Temptation and forbearance

May 29, 1998

Brilliant objects of desire

Stars are often made by books. In 1995, Alan Taylor, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, won a Pulitzer Prize for William Cooper's Town. The book took a number of prizes, but it was the Pulitzer that "put me on the radar screens", he says. "People thought I was a perfectly able historian, but suddenly I moved into a different category." He was invited to apply for jobs by Yale, Harvard, University of Southern California and Northwestern University.

Harvard's was the only offer that Taylor took seriously. Harvