Brilliant objects of desire

May 29, 1998

Ruthless competition between American universities to recruit top talent has seen salaries for the courted few spiral, prompting fears of division and corruption, Tim Cornwell reports

Tom Bender, dean of humanities at New York University, is waiting for a phone call. It may tell him whether he has won the latest round in his battle to hold on to a prominent female member of his faculty. The professor, hired by NYU early in her career, has written a couple of "real outstanding books, done the kind of thing that is really unusual in her field", he says. Now she has a "mind-boggling offer" from one of America's top-tier universities. It is the latest in a series over the past three years that have almost tripled her salary, as NYU has upped the stakes to hold on to her. "We've now matched the rival institution's offer," he says. She has called, and wants to talk.

The story is much the same across the country, at the University of California in Los Angeles. Scott Waugh, dean of social sciences, has fought about 50 retention battles, he thinks, in his five years in the job. The latest was "a young man just up for tenure", he says, six or seven years out of his PhD programme. He was being paid $56,000, but was offered $90,000 by a private university. The figure was bid up to $105,000. "We are talking about a new assistant professor," Waugh says. "He basically doubled his salary. We kept him." It was just one, he says, of a series of "breath-taking" offers to his faculty, offers which include not only money but jobs for spouses and perks like cars and extremely light teaching duties.

Oh, that British universities should be so blessed as to engage in bidding wars for professors. But, curiously enough, these kind of stories have fed a rising tide of complaint about a so-called star system operating in US colleges, where the salaries and privileges of the few are bid up by the corporate head-hunters of the academic world. "Some people deserve more pay than others," says Bender, who notes that academic star salaries are still way below those of almost any other industry. "But there's got to be some notion of proportion in the whole thing. We seem to have lost that. It is a real deterioration in the values that the academic community tries to hold dear."

"The ruthless courting of people with high salaries is brutal exploitation that's corrupting the academic work place," says Cory Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois. Nelson penned an article on the "superstars" last year for Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors. He is following it up with a chapter in a book, The Devil's Dictionary of Higher Education, coming out this winter. It defines real "superstardom", in the humanities at least, as professors who collect about $150,000 or more, though in business or medicine the figures are far higher. The book cites instances of "boorish celebrity behaviour" in academia: professors demanding limousines to take them between classes, or asking $30,000 just for a university's use of their name for a year.

Nelson's indignation was inspired by working with graduate students struggling in the job market. It is frankly corrupt, he says, to pay a select few in multiples of $100,000, when there are people doing the same work who can't afford a second-hand car to drive between ill-paid teaching jobs at different campuses. What happens to the quality of teaching, to the standard of academic discourse, to old-fashioned institutional loyalty, he and other critics are asking, when top faculty members are busy trailing their coat-tails on the job market, in pursuit of perks and pay?

It is nothing new, of course, to learn that American universities go shopping for top talent. The pattern dates back to the 1970s, and boosted the "brain drain" from Britain under Margaret Thatcher. But competition has revved up again with the soaring size of the endowments of top American universities in the bullish stock market - Harvard, $11 billion, Yale, $6 billion, Princeton, $5 billion, to mention a few. (One curiosity, says Nelson, is why it has not precipitated a new round of recruiting in Britain.)

No one denies that there have always been outstanding academics that deserve, and get, favourable terms. But what is at work, some say, is an emerging cult of academic celebrity that is turning good into extraordinary.

Often blamed for the recruitment, and hyping, of so-called stars, are the university rankings published in the press. They take polls of an institution's "academic reputation" - and big names are one easy route to push a college above the pack, a ticket to instant credibility.

Stories of the "star system" emerged last year in academic journals, and spread to the New York Times and mainstream media, including television news stations such as MSNBC. They are probably not doing much for higher education's image in the US. One news magazine blamed star salaries, in an alarmist but probably inaccurate report, for single-handedly precipitating a financial crisis in US academe. Caustic comments greeted Columbia's reported offer of $300,000 and a list of other perks to lure economist Robert Barro from Harvard.

There is something particularly American about the hand-wringing, however. One recent study of sexual attitudes suggests that while Americans are more likely to commit adultery than Britons, they are also much quicker to denounce it. The same streak of puritanism seems to be at work over the star system. The problem is that everybody is playing the game. "Poster professors", as they are called, are not about to turn down salary rises. And colleges with cash - and deans such as Tom Bender and Scott Waugh - have no intention of telling their top talent to walk.

The star system has to be understood as part and parcel of the sprawling American higher education industry, where myriad universities are competing for students and their dollars. Larger public or private universities want their choice of applicants to be as large as possible. For smaller private institutions, keeping the numbers up may be a matter of simple survival. Both need to get their names "out there". It has put a premium on not just academic but media exposure, and quotable, notable faculty are the key.

Take Clark University, an old, established, but previously little noticed, private college on the East Coast. Last year, Clark announced the country's first PhD programme in Holocaust studies, generating a flurry of news stories. The project rested on the shoulders of Deborah Dwork, whom Clark lured away from Yale to become its first professor in Holocaust studies in 1996. Dwork's clout as author and expert has kept Clark's name continuously in the public eye.

Joyce Appleby, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, is an outspoken critic of the star system. Public universities are losing out to private ones, she says. Competition is creating "objects of desire" in a case of minor "celebrityitis". The spiral could be stopped, she says, if a couple of powerful university presidents made a stand. "It's a house of cards, in a way."

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