College Rivalry
Universities will do almost anything these days to land a star professor who can bring instant prestige, attract large donors, and, oh yes, even do some teaching.

By Patrick Healy, Globe Staff, 6/29/2003



NIALL FERGUSON

Field: European politics and financial history.

Star power
: Prolific author (including The Pity of War, The Cash Nexus, Empire) and media luminary.

Career path
: Oxford University > NYU. Now Harvard is interested.

Quote: "It's rather sweet and flattering to be told that you're good. And it's positively disorienting to be told you're a star."

AP Photo

CORNEL WEST

Field: Religious thought, social history, and philosophy.

Star power
: Author (including Race Matters) and influential scholar in race and religious studies.

Career path: Princeton > Harvard > Princeton.

Sidelines: West has a hip-hop CD to his name, called Sketches of My Culture.

AP Photo

 

CAROL GILLIGAN

Field
: Gender and psychology.

Star power
: Scholar and author (In a Different Voice) with a major impact on thinking about girls' moral development; founder of "difference feminism."

Career path
: 30 years at Harvard > NYU.

Fallout: Gilligan left Harvard just as Jane Fonda, inspired by Gilligan's work, announced a $12.5 million grant to the university to establish a gender studies program. Fonda has since pulled back most of the funds.

Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter

SAUL BELLOW

Field: Fiction, modern intellectual and cultural history.

Star power: Novelist (Herzog, Humboldt's Gift, among many), playwright, winner of a Nobel and a Pulitzer Prize and several National Book Awards.

Career path: University of Chicago > Boston University.

Teaching load
: One course a year.

Globe Staff Photo / Bill Brett

JEFFREY SACHS

Field: Economics.

Star power: Globe-trotting economic advisor to governments and the United Nations.

Career path: Harvard > Columbia, where he will run its $80 million Earth Institute.

Quote
: "Columbia will be able to answer questions for the world like, Is the environment going over a cliff? Will species extinction do us in?"

I. Balderi / FAO



DEIRDRE McCLOSKEY

Field: Economics, history, and English.

Star power: Created a new school of economics with her book, The Rhetoric of Economics.

Career path: University of Iowa > University of Illinois at Chicago.

Sidelines
: Born Donald, McCloskey underwent a sex-change operation in the mid-1990s.

Harold Krewer / U of I Photo Services



STEVEN PINKER

Field: Language and the mind.

Star power: Eminent cognitive scientist and best-selling author (How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, among others) who argues that behavior is largely predetermined by genetics.

Career path: MIT > Harvard.

Quote: "For verbs, MIT is the best place; but for human nature and its implications, Harvard is the most important place."

Harold Krewer / U of I Photo Services


Visit Boston.com's Education section for more higher education coverage from the Globe. rofessor Niall Ferguson is one of the best young British historians of his generation, a red-hot talent who weaves Keynesian economics and World War I politics in such silky language that even students who skipped the homework can understand him. Ferguson is a bright rising star in academia's firmament, and Harvard, Oxford, and New York University all want him.


Yet being a star isn't just about great teaching anymore. One evening this spring, Ferguson hustles into an NYU classroom six minutes late, puts down his Coke, and promptly announces to his students that he has something to confess: He hasn't prepared a lecture. All his free time, you see, has gone into promoting his new book on Britain's colonial past, Empire, a tempered apologia for the empire's effect on the civilizations it subsumed. There's the author tour, the speaking engagements, the media interviews, and the essays for The New York Times that create a buzz around his name. Ferguson may be a wonderful classroom presence, but he's only teaching on Tuesdays and Thursdays; his activities the other five days of the week have been essential to his zoom to the top.

"I'm woefully underprepared," Ferguson tells the 60 business school students, stretching out each syllable with his Scottish lilt in a way that's at once chagrined and charming Hugh Grant as the absent-minded professor

"I woke up at 6 a.m. and panicked that I had nothing to say."

Some students begin to twitter.

"I decided to confess this in hopes of winning your sympathy."

