Friday, November 10, 2006

Jeffrey Sachs at UM?

Buried at the bottom of this Star report was this:

Abdullah also announced that the world-renowned Professor Jeffrey Sachs would be the first holder of the Royal Professor Ungku Aziz Chair in Poverty Studies.

Is it just me or does anyone else out there think that this is very strange?

For those of you who don't know who Jeffrey Sachs is, here's useful wiki link. He's currently at Columbia (a top notch US university in New York city) and he's one of the most prominent economist in the US and the world in regards to development / foreign aid / poverty issues. In his Columbia website, he's listed as holding the following 4 positions:

Director, Earth Institute at Columbia University
Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development
Professor of Health Policy and Management
Special Advisor to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

Note that he's already holding a chair (Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development). I'm not exactly sure whether a professor can hold more than one chair in more than one university but from my knowledge of the US system, most prominent academics hold only one chair. One might be a professor in more than one university or different centers but rarely have I encountered a professor who holds more than one chair and at different universities at that.

There are good reasons why this is so. For example, whoever (person or institution) has endowed that chair i.e. paid for a fund to pay the salary and expenses of whomever is holding that chair, has done so with the expectation that the endowment is generous enough to pay for that professor's salary and expenses. The generous benefactor would not want that professor to 'share' his time and reputation between two or more chairs. Universities too would not want to see their chaired professors having another chair in a different, often competing, university. Morever, a chaired professor is expected to contribute to the intellectual development and research agenda of the department or center in which he or she is 'chaired' at. Being chaired at more than one university would obviously make it more difficult for this professor to make an 'honest' intellectual contribution at the universities where he or she is 'chaired'.

For all these reasons, and more, I can't imagine why firstly, UM and the MOHE would even think of trying to get Jeffrey Sachs (unless he's willing to quit Columbia and relocate to Malaysia), secondly, why Pak Lah (or his people) would want to announce it before the details are confirmed. As far as I know, there have been no details of this move announced in the US press or the administrators at Columbia. This might likely turn into an 'egg on my face' scenario. Thirdly, if Sachs is willing to take up this chair (which I don't think he is), he's likely to be in Malaysia for only a few months (at most) out of a year. He's also not likely to stay long term as the chaired professor (most chaired professors in the US stay at the institution where they are chaired until they pass away or retire).

How much intellectual contribution can he make within that short space of time? More importantly, do we really want to expose him to the workings and failings of our system of higher education? Imagine, that if he comes, he will see the poor intellectual environment in our universities not to mention the poor quality of some of the academics he will have to interact with as well as poor facilities and resources. (Maybe this IS a good thing?)

I think the larger question I want to address is this practice of throwing money in the short term hoping to solve long term problems. Tony has blogged about the RM500 million 'donation' to Cambridge, one of my alma maters. In this case, it's the RM20 million that is being spent to set up this Royal Ungku Aziz Chair and Center for Poverty and Development Studies at the UM.

Quick note here: Sachs probably gets paid somewhere in the range of US300,000 to US500,000 which translates into RM1 to RM1.75 million a year (using 3.5RM = 1US). His monthly expenses would probably run into the range of 50,000RM a month (25,000RM monthly rental, car expenses, travel, dining, relocation, computers etc...) or 600,000RM a year. You probably have to spend another 50,000RM to 100,000RM for two or ther research assistants. So you're probably talking about spending somewhere in the range of RM2million to RM3million annually for Sachs. And I haven't even mentioned the costs of setting up the physical and intellectual resources at this new Center for Poverty and Development Studies. If they are not careful, the RM20million endowment (which is supposed to be self-sustaining) will be drawn down to nothing in no time.

These kinds of 'headline' grabbers do not solve any of the structural problems in our local universities which have been discussed many times in this blog. Rather than trying to flush money down the toilet by trying to recruit these 'big names', why not push for substantive structural change instead?


Anonymous said...

"Big names" allowed the current government to retain their power. Structural change will have the opposite outcome. So if you are currently happily enjoying all the benefits, are you willing to sacrifice yourself for the country? The answer is obvious, after all those discussions on board.

Another thing i found rather amusing is that, Pak Lah commented that the Republican's lost to the Democrats in the recently ended US election was expected because of his policies and that the president should take this as a very important message from electorates and the people of US.

Here i would like to say the very same thing back to Pak Lah. If he continues his current attitude, which i don't want to explicitly mention, he is going to share the same fate as Bush. Worst still, the whole BN is going to suffer. Take my word.

Penghulu said...

I would bet the news are either false or there must be strings attached to the chair. Why would an economist so prominent lend his reputation to an university relatively unknown with a sliding reputation.

Getting all the big names can bring good if that big fish attracts other big fish to be here. That way, it will create a virtuous cycle. But I really doubt if that is what the MOHE really had in mind. After all the scandals and screwups throughout the years in Malaysian higher education, I have become quite a cynic.

