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Pakistan: Our Ghost Mathematicians

Scams and scandals shock no one in Pakistan.

Sunday 10 November 2019, by siawi3


Our Ghost Mathematicians

Pervez Hoodbhoy

Updated November 09, 2019

Scams and scandals shock no one in Pakistan. Why should they? The corrupt are never punished except if they cross swords with those behind the scenes. With this dismal truth before me, I pen here an unusual story that would grab headlines in another country. To be named below are several persons who would have ended up behind bars in any country where there is rule of law. Several others — whether complicit or negligent — would be shamed, reviled and removed from their current official positions. Knowing that nothing will happen here in Pakistan, this is still a story I must tell.

Briefly: between 2003 and 2013 dozens of European mathematics professors were flown into Pakistan at government expense. They came under the Higher Education Commission’s so- called Foreign Faculty Hiring Programme (FFHP). A big budgetary chunk went to the Abdus Salam School of Mathematical Sciences (AS-SMS), an affiliate of Government College-University in Lahore. SMS received Rs638 million from HEC for salaries and airfare.

The imported professors were listed as full-time SMS faculty with Western-level salaries convertible to euros and dollars. Some were paid for as long as eight years. They were supposed to teach students all year round, supervise their research, and add to overall national prestige by publishing high-level mathematics research using their Pakistani institutional address, ie that of SMS.

This did not happen. Some foreign professors visited Lahore for just four to five months of the year, others for half this time, and still others for at most four to six weeks. Still, apart from those on short-term appointments, year after year all were paid a full 12-month salary. When later asked, some said Lahore was too hot while others said it was too dangerous.

Ghost teachers in Pakistani rural schools are common enough but few know of our ghost mathematicians.

Research publications of the foreign professors did not carry SMS’s name although they were formally full time SMS employees. Clearly several were making brief junkets to Pakistan while actually employed elsewhere. How the ghost professors managed to supervise one hundred PhD theses at SMS is a mystery. The quality of these graduates is for the reader to guess.

An investigative report can be found on the SMS website. Such detailed investigations are unknown in Pakistan’s academic history. Spread over 456 pages (including email correspondence with relevant foreign professors) it was patiently put together over two years by an officially constituted committee of three individuals presently employed at SMS: Prof Amer Iqbal (convener), Prof Fiazud-in-Zaman, and Muhammad Imran Khan (administrative and finance officer). They deserve our highest respect for the risk they took.

Bullet points gleaned from this report follow:
• FFHP was launched by HEC in 2003. On the HEC side the officials responsible for this programme and disbursement of funds to SMS were: Dr Atta-ur-Rahman (then HEC chairman), Dr Sohail Naqvi (then HEC executive director), and Wasim Hashmi Syed (then FFHP project director). Presently Dr Rahman heads another major government education initiative in the PTI government. Shall we hope that another disaster will be averted?
• From 2003 to 2013 the SMS officials directly responsible for the disbursement of funds received from HEC under FFHP were Dr A.D.R. Choudary (director general, 2003-2014) and Ejaz Malik (director of finance & administration, 2003-2014). The committee repeatedly sought to contact both but received no replies. They are said to have left Pakistan.
• Fifty-eight foreign professors were hired at SMS under the FFHP programme with durations ranging from a few months up to almost eight years. These professors were paid monthly salaries which were deposited into their accounts opened in a local bank with the help of SMS staff. It is not certain whether the professors themselves withdrew the money or someone else pocketed it.
• When the committee wrote to 38 foreign professors formerly at SMS asking them to verify their salary payments, just 13 replied. Official records show each receiving payments between $150,000 to $300,000. The reader, by browsing through the email correspondence, can sense that some professors were genuinely confused and had forgotten details from many years earlier. Several said that they received far less than the alleged amount. Others recall being asked to sign blank sheets of paper by the SMS staff.
• The committee also inspected the research publications of foreign professors employed by SMS between 2003 and 2013 and found that these individuals showed their affiliation only to foreign institutions and not to SMS. It noted that “this [is] rather odd since if someone was employed at SMS for five or six years it is natural to expect that they will show SMS as their affiliation in their research papers”. Stated differently: why on earth was Pakistan paying them?

Hiring foreign professors to teach in Pakistan once seemed an excellent idea. In 2003 when Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman asked me to create and head a FFHP committee for hiring physicists from abroad, I gladly accepted. Subsequently I requested Prof Riazuddin (died 2013), who was Pakistan’s finest physicist after Abdus Salam, as well as Prof Asghar Qadir, a distinguished physicist, to join the committee.

Dr Riazuddin, Dr Qadir and I spent many hours in many meetings poring over faculty applications and making recommendations for appointing the best applicants. We were hopeful that infusing foreign expertise would put new life into otherwise intellectually barren institutions across Pakistan. But after a full year’s work we found ourselves sidelined. Decisions were made and appointments were made against the committee’s advice — and often without its knowledge. Thereafter we sent in our collective resignation to Dr Rahman. Other factors seemed to be at work and we did not want our reputations sullied.

Pakistan already has the distinction of having thousands of ghost schools in its rural areas. Now it has set a world record by having hosted a ghost faculty programme for a full 10 years — and that too in high-level mathematics at one of its oldest institutions. One hears of other scams in higher education but none as brazen. Either no one knew about this one or, more likely, many knew but none spoke up. All this happened right under the HEC’s nose. One does not feel optimistic.