He grins a bit the impish, telegenic face that helped make him a favorite commentator on British TV news.

"Some of you may feel it's right to leave."

The future MBAs are laughing now. No one gets up to exit. And for the next hour, Ferguson runs a fast-paced seminar about far-right politics in Europe that while a bit light on substance completely energizes the room.

Students love Ferguson. After only one semester at NYU's Stern School of Business, he has just been voted Most Popular Professor. And like a Major League MVP or an Oscar-winning heartthrob, this trophy professor bears a value in his industry that is hard to overstate.

The celebrification of academia has been underway for some years, as wealthy universities increasingly strive for prestige, and faculty like Ferguson are now a commodity to fight over. NYU is rising in the college rankings and moving toward its goal of becoming an edgier, downtown Columbia University, minus the ivy in large part because it aggressively woos and wins stars who enhance its reputation.
NYU stole Ferguson from Oxford by raising his salary by tens of thousands of dollars; making him the Herzog Professor of Financial History, an endowed chair; providing a cozy Greenwich Village flat; and helping pay for trans-Atlantic plane tickets so Ferguson can see his wife and three children back in England. (His wife, Susan Douglas, a publishing executive with Conde Nast in London, is reluctant to relocate to the States.) And now Harvard is calling: Ferguson has been approved for a tenure appointment there, and university officials say they are plotting ways to poach him. Ferguson is just the sort of star that Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers craves an energetic, prolific 39-year-old who just published his sixth book and whose best work is likely still to come.

"One couldn't imagine all of this happening in Oxford, where there's a kind of gentleman's agreement that we're all equally brilliant," Ferguson says in an interview. "It's extremely bad form to suggest that one person is as vulgar as to be a star. But it's rather sweet and flattering to be told you're good. And it's positively disorienting to be told you're a star."

The hunt for stars has become serious business in higher education. More second-tier private universities and top public campuses are getting into the game, hoping for a big score that will impress donors and alumni and generate media interest in their school (especially from the US News & World Report's college rankers, the most influential shapers of college reputations for most Americans). Top universities like Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia are also recruiting aggressively, with the huge financial advantage of their endowment gains from the go-go '90s. For even the best schools, stars are increasingly central to their financial fortunes and high ambitions. Columbia, for instance, recently poached Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs to run its $80 million Earth Institute and capitalize on his role as special adviser to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in the hopes of building a lucrative, prestige niche in global sustainable development.

Sachs says: "Columbia will be able to answer questions for the world like, Is the environment going over a cliff? Will species extinction do us in? What does globalization mean?"
It might surprise parents and students that they don't hear about star recruitment on campus tours, given that it's helping drive up the cost of tuition and fees to $38,000 at top private colleges. The institutions need the revenue to subsidize the new buildings and perks required to recruit these professors. Star compensation at these "nonprofit" universities can top $200,000 for only a class or two a week, which in turn has widened the divide between haves and have-nots in higher education. Columbia offers fancy apartments with majestic views to woo stars (though not every home is as stunning as Sachs's town house west of Central Park); meanwhile, part-time faculty who do the bulk of the teaching are forming unions just to fight for cost-of-living wage increases.

Perks and pay are only one force in the star system, though. With the spread of so-called sick departments where professors in a given campus department barely speak to one another, let alone play nice and the hard financial times at many universities, stars often go looking for love elsewhere. Stephen Greenblatt, a longtime scholar of Renaissance literature at the University of California, Berkeley, became smitten with the Harvard English department when its faculty sent him a Valentine's Day card saying, "Wish you were here" at a time when Berkeley's department was squabbling away. Greenblatt, a heavy hitter in his field, says he went to Harvard for less money. What he received were comrades.