Lets cross our finger and see what would eventually transpire.

Charis Quay said...

Kian Ming,

I think it's hard to say much until we know more details.

A question about named/statutory professorships: what are the strings that are usually attached? I'm guessing that there will be a fair amouunt of variation from post to post and uni to uni, but I'm not high enough on the food chain to know details. You are arguing from 'experiential' evidence from your perspective as a postgrad, but it'd be interesting to see something in writing.

Anonymous said...

I think Professor Sachs' appointment might actually be true (hopefully). This is based on the holder of the Tun Ismail Ali Chair, Mr. Andrew Sheng LT.

He's also the chairman of HK Securities and Futures Commission, and lives there. He rarely comes to bolehland anyway... yet he's still the chair. :)

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey Sach leaving Columbia for Malaysia? No way. I have had the privillege of meeting the man, listened to his lectures and talking to him on issue and as much a lefty as he is, this is a man who see himself as on a global human mission which he has to be in NY for. He won't even take a position at Harvard or Chicago because of it.

I think its likely a chairing a cooperation project like what Lester Thurow did with Tsinghua, Fudan and Guangzhou.

Anonymous said...


If this is true, the first job Jeffrey Sach should do is write a paper on the proper way to calculate bumi equity and fix the methodolody..

Anonymous said...

Strange! Big names like Jeffrey Sach is coming to Malaysia and we have our very own Life Sciences company, a subsidiary of KL Kepong Bhd, opened its research and development (R&D) centre in Singapore, which is the world's largest facility dedicated to R&D in the health supplement compound known as tocotrienols.

Anonymous said...

menang nama pun cukup!

laugh said...

a foreigner? wat a ridiculuous

Anonymous said...

I do not know how this Chair thingy works, but I think what AAB said can be true. I am inclined to think that it is true, but for an extremely short term, perhaps to boost UM's ranking?

We are in perpetual motion in so far as throwing money to buy instant but temporary glory. When one glorifying moment evaporated, we throw more money to look for the next quicky. It is really like najis dadah, this glory-seeking culture. To me, the key to saving this nation from its entrenched culture of corruption, from its less than mediocre educational standards, from its growing siege mentality, sensitivity and jealousy arising from our declining ratings, and hence the road out of poverty for the odinary Malaysian, lies in revamping our educational system right from primary level. Not in buying chairs or other similar furniture. Not reality.

Spend money on righting the primary education curriculum and importing foreign educators for that purpose, not on trips by bunches of ministers overseas to meet up with students we sent overseas at the cost of billions already. We send students overseas surely because we think the foreigners can teach them better; if so, leave them to be taught by the foreigners, instead of also sending ministers overseas to "guide" those students! Why dont the ministers want to meet those students before they went over or after they have returned?

Goodness me, this way of thinking and doing things is so alike the scheme to send RM490 million to UK to build a training centre, and then to send our people to UK for the training. I am totally humbled by such high-level strategies. We dont seem to want to do anything within our own shores. Except to shamelessly celebrate favourable perceptions, and mindlessly condemn unfavourable perceptions, as reflected in the various international rankings.

What a waste, another RM20 million soon to be wasted away. The scale of corruption is so huge the authorities probably look at the RM20 million as just breakfast money. Anyway, that is only my perception.

Anonymous said...

Go ask the fella:

His email -

Anonymous said...

Having a Jeffry Sach in UM would not make any difference to the declining quality of UM. Jeffry Sach himself might puke seeing the antics of the various academic UM monkeys.

I lovethe way these politicians and poorly trained academics do the " Houdini"

Anonymous said...

hi Kian Ming,

You said that one might be a professor in moe than one university? As far as I am aware of, you can only hold one professorial appointment with one host university. The other appointments might be as a visiting professor, or if the two institutions have close collaboration or belong to the same parent organization, he/she might be able to hold a joint appointment.

Its similar to holding more than one job at the same time. would your employer like that?

its a problem in this region, universities going for big name appointments. i know of one or two. if you subject some of these guys to rigorous investigations as regards to their host university's employment contract, there might be a few skeletons in the closet. bottom line is, these guys may be big name professors but greed rules at the end of the day. we don't need these people here.

Anonymous said...

if these big name professors really want to make a contribution here, they should quit their original job and take up sole full time appointment.

Anonymous said...

You must be joking for Jeffrey Sach to quit Columbia University in New York and take up full time appointment in UM in KL. If that happens, it would be a coup for UM and Malaysia.

Anonymous said...

I get the feeling that Malaysian ( Malays and Chinese are ethocentric yet secretly admire westeners in as as much as they rant against western hegemony.

I don't know if its pragmatic East Asian duplicity or ambivalence.

Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Krugman have one thing in common - Jagdish Bhagavati from India ( keling mother lode) and their Columbia mentor who is very pro- globalization and very anti- rent seeking -cronyism.