The Underworld Extends to Higher Education

Viktor Frantsuzov might as well have been in Al Capone's Chicago: Arriving home after midnight in his chauffeured car, the professor and university administrator was cut down by a hail of bullets.

The ambush-execution early this year -- which the wounded driver survived -- remains unsolved.

But few doubt that it was tied to the respected scholar's work as head of money-making activities at the Moscow State Academy of Fine Chemical Technologies. Somehow, it is believed, he must have angered gangster businessmen.

In an era of post-Soviet cutbacks that have slashed state support for higher education to about one-quarter its level of two decades ago, many universities find themselves trapped in an unsavory stew of murky business deals and rampant bribery -- by applicants and by students in the market for a guaranteed passing grade.

Adding to the crisis, low academic salaries, typically $100 a month, have led to a brain drain.

Many scholars, particularly in scientific and technical fields, have left once-coveted positions to take business jobs at home, high-technology work in places such as Silicon Valley or teaching posts in the United States and Western Europe.

"It's best that a professor stick to science and not get into business activities, but that wasn't always possible in the 1990s," said Yury Minkin, a friend of Frantsuzov who quit academia and is now co-owner of a cheese-making company.

"The last decade was a decade of the wildest capitalism, where businesses were locked in one embrace with police and gangsters, all of them fighting for their own piece of bread," he added. "If you think of Russia in the 1990s, you can think of Chicago in the 1920s, during Prohibition. So the risks are colossal. ... It's as easy for a gangster to pick up a gun as it is for a professor to pick up his pen."

Leasing out campus space to private companies has helped many schools survive but also made some corrupt administrators rich.

Many academics who have stuck with teaching supplement their incomes however possible: through bribe-taking, tutoring future applicants, paid research, teaching at other institutions or moonlighting outside their specialties.

Meanwhile, in a country where higher education used to be free for anyone who could get in, half the students now pay their way.

As the chemical academy went into a steep decline in the early 1990s, Frantsuzov "was very sorry about professors leaving, but he couldn't stop them because of the low salaries," recalled his widow, Natalia. "The situation at the academy was hurting his soul."

A specialist in oil-related chemistry, her husband "just adored" science, but beginning in the mid-1990s, he focused on fund-raising because "somebody had to do it," she said.

Given the financial pressures faced by their schools, many students seem not to mind sharing space with businesses.

"What can we do, if the state doesn't have the money?" said Vitaly Fokin, who is enrolled at the chemical academy. "Some problems may arise, but I think it's useful. It helps us get our education."

Asked what sort of problems might come up, Fokin replied: "One of them is the murder of Frantsuzov."

In the eight years before his death, Frantsuzov struck deals worth millions of dollars, including rental of campus space to dozens of businesses, Minkin says. Among the biggest renters is San Diego-based ChemBridge Corp. It pays the academy about $300,000 a year for laboratory and office space, according to Sergei Altshteyn, the firm's vice president.

Some educators argue that although the mood on campuses may be desperate, the overall direction of education is not necessarily down. Rejection of communist ideology, new academic freedom and vastly expanded access to worldwide scholarship are important gains.

The number of students in higher education jumped 71 percent between 1990 and 2002, while the number of institutions leaped from 517 state schools in 1990 to a total of 1,337 schools in 2000, including 365 new private ones.

Still, fears for the future are immense.

"As long as our professors get $100 a month, they will continue receiving bribes," lamented Yaroslav Kuzminov, co-chairman of the Russian Public Council on Education Development, a high-profile lobbying group pressing for reforms.

"I think a few more years of this trend may deal a terrible blow to the national culture of Russia because we will lose our intelligentsia," Kuzminov said. "In Russia, education has traditionally been prized very highly. In the course of the 1990s, our population saw direct negation of the notion that education is useful because success was achieved by violence or by chance.

"Ten more years of a situation in which you could simply buy your diploma could have a fatal effect on the quality of education."

University real estate deals often are illicit, Kuzminov said.

About half of all rental contracts are verbal, without any paperwork, and two-thirds of the rest use fake contracts "with low official figures for tax purposes," he said.

Still, students often see benefits from their schools' business dealings, and they tend to view bribery as something that makes life easier for professors and students, rather than a big problem or a threat to educational quality.

Even at Moscow State University, the country's most prestigious, bribery is common, said Denis, a student there who spoke on condition he not be further identified.

"In my department, an exam costs $100, while a test costs $50 to $100," he said. "In other, more prestigious departments, like the law and economic departments, you may pay up to $200 for an exam."

To buy admission to Moscow State University costs about $50,000 for the law department and $10,000 to $20,000 for the journalism department, Denis said.

"It all depends on who you know, the chain of mediators," he said. "The longer the chain, the more people you have to share it with."

In a kind of vicious cycle, the students who buy admission are the ones most in need of paying bribes to pass tests, he said.

Among the professors, "there are some hardliners who simply fanatically teach their subject to students and refuse to take any money at all," Denis said.

But this is not a big problem, he said, because there is no rule that exams must be taken from the professor giving a course.

Viktor Sadovnichy, the rector of Moscow State University, said he believes that allegations of bribery in higher education, both for passing grades and admission, have been blown out of proportion as part of a campaign by some educators and officials to implement a single nationwide university admissions test.

In his view, it is better to let universities retain the right to use interviews to select the most talented students from among those with similar test scores.

Sadovnichy argues that the quality of intellectual life on campus is higher than it was 25 years ago, thanks largely to academic freedom and more international contacts. But the brain drain "is a real threat," he said.

Vyacheslav Kuznetsov, head of the electromechanical engineering department at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute, said it is not too late to save Russian science but that many more young specialists must be enticed to pursue careers as professors.

Aging faculties are "a time bomb" that could destroy Russia's traditional strength in science and technology, said Kuznetsov, 63, who as a young engineer helped design the motor for the Lunokhod unmanned research vehicles that the Soviet Union put on the moon.

"We need only a few years to re-create part of our former treasure, but if we wait five more years, it will be irreversible, because the specialists aren't getting younger," Kuznetsov said. "We have a huge number of books, but that is only a small part of knowledge. We must have living people."