Maximizing fellowship $ ethical?
January 20, 2008 9:14 PM   Subscribe

Posting this ethics question on behalf for a friend: Friend has been offered two different fellowships and has to choose one. A is worth twice much as B. A good buddy is runner-up for A and does not have any other fellowship options. The buddy has offered to by my friend the difference if the friend takes B so the buddy can get A. So the end result is the friend would officially have fellowship B but cash from his buddy to give him the same as he would have gotten from A while buddy officially gets fellowship A with the net funding equal to B. Does this sound reasonable? ethical?
posted by metahawk to Religion & Philosophy (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Cash isn't the only B as "good" as A? Some positions will lead to better things than others. Aside from the whole thing where what happens if the buddy decides not to pay? Its not like you can draw up a contract for stuff like this :/ I'd have him make the decision based on the quality of the two fellowships...which one gives him the best shot at the career path he wants?
posted by legotech at 9:18 PM on January 20, 2008

How do they know for a fact that there isn't a third person who could get A? If buddy takes B, and friend doesn't get A, buddy is screwed. Plus what legotech said.
posted by desjardins at 9:22 PM on January 20, 2008

Get it in writing and go for it if you're sure that desjardin's fear will not pan out.
posted by pwb503 at 9:28 PM on January 20, 2008

One of the most important aspects of fellowships is not how much money they'll get you now, but how great they'll look on your cv. A great scholarship/fellowship will impress future funders leading to much much more money than the original was worth. If fellowship B is lower in prestige than fellowship A, your buddy is going to end up losing much more than just the difference between A and B.
posted by arcticwoman at 9:33 PM on January 20, 2008

I'd be concerned about "workable." Is this a university fellowship? A portable fellowship from the gov't or a foundation? Are we talking tuition remission + living stipend? How will the cash be distributed? (If it's only tuition, then your friend may never see any of the $ involved.)

And ditto desjardins. Is the buddy absolutely sure that s/he is #2? As in, is there a letter saying, "Hi, you're first on the waiting list for this fellowship?"

Ditto also arcticwoman. Professionally speaking, this may be a lousy idea.

Beyond that, your friend will be seriously in need of a lawyer, because I see many ways in which this deal can go south.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:39 PM on January 20, 2008

I wouldn't do it. Money and prestige both make "good buddies" act crazy -- the good buddy may honestly intend to honor the deal right now, but who knows how they'll feel a year from now when their car suddenly breaks down or they've got to move unexpectedly. The second your friend passes up the A fellowship, they've basically got no recourse, and the good buddy now holds all the cards.

Throw in the long-term c.v. issues and the possibility that the other person doesn't get the A fellowship either and it's just a bad idea all around.
posted by gerryblog at 9:46 PM on January 20, 2008

What about the poor sap who's second in line for fellowship B and would get it if not for this backhanded deal? He should at least be brought into play here so they can have a bidding war.

If all parties think there is nothing ethically wrong with the proposed deal, they should have no qualms about running it by fellowship committees A and B. If that doesn't sound like a good idea, then maybe you have your answer.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:48 PM on January 20, 2008 [5 favorites]

Take A.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 10:21 PM on January 20, 2008

not unethical, but a really bad idea
posted by footnote at 10:25 PM on January 20, 2008

If your friend decides to do this, he should get a contract drawn up by an attorney. Otherwise, there's nothing stopping his friend from keeping the money (and very small amounts of money have ended lots of very close friendships and even broken up families, so don't think that the fact that they're friends will keep him from getting screwed in this case). Get it in writing and get it legally binding. If the friend is unwilling to do this, it tells you that either the friend doesn't really intend to honor his end of the bargain, or the friend is actually uncomfortable with the ethics of the situation himself.
posted by decathecting at 10:28 PM on January 20, 2008

If all parties think there is nothing ethically wrong with the proposed deal, they should have no qualms about running it by fellowship committees A and B.

If the committees were arbiters of ethics, this comment would be spot on. As it stands, though, the committees have a "dog in the fight" too, and their goal will be to get the best candidate for their position.

I also don't immediately see what the problem would be with drawing up a contract for this sort of deal.

That said, there are a lot of other ways this could go horribly wrong, and it's not really one buddy's job to make sure that the other buddy gets a fellowship.
posted by toomuchpete at 10:33 PM on January 20, 2008

I'd be very very wary of anything that seemed even remotely like gaming large institutions. And as has been well pointed out above, if this arrangement goes wrong, it has the potential to unleash a world of shit. If B is any good, let him find his own stipend, even if it involves another round of applications and some delay.
posted by Wolof at 10:37 PM on January 20, 2008

WTF, are you kidding me? While I'm glad everyone is saying it's a bad idea, why is no one saying that it's actually unethical? Presumably fellowships are named and structured as such so they go to the person whose merits most warrant them, not the guy who can buy off the frontrunners. Hell I'd DQ them both for from fellowships A and B if I were in a position to do so and knew they were considering this scheme.
posted by universal_qlc at 10:41 PM on January 20, 2008

Whoops, I mean way to hit the nail on the head, toomuchpete.
posted by universal_qlc at 10:43 PM on January 20, 2008

Unethical and a terrible idea.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 10:48 PM on January 20, 2008

If the committees were arbiters of ethics, this comment would be spot on. As it stands, though, the committees have a "dog in the fight" too, and their goal will be to get the best candidate for their position.