Poaching stars from other schools, as Harvard's English department has done to illuminating effect, is a practice that stretches back for at least 100 years, when president Charles Eliot decided to transform Harvard from a "glorified finishing school with a few modest professional schools into a major university," says former Harvard president Derek Bok. "He went around looking for good professors at other schools, and he got 'em." Nationally, star recruitment accelerated in the 1970s with the rise of literary theory, which was so closely associated with personalities like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault that campuses began courting their disciples. But the competition really took off in the 1980s and 1990s. Americans' penchant for measuring status gave rise to the US News college rankings, which made stars more important; within the US News formula, 25 percent of each ranking is based on the campus's reputation in the eyes of other colleges' officials not just presidents but administrators such as deans and provosts. More stars can certainly boost such impressions.

Stars also help raise money by speaking to alumni and wowing donors over dinner or readings; NYU's Stern School landed a $10 million gift from insurance magnate William R. Berkley last fall for new endowed professorships, because he liked the energy and focus that new stars were bringing. Science stars have become especially important, because all the dollars flowing from the National Institutes of Health put a gleam into the eyes of donors who imagine themselves helping fund the cure for Alzheimer's.

"Universities tend to follow the opportunities and compete in a field that's due to make an advance in the next five to 10 years," says Steven Pinker, a prominent cognitive psychologist whom Harvard poached from MIT in April. Today, "it's very hard to brag or promise benefactors that the next big breakthrough will be an analysis of Dante."

Boston University, Duke, and "public Ivies" like Berkeley and the University of Virginia have also relied on stars to propel an image-enhancing cycle, though that is only sometimes successful. Stars can lift programs to higher rankings, which may lead to greater campus prestige, which often leads to more elite applicants, more alumni donations, and bigger salaries and better jobs for the deans, department chairs, and presidents who raided other schools for stars. But this cycle can also have costs, chiefly the envy that can grow among other faculty members.

"If you don't let these market forces work, institutions and people can stagnate," said Michael S. Gazzaniga, dean of the faculty at Dartmouth College and a leading neuroscientist recruited by Dartmouth from Cornell, then stolen by the University of California, Davis, then wooed back by Dartmouth. Raiding "makes a campus say, 'What's wrong with us? How can we fix it?' And usually the star hire goes and reworks another place."

In the simplest terms, both stars and universities share the same perfectly understandable goal: to be the best. Niall Ferguson, who left Oxford's full-time faculty for NYU (he remains a senior research fellow and teacher for part of the academic year at Oxford), says even the best British universities are underfunded, and many young faculty members feel underpaid and fear they will grow stale in the rigidly structured Oxbridge tutorial system.

Ferguson says: "I think Henry Kaufman, who endowed this beautiful building I teach in, put his finger on it wittily when he said, 'Niall, you're interested in money and power, right?' I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'Well, why don't you come and work where the money and power are?' At the very most elementary level, anyone who wants to understand the present and I'm not only interested in the past will struggle to do it at Oxford."

The first time Harvard tried to poach Edward Said, in the mid-1980s, he was already an intellectual giant on Columbia's literature faculty and a politically active ally of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. He also had children in New York City schools and a wife who didn't see Cambridge as the next stop in her banking career. Harvard officials made him a generous offer, he says, but they shot themselves in the foot when they pooh-poohed Columbia's free-tuition policy for children of its faculty.
"Harvard tried to convince me that a student loan was better than getting an outright grant," Said recalls.

Harvard struck again in the 1990s with another handsome package. By then Columbia was determined to make Said happy, offering to move him a half-block down Riverside Drive from where he was, to an apartment with a better view of the East River. Said was torn. But a visit made up his mind.

"Everyone was on lots of academic committees at Harvard," he says. "They had meetings at 8 o'clock in the morning. I had never been on a committee in my life, and I didn't want to start then."
Said is one kind of star a senior statesman in his field who would instantly glamorize a university's humanities program and attract attention from the wider public. (Said was once accused of throwing a stone near an Israeli watchtower in Lebanon, a minor international incident that led some to call for his firing.) And while his concerns are the same as those of many stars family needs and academic freedoms can often outweigh the highest bids his value to a university helps illuminate differences among the stars. They can be categorized in a few ways:

Rock stars the personalities or celebrities; known for controversy as much as for their work. Said is one; Carol Gilligan, the gender psychologist who is often misunderstood as favoring girls over boys, is another. (NYU poached her from Harvard in 2001.) Deirdre McCloskey, the Iowa economist whose sex change in the mid-1990s made her the talk of the field, was poached by the University of Illinois at Chicago with a 35 percent salary increase. BU chancellor John Silber has recruited Nobel laureates with offers of prestigious titles or light teaching loads, including author Saul Bellow (with one class per year), activist Elie Wiesel (two classes a year), poet and playwright Derek Walcott, and physicist Sheldon Glashow.

