Paying for prestige: the cost of recognition

Written by | February 15, 2007

Honored Jagdish Ahuja said he does not mind having to pay for awards he says reflect his hard work.Sean MacKaman

Jagdish Ahuja is proud of his awards.

His biography has appeared in publications such as Great Minds of the 21st Century and The Genius Elite, and the Portland State mathematics professor has received over 15 awards from biography printing companies.

But Ahuja has paid over a thousand dollars for the awards and recognition during his 40 years as a PSU faculty member.

Most of the awards or publications are printed and sold to those appearing in them for hundreds of dollars, and award recipients can pay more for plaques, medals and certificates. Ahuja has bought many of the books, plaques and medals for hundreds of dollars each.

Ahuja said he does not mind paying for his awards because he wants to help the companies that promote his life work. Ahuja said that although he knows that it might not be difficult to get into these books, he thinks his accomplishments, including many published statistics theories, deserve to be recognized.

Many PSU employees say they have received e-mails and letters asking to be in these publications, but some employees ignore them, brushing them off as a form of vanity. Scott Dawson, dean of the School of Business Administration, said he has received many emails asking him to buy awards, but he ignores them.

“It seems like a scam to me,” Dawson said. “You are trying to buy influence or awareness. It seems like a racket…it’s fluff.”

Ahuja said he has recently realized that these businesses may be only motivated by sales, but he said he does not mind.

“They are just honoring me for my work. They even say clearly in some letters, ‘We are just trying to cover the expenses,’” Ahuja said. “I thought, ‘I have received this, why don’t I get this and share (it) with my family?’”

“I feel they have a book for everybody,” he said. His wife, a special education instructor, was also asked to be in a book published by the American Biographical Institute, one of the publishing companies.

The American Biographical Institute has been based in Raleigh, NC since its creation in 1967. The institute sells over 150 separate reference volumes with titles such as “American Medal of Honor,” and “Legion of Honor,” according to the institute’s website.

The company asks, in its letters to inductees, that inductees purchase a book for family and friends, at $195 each. Plaques and medals are offered for each award and can be purchased for around $150 each, Ahuja said. About 2,500 medal recipients are listed in the Great Minds of the 21st Century, which could be up to $375,000 worth of medals if 2,500 medals were sold at $150 each.

Participants in the American Biographical Institute’s books write their own biographies and submit their own photos, according to the preface of the Great Minds of the 21st Century.

“It has been the aim of the Institute to publish factual, permanent profiles of accomplished and dedicated individuals who make substantial contributions to society as a whole,” according to the book’s foreword.

Ahuja is a member of the American Biographical Institute Research Board of Advisors, the group of members who refer others to the company for future publications. There are over 18,000 members on the Board of Advisors.

Calls to the institute were not returned by press time.

Ahuja said he has heard many sarcastic remarks from his colleagues telling him that he is buying his awards. He said he has also received an anonymous note in his box that read: “Are you aware that most of us receive the letter offering us consideration in the Who’s Who publications? I’m truly sorry that these ‘biographical institutes’ have misled you.”

Mark Twain and Martin Luther King, Jr. are also listed in the Great Minds of the 21st Century book, although both individuals died before the 21st century began. Ahuja said he bought the book for about $300 and donated it to the PSU library.

Jan Margosian, consumer information coordinator for the Oregon Department of Justice, said the state has looked into these types of companies before and has put many of them on notice for false advertising over the years.

The American Biographical Institute, the International Biographical Centre and Marquis Who’s Who do not have a record of upheld complaints with the state, Margosian said. She called all three companies “pretty tacky” and said customers should be wary.

“I don’t know why they would put you in there if they weren’t hoping to get you to buy the book,” Margosian said. “You truly have to look at how they are marketing and what the spin is. It’s something you might want to watch out for.”

The American Biographical Institute invites members who have been cited elsewhere or by referral. Ahuja said he has referred a number of PSU faculty members, including Scott Burns, a geology professor.

Burns said he appeared in a few of the Who’s Who books, but he stopped paying for them because he said he disagreed with the company’s motives. He said the American Biographical Institute is still listed on his curriculum vitae.

Burns said it is not difficult to get in these books, but when he first got an invitation he thought it was a prestigious group. He said he still receives up to nine invitations to appear in biography collections a year.

Cassie McVeety, vice president of University Relations, said it is an individual’s decision to be included in these publications and the university has no plans to regulate these companies on campus.

“Our faculty are enormously smart people and can make their own decisions,” McVeety said.

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