A fair point. Perhaps the candidates can instead run it by their respective department administrators and ask for some help in doing an automatic pay transfer, since the fellowships are probably distributed biweekly.

Actually, who would be an arbiter of ethics? I suppose we have to imagine the candidates getting hauled in front of some kind of academic tribunal (maybe the whole deal has been discovered and they're facing disciplinary action). So, if both friends would be comfortable pleading their case in front of such a (hypothetical) tribunal and confident that they would not be punished, then I suppose they have nothing to worry about.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:50 PM on January 20, 2008

This seems like a bad idea to me also. Too many things could go wrong, as listed above.
posted by number9dream at 11:51 PM on January 20, 2008

don't get anywhere near this. it's potentially radioactive.
posted by bruce at 11:57 PM on January 20, 2008

I don't think of myself of, or have the reputation as, a selfish assjack, but i wouldn't do that for a sibling a lover or childhood friend. It's not as simple as, say, giving a kidney .
posted by dawson at 11:59 PM on January 20, 2008

I'd be worried about the logistics. How are the stipends paid? Mine is paid monthly, as is the stipend of all my friends. Does your guy trust the other guy to remember to send him half each month? I'm sure I'd be tempted to 'forget' occasionally. If nothing else your friend will want to avoid this loking like undeclared income (which will be taxed if 'found') while the other guy wants to avoid looking like an employer or something. If fellowship A covers anything besides just a living stipend, e.g. fees, travel costs, bench costs, etc, then it might be impossible to pass half along to the other guy.

This will definitely be an issue if one of them runs into trouble and needs external financial help in the future. For example, I had some huge dental bills at the end of 2006 and was able to get assistance to pay for them, but I had to show bank statements and would have been turned down if payments such as this were on there (would either have been told to stop paying the other guy and pay the dental bill with that if I had A or ineligible due to extra income if I had B). A bunch of the other stuff available to me as a PhD student is means tested, like low cost health care or legal help, and having a weird agreement like this could potentially affect all of them.

There are other issues around fairness. What if the stipend for A is increased? Does the increase get passed along (assuming guy B even tells guy A about it)? What if the guy with fellowship B replaces it with a better fellowship and is now paid more than half of fellowship A, does the other guy get to reduce his payments? What if your friend is actually able to hold both fellowships together (he should definitely check, is not uncommon)? Is it fair for him to give up the extra money and prestige and is it fair that he hog it all?

And lastly, I really think the organisations giving the fellowship would be pissed if they knew about this. In my experience the groups giving them actually do care about the ethics of the person receiving the stipend as the work that that person does and the career they have reflects apon the foundation, as shown by how much press the recipients tend to get. From the outside this looks like buying/selling of scholarships (not saying it is but I can imagine a newspaper spinning it that way) and whoever is giving out the fellowships is not going to invite scandal (underlying politics can have more to do with who wins these things than merit). I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't something in the fellowship fine print about ethical behaviour anyway, I know my research agreement does, and I would be very surprised if they were willing to go along with this assuming your friend had the guts to tell them.

Oh, as an extra: it's often fairly well known in smaller fields who gets offered the more prestigious fellowships, as well as who is turned down and why. Gossip leaks out when it shouldn't. It's possible that future (or current) employers know your friend has been offered both and will flat out ask him why he chose the smaller one. Could get rather awkward trying to explain.
posted by shelleycat at 12:18 AM on January 21, 2008

I've thought about it some more and I can think of one ethical reason against it.

- From Fellowship B's perspective, no problem, they get the candidate they want.
- From my perspective, financially I come out the same. Perhaps I lose a little bit because Fellowship B isn't as good on my resume, but I might choose to accept this as a consequence of helping my buddy out.
- One problem is that my friend now owes me a lot of money. Debts have a way of screwing up friendships. But that's another consequence we may choose to accept. Still no problems here.
- From Fellowship A's perspective, they get a less desirable candidate, but one that they still want. If I tell them I am accepting another offer, they will be perfectly happy to take my friend. The problem is that, assuming this is a graduate school fellowship, the money is meant to support you so you can do research. More money means you will be able to travel to conferences, you won't have to work part-time, and you won't have to otherwise stress about money. Thus Fellowship A is statistically more likely than Fellowship B to produce high quality results. It's kind of like an investment.

