exactly in paradise: there were sixty mile-per-hour winds blowing the whole time. There were giant bees everywhere. At night in the place where I was staying, there was a weird scraping sound that kept me awake, coming from the wind on the roof. One night at one AM, the electricity went out and the wind smashed the whole window out of its frame, leaving me in pitch darkness wondering what happened. I was repeatedly warned that if I accidentally ventured into certain areas of the city, the residents would murder me.

But the professor hosting me was overwhelming in his praise for my expertise and knowledge, telling me that I knew more about his field of specialty than he did. The faculty were all wonderful to me, and the bureaucrats were . . . well, let's just say they were typical bureaucrats. I was even looking forward teaching biochemistry again.

On the last day I was told that they planned to do everything in their power to get me into that position, even possibly upgrading the level of appointment and telling the other two candidates not to bother.

But as I flew back, I sank into a deep depression. I had heard it all before: the last medical school I interviewed with said the same thing. After bringing in a real estate agent to help me find a house, telling me half a dozen times they would make me an offer, perhaps even tenure up front, and praising me to the skies for my deep expertise in neurological diseases—I had accidentally started talking about MS, prion diseases, and tertiary syphilis, not realizing that these were the director's favorite diseases—they never did. It was all a lie.

After you leave, their memory of you fades and it always comes down to what the bean-counters think. If you have an active grant, the university gets $50,000 (or whatever your overhead rate was) from the government. That goes straight to the administrators. Your grant also pays 75%–100% of your salary. If your grant isn't active, they get no overhead and they have to pay your full salary until your next one comes in, and they have to provide start-up funds, which is a few more thousands, to get your research started. So when we pay that for them, it's a bribe even though the money comes from the NIH. See here for more details.

Why didn't I start my search while my grant was active? Oh, I did. But my institute had been forced into bankruptcy due to chronic mismanagement at the director level and the university knew I was leaving. As soon as they found out my million-dollar R01 grant was funded, they closed it out—right in the middle of my negotiations with a major university, which then dropped me like a hot potato.

I found out later that the reason for closing the grant was that they hated my former boss so much they decided that no one associated with him was going to benefit in any way.

Typical academic politics, you might say. And maybe it's society's loss; if society doesn't want the benefit of my knowledge, or the cure I discovered, there's no reason why they should be forced to take it. We can't assume that a society necessarily wants to keep people alive.

One guy on the search committee suggested that I should get a firearm and shoot the administrators. I think he was slightly drunk at the time, or maybe he was just joking. Or maybe he was testing me to gauge how vengeful I might be. I just smiled and said no.

But it strikes me as odd that parents get thrown in prison for paying universities with their own money to accept their students, while professors routinely bribe the schools with government money to find faculty positions. Maybe I'm biased, but I don't see the difference.

apr 20 2019, 9:12 am

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