Higher Education Corruption and 'Reputational' Damage

The cost of "reputational" damage in a globalized world is high. Cooperation between reputable institutions and those in corrupt countries is highly unlikely, thus sacrificing the potential for academic and research synergy.

July 10, 2016

In April 2016, following the widely publicized pepper-spraying of protesters by campus police, the Chancellor of University of California Davis, Linda Katehi, was criticized for spending $175,000 on outside consultants for Internet search optimization in order to diminish online references to the incident so the public would see a more favorable image of UC-Davis. Later that month, Chancellor Katehi was placed on paid administrative leave amid allegations of nepotism, inappropriate involvement on corporate boards, and gross financial excess. Subsequently, the communications budget was increased by $1.6 million, including $800,000 allocated to social media, web development, videography and news. Another $1 million was spent to publicize the University’s contribution to California agriculture. Still, reputational damage to the university was unavoidable.

US higher education is decentralized, even on a state level, which means that each university minds its own reputation and takes it very seriously. But this is not the case in many other countries. The $175,000 spent by UC Davis on consultants might be the annual budget for some of the universities in the former Soviet Union. And they would never spend that much money, or any money for that matter, to protect their reputation or clean up their image. Strategy in this regard is much simpler; ignoring the public impact of reports of corruption, or even the perception of it. The position of most institutions is: “If you do not have the hard evidence against us, then any accusation is irrelevant.” They discard results of externally conducted surveys, when unfavorable, as unreliable and get defensive about accusations of academic corruption. In essence, institutions in the region do not understand the value or importance of a good reputation or the damage of bad publicity. In some instances, the conclusions are perverse—highly corrupt professors and university administrators are sometimes regarded favorably because for their wealth and entrepreneurial spirit, while their honest counterparts are considered “losers.”

In fact, there is more than ample evidence to document serious problems on a national scale throughout the region. Ukraine, one of the more corrupt countries in the world (It occupies the 130th position according to Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index), has a notoriously corrupt higher education sector. There are reports in both the national and international media that highlight the problem, but with (as yet) no reaction from the government or the universities themselves. Russia is not much better. Far Eastern Federal University became known for the arrest of its President on suspicion of financial fraud. The case was publicized by the international media, but there has been no reaction from the university. Clearly, they prefer to ignore facts and pretend that they are doing just fine. Another ongoing scandal concerns hundreds, if not thousands of plagiarized dissertations. Brought to the fore by the community of scholars, known as Dissernet, this scandal has resulted in legal action but not against those plagiarizing, rather against those bringing this abuse to light!

Although considered a highly corrupt and authoritarian regime, Kazakhstan, shows one rare exception from a tradition of academic corruption. Nazarbayev University publicly responds to any negative coverage in the media. Although such responses are occasionally clumsy and not  always to the point, Nazarbayev University at least acknowledges public concern and attempts to answer all charges in order to protect its reputation. This may be explained by the fact that the university’s administration and leadership consists, at least in part, of western scholars and administrators, who understand the real value of the perception of an institution’s integrity.

Universities are organizations that produce and sell products with a range of outputs and outcomes that often defy quantification or measurement. Prices that an institution can charge for different services are often a reflection of a university’s reputation. Perhaps for this reason, universities in the West are more sensitive to reputational damage. The Soviet system was different, placing emphasis on rubber-stamped degrees and academic credentials, and less about the institutional practices behind them. Unable to adjust to the new realities, universities continue to believe in the value of the paper they issue, more than the reputation they’ve earned for their academic behavior and practices. The Bologna Declaration, adopted by the former Soviet republics, does not guarantee recognition of degrees and foreign credentials. The endemic corruption in post Soviet higher education institutions is by now common knowledge. Nevertheless, this fact does not prevent university representatives from insisting on the recognition of their degrees abroad.

The cost of reputational damage in a globalized world is high. Cooperation between reputable institutions and those in corrupt countries is highly unlikely, thus sacrificing the potential for academic and research synergy. Corrupt educational systems are at a decided disadvantage at many levels, certainly for recruiting international students. At the same time, their own best and brightest will seek educational opportunities abroad. Corrupt universities are unlikely to attract foreign talent, not to mention internationally-recognized scholars. Not surprisingly, when it comes to world university rankings, they are nowhere to be found.

In former Soviet Republics, public higher education dominates the system. In these highly centralized systems, the Ministry of Education monopolizes many key functions, including governance and financing, but is unable to adequately monitor all of the activities of individual institutions to avert reputational risks. Preoccupied with their internal problems, no Ministry of Education in corrupt authoritarian regimes—be it Russia, Central Asia, or Sub-Saharan Africa—follows world media closely enough to be attentive to research or claims that have the potential to cause long-term damage and limit the possibilities for future internationalization. Unable to comprehend international media, they chose to ignore it at their peril.

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Ararat L. Osipian holds a Ph.D. in Education and Human Development from Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University. Presently, he conducts fieldwork on corruption, hybrid war, and the failed state in Ukraine. His research interests include corruption, corporate raiding, and comparative education.

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Ararat L. Osipian

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