Stature stars the builders. They start or shore up programs that will define a campus and impress alumni and donors. In the last two years, Columbia recruited Sachs and Nobel economist Joseph E. Stiglitz to boost its development group. NYU has also wooed two other star scholars to economics, Stanford's Tom Sargent and Harvard Business School game theorist Adam Brandenburger. Asked why he left Harvard, Brandenburger told a student newspaper recently, "The way I put it is that being at Stern is being on the up escalator."

Department stars the leaders. They are important players in their fields and often fill a crucial niche on campus. Harvard sought Greenblatt in the mid-1990s to strengthen its bench in Shakespeare and New Historicist literary theory. Dartmouth's business school mourned the loss of Rohit Deshpande, their marketing program star, to Harvard Business School. James O. Freedman, a former Dartmouth president, says, "The dean and I [told Deshpande] we'd make time for work, a sabbatical, anything."

Sunset stars, or extinct volcanoes the legends. Most are in their 50s and 60s, wooed by universities that want a short-time return on the big names before they retire. Famed philosopher Richard Rorty was hired by Stanford at age 66 and given a flexible teaching load. NYU recruited two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Levering Lewis this winter, at age 67, improving upon his $160,000 salary from Rutgers and offering an easier commute from his home on the Upper West Side.

Superstars they do it all. And they have crossed over from academia to become celebrities that average Americans have heard of. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. is a black-studies star who became a popular essayist for The New Yorker and is now involved in film and television. Philosophy star Cornel West, who jumped from Princeton to Harvard and back to Princeton last year, is another, crossing over into hip-hop music and political commentary. Niall Ferguson was a superstar in Britain; his time in America bears watching.

Among the newest superstars is Steven Pinker, the MIT language and mind specialist and a best-selling author who is now heading to the psychology department that William James and B. F. Skinner built at Harvard. As a sign of his crossover status, Pinker was actually first courted for a job in Harvard's English department by two of its stars, Skip Gates and Elaine Scarry. Over jambalaya and beers at the Green Street Grill in Cambridge, Pinker told them about his latest book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which carefully suggests that genetics not society, family, or God is the main force behind human behavior. It's hot stuff, the kind of incendiary material that has burned other scholars trying to link genetics, IQ, and race. Pinker avoids dwelling on such links and instead tracks the way that genes can influence our actions. "Skip and Elaine understood where my work was going. Skip loves the concept of the marketplace of ideas. He said to me, 'You're going to get fried. I think it's great,' " Pinker recalls. "But the conversation set things in motion."

Sitting in his light-filled, spick-and-span apartment near Harvard Square, Pinker is direct and relaxed, his mop of salt-and-pepper hair curling down to his shoulders. A day earlier, he learned he was a runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize for The Blank Slate. Yet he shows more enthusiasm talking about the mind's struggle with irregular verbs than his own experience with stardom. It quickly becomes clear why his Intro to Psych class is so popular with non-psych majors: He speaks about his research with the same thrill and wonder that helped the late Stephen Jay Gould popularize zoology and science at Harvard (an irony, given the two men's differences over evolutionary thinking). After the dinner with Gates and Scarry, Pinker began to see how he could spread his wings even further in Harvard's psychology department, where he could delve into law, education, and humanities programs that were beyond the narrow precincts of MIT. It also became known that Lawrence Summers was high on Pinker's work. Says one professor, "Larry told me that if there was anything I could do to help recruit Steven Pinker, it would be deeply appreciated." (Summers's spokeswoman says the president made "encouraging noises" about recruiting Pinker and was pleased with his appointment; whether he did more than make noise is a matter of some delicacy at Harvard because of the president's role in the tenure process as an impartial and powerful judge and jury in reviewing a scholar's worthiness.)
MIT president Charles Vest, for his part, quickly got on the phone with Pinker.

