Glittering stars and their prizes

May 29, 1998

Brilliant objects of desire

The star phenomenon got its biggest boost from Duke University, where from the mid 1980s the hiring of two huge names, Stanley Fish and Fredric Jameson, shoved Duke's English and literature programmes into the top ranks. They lured others, including Eve Sedgewick and Henry Louis Gates. Gates, whom the New York Times called "arguably the best-known academic celebrity of all", most conspicuously as a New Yorker magazine writer, was later recruited by Harvard to head its African-American studies, where he in turn drew a circle of top talent in the field.

Duke's is a pattern that many American universities would love to emulate. The university spent millions, but the investment paid off. Its department's reputation, and national rankings, soared: Fish and Jameson made Duke's name. Their visibility began to draw the best graduate applicants, and it appears to have had wide success in placing them, in turn, in academic jobs. That success, Nelson observes, "is a powerful argument about the difference superstars and rankings can make".

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