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Boldface Professors

By KAREN W. ARENSON

Published: April 25, 2004


Jaime Rose for The New York Times
Madeleine Albright

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Hollywood might be the ultimate place to celebrity hunt. But for the star-struck student, campuses have their own sightings: literary luminaries like Joyce Carol Oates and Billy Collins, public intellectuals like Cornel West, former public officials -- especially out-of-government Democrats -- like Madeleine K. Albright and Robert B. Reich.

For colleges, they are loss leaders. ''There is a lot of skepticism about how valuable these people are,'' says Alan Brinkley, provost at Columbia, which in recent years has brought in two prominent economists: Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and former chief economist at the World Bank, and Jeffrey D. Sachs, an adviser to the secretary general of the United Nations who was lured from Harvard.

''But they aren't just people who get paid a lot of money,'' Mr. Brinkley says. ''They become a kind of core from which you can build a faculty, people whose presence on a campus can energize a field and make it more attractive to younger people. That is why universities bend over backward for them and sometimes do things they wouldn't do otherwise.''

Institutions with big endowments attract star professors with generous salaries, sabbaticals and research leaves as well as by having around other professors they want to work with. John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown, says the game is highly competitive. ''There are only a few institutions that can play in that world,'' he says. ''If Harvard wants to recruit a faculty member, they're going to get that faculty member.'' At Georgetown, professors typically teach two courses a semester, he says, but stars often do less.

For undergraduates, the important question is: Can they actually rub elbows with the prestige professors the universities advertise as faculty?

Some stars teach only occasionally, others mainly graduate students or small seminars. Their classes are heavily subscribed, and it helps to be tenacious or talented to get in. But in an informal survey of members of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, a social service and honor society with chapters at nearly 200 colleges, students say celebrity teachers are available to them -- whether it's discussing Fermat's Last Theorem over tea with Andrew J. Wiles at Princeton, hanging out at Michael S. Dukakis's office at Northeastern University in Boston or playing tennis with the author David Foster Wallace at Pomona College. Oh, and they take classes with them, too.

''I love to brag about having had so-and-so as a professor,'' says Julia Baugher, a senior majoring in political science at Georgetown, which attracts a roster of well-known Washington officials. She is obsessed, she says, with taking classes with the likes of Donna Brazile, Al Gore's former campaign manager, and W. Anthony Lake, national security adviser under Bill Clinton.

Tom Kneafsey, a third-year journalism student at Northeastern, also appreciates the celebrity quotient. ''Seeing a famous presidential candidate pick up litter on his way to teach a class here spreads a little pride around the campus,'' he says. ''We know they could be other places. It's cool to have these professors around.''

MADELEINE K. ALBRIGHT, Georgetown
Curriculum Vitae: Secretary of state and ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton; now a principal in the Albright Group, a global consulting company.
Teaches: One course a year, currently an undergraduate lecture called ''American National Security Toolbox.''

In Class: Ms. Albright typically arrives with seven newspapers under her arm and dives into discussions of what is happening in the world and how it is playing in the papers. Students write policy briefs on topics like Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The high point is an evening of role playing in a foreign policy discussion, held in a conference room at her consulting firm. Students wear suits and play cabinet officials and diplomats; Ms. Albright plays the president. ''We all thought it would be silly,'' says Ruth L. Braunstein, who took the course last year and played United Nations ambassador for the exercise. ''But she made it so realistic. It lasted six hours and no one wanted to go home.'' How was Ms. Albright as president? ''She was stern,'' Ms. Braunstein says. ''She kept us in our places. She was especially hard on the secretary of state.''

Your Chances: Demand is strong; 142 students applied this semester and 50 were taken. Only juniors and seniors got in.

SIMON SCHAMA, Columbia
C.V.: Historian, art critic and host of the BBC series ''History of Britain.''

Teaches: This semester, one graduate seminar; last semester, one undergraduate class in narrative history.


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