You will notice that research results typically will include a statement like 'This work has been funded by a grant from blah blah blah". Now, if you will accept that more money leads to better research - it's a tenuous connection I'll admit, but if $B is so low you need to work part-time it certainly seems reasonable - then that means the friend who got offered the fellowships is more likely to succeed. But if this switch goes through, he will be doing it with some of Fellowship A's money -- as a Fellowship B Scholar! Fellowship B gets the glory! Meanwhile the Fellowship A Scholar is calling alumni to ask for donations for ten hours a week in order to pay the rent - not what Fellowship A had in mind for its scholar!

In summary - clearly unethical.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:36 AM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Meanwhile the Fellowship A Scholar is calling alumni to ask for donations for ten hours a week in order to pay the rent - not what Fellowship A had in mind for its scholar!

Good point. Another reason to read the small print: here in NZ at least, the better scholarships have clauses that either limit or prevent you from working. The idea being they're paying you enough money so that you can fully focus on your research instead. They can also have limits as to how much money you're allowed to earn in total and getting half of A on top of B could put that person over the limit (with the end result that fellowship B gets cut to keep that guy under the limit).

Often the small print about these things is hidden away in the fellowship body's website or in an obscure booklet you have to specifically ask for, and any breach of the rules discovered, no matter how small, will result in the fellowship being pulled. Is your friend sure no one will dob him in?
posted by shelleycat at 12:52 AM on January 21, 2008

I'm surprised so few people have mentioned the taxation issue, which leaps out in my mind as the biggest practical concern (of MANY serious practical and personal concerns here). If this happens I think an accountant must be consulted to make sure it can be worked out as intended -- in other words, to make sure there aren't unexpected tax burdens on either person.
posted by lorimer at 1:00 AM on January 21, 2008

not unethical, but a really bad idea

anything you have to hide from others is unethical.
posted by panamax at 1:06 AM on January 21, 2008

Is said buddy the *only* runner up for fellowship A? What if they end up choosing someone else?
posted by QueSeraSera at 1:13 AM on January 21, 2008

anything you have to hide from others is unethical.

That's the most ridiculous thing I've heard today.
posted by hjo3 at 6:36 AM on January 21, 2008

anything you have to hide from others is unethical.
posted by panamax at 4:06 AM on January 21 [+] [!]

now that's just silly. we hide things all the time -- for privacy reasons, in order to maintain business advantages, white lies...

I don't think this is unethical because I'm a closet libertarian/capitalist -- a fellowship is an asset, and I don't see why it shouldn't be transferrable. People can turn down fellowships for any reason or no reason, so the fact that he gave up fellowship A in order to give it to B for a payment doesn't strike me as unethical at all. Just because you might get "in trouble" for doing something doesn't mean it's unethical. On the flip side, you can bet that if the fellowship committee for some reason thought it was in their financial interests to offer the fellowship directly to B, they would do so.
posted by footnote at 8:38 AM on January 21, 2008

I'll go for unethical and a bad idea. Other people have raised most of the pertinent issues here, but I'll say this: if either of the parties above intend to go into academia they should not do this. If this gets out (and it probably will knowing the grape-vine of academia) this will be a blight on their respective copybooks and will ensure that they will have real difficulties getting jobs. The committee have selected the candidates for a reason, and one of the tough things in academia, if not in life in general, is that often you have to compete with friends. That's just the nature of the beast, and there's nothing that can be done about it. The sooner these two learn this the better.
posted by ob at 8:57 AM on January 21, 2008

Not unethical, but a really, really bad idea.
posted by The World Famous at 9:59 AM on January 21, 2008

I would be pissed off as a member of either fellowship committee.

For fellowship A, I'd be pissed off that our top candidate was bought off by a second candidate without telling us, and I'd cross both candidates off the list. Assuming that the fellowship A people have done work fundraising the money for the fellowship, we would have the view that we should be able to secure the best person for our package of benefits and opportunities. Also, we might have a particular philosophy that "people working for us should be paid a living wage," and end up participating unwittingly in having a fellow who is paid half of what we think they should be paid.

For fellowship B, I'd be concerned that we're in trouble with our colleagues over at fellowship A, and that relationships with our paid-off fellow will sour. (E.g. are there other fellows working side-by-side who are making half the pay? Are there colleagues who went through the fellowship in years past at the half-pay rate who think that the new fellow is a scammer?)

Don't know if this is ethics or practicality.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:09 AM on January 21, 2008

Thanks everyone. Given the limited details that you had to work with, you came up with some helpful perspectives that my friend hadn't considered.
posted by metahawk at 4:11 PM on January 25, 2008

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