"I hear a terrible rumor," Vest said, according to Pinker. "Please tell me it's not true."

"Temperamentally, I'm not very good at bargaining," Pinker says now. "I've got my condo. What am I going to get, two condos?"

Harvard ended up offering what Harvard offers best: the opportunities that an $18 billion endowment can buy. While MIT has some prominent psychologists and neuroscientists, Harvard has a full stable of them, and there are more horses about to be stolen from elsewhere. While MIT has cutting-edge quality in science and offered Pinker more graduate students and more lab funds, Harvard has the money and the building space in Boston to catch up to MIT eventually. And while some Harvard psychologists did raise an eyebrow over The Blank Slate, Pinker won a unanimous vote for tenure from the department.

"What it came down is, where do I think I will do my best work?" says Pinker, who is 48. "And also a realization that at this point it's probably now or never."


James J. Duderstadt, a former president of the University of Michigan, is one of a handful of education leaders who see this poaching and jumping around as a threat to America's premier higher education system. He thinks it further erodes institutional loyalty among faculty and puts students second, behind scholars' own interests. Universities have become so preoccupied with wealth and status symbols of success that he fears elite schools are moving away from their educational mission and into a new reality that a scientist at another campus once described to him: "This university is nothing but a holding company for research entrepreneurs."

In his new book, The Future of the Public University in America, Duderstadt argues that wealthy schools have seriously damaged less generously endowed campuses by stealing their best professors with big packages, leaving students without influential mentors and harming a school's ability to train new graduate students the next generation of teachers and stars. And some public universities face morale crises, including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, because of salary disparities among faculty of $50,000 or more. Deans and department chairs may feel forced to increase a professor's salary to compete with outside offers while state budget cuts flatten other faculty salaries.

"The system can break the back of the university you make a big salary offer to lure a star, and other people say, 'I want the same package, or I'm going to go on the marketplace,' " Duderstadt says.

"Everyone gets distracted from good teaching and helping students."

Duderstadt argues that greed drives the faculty raiding as much as institutional ambition. The single biggest factor in salary raises for deans is their win-loss column for stars, he says, making poaching an obsession that destabilizes other campuses.

"Harvard hurt Michigan very badly in anthropology and some other departments, because it's so rich, and we couldn't compete," he argues. "Harvard is the worst, because it doesn't give tenure to many of its own young faculty. So the deans go cherry-picking."

William Kirby, dean of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, disagrees that Harvard has done damage to Michigan or other schools. About two-thirds of Faculty of Arts and Sciences tenure appointments do go to professors outside of the university, Kirby says, though he and Summers hope to promote more people from within. Yet Harvard's fairly rigid salary structure makes it impossible to offer eye-popping salaries; most star salaries there fall between $150,000 and $225,000, according to Harvard officials. Harvard kicks in housing assistance and loans, research and travel money, and funding for the cream of the nation's graduate students, who can work in stars' labs. But Harvard's greatest appeal to stars, Kirby says, is all of the other top scholars there.

"If you do your job right and hire right from the outset," he says, "you will have great names without knowing that's what you were doing."

Bok, the former Harvard president, notes that many Ivies and other top schools make aggressive poaching bids; Columbia reportedly offered $500,000 to steal its own Harvard veteran, economist Andrei Shleifer, who chose to stay put. Yet Bok has his own concerns. He has just written Universities in the Marketplace, which considers the extent to which money and commercialization are now driving higher education. He notes that star hiring is a duty of presidents but says in an interview that it can be hazardous to a school's core mission, teaching. During a meeting of Ivy League presidents once, Bok suggested that the Ivies could steal stars from one another by using high salaries, generous perks, extra lab space, or travel stipends anything, that is, except lightened teaching loads. His colleagues laughed, Bok says.

"The lower teaching loads and big perks are a little unsavory, and they can breed envy," Bok says. "Humanists feel more and more declasse. They see resources and salaries shifting to more commercially relevant fields of study. Their loyalty softens. It can bubble over in a visible way, like spending less time on campus with students." In his book, Bok asks what would happen if the Coca-Cola company offered Princeton $25 million to etch the phrase "Things go better with Coke" into a prominent campus gateway. Bok thinks Princeton would say no but says that this proposition isn't so unlike the endowed university professorships that bear a corporation name (such as IBM or AT&T) or the role of pharmaceutical firms in developing medical school courses. Someday, he predicts, professional agents may broker deals with university presidents on behalf of star faculty, much as Hollywood producers and NFL recruiters negotiate with star talent now.

"There are a few professors already," Bok says, "you get their voice mail that says if you want to talk to X, you need to talk to his agent, which I find a little off-putting."
Seeing a need to reform the star system and its incentives for deans, Duderstadt offers a radical proposal: Public universities might ask Congress to penalize nonprofit universities that use their tax-exempt dollars to poach stars with above-market compensation packages. In other words, crucify the Ivy League on its own cross of gold.

A few Big Ten presidents like the strategy, though they note that federal scrutiny of college teaching and hiring is almost nonexistent, for better or worse. Others, however, say that a school without ambitions is a wayward school and that only the faculty can make those ambitions a reality. Deirdre McCloskey says she gave up Iowa for Illinois-Chicago because of her dean's vision to turn the school into a modern-day City College of New York, one of the great success stories in higher education, an intellectual haven in the 1940s and 1950s for poor, immigrant, and Jewish students. It produced many of academia's first stars in the humanities and social sciences, like Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, and Irving Kristol.

"We want an urban public university with high standards for the great unwashed," she says. It's no coincidence that the dean who wooed her to Illinois-Chicago is Stanley Fish, one of the earliest impresarios of the star system, who brought luminaries like Skip Gates to the Duke English department as its chairman and then left Duke as the English department crumbled and some of the stars left.
John Sexton has an idea of his own. As dean of the NYU School of Law for 13 years, he wooed stars with his best assets the appeals of Manhattan and NYU apartments and what he called the "common enterprise compact," promises of good colleagueship and sky's-the-limit ambition as well as travel and program money that faculty would have to pay back if they left NYU. He was so successful that the board of trustees made him president of the entire university. Now he is seeking to expand this "enterprise" ethos: His deans agreed in January that they would reject bidding wars and the concept of "independent contractor" star faculty but would offer competitive salaries and neutralize the cost of housing and tuition in New York City. Professors who seek bigger NYU apartments, just because a new star gets one, are treated like pariahs. In return, Sexton wants to provide an "abundant community," the Ignatian ideal of communitas that inspired him during his student years in Jesuit schools.
It's an optimistic vision; surely the Greenwich Village ZIP code helps in selling it. But at its core, this philosophy means making the young and the seasoned, the good and the stars, all feel deeply valued. Sexton says he devotes 750 hours a year to applying his "street smarts" to recruit faculty over the phone, at dinner, and in his office. He called Levering Lewis directly when he heard the Pulitzer winner was job hunting this winter, and spent six hours one Saturday with the writer and his wife, describing this vision of giving total and unqualified support to the intellectual ambitions of the NYU faculty. Levering Lewis says he liked Sexton's pitch very much and was even thrilled to be asked to teach a freshman honors class, usually the obligation of junior professors, not stars.

"NYU has become a destination school, because it excites people," Sexton says. "We get people most of all because we plot along the great Zen line, 'Do you want to be a block of wood, or do you want to be a table?' We're attractive to block-of-wood people."


Patrick Healy covers higher education for the Globe. He can be reached by e-mail at phealy@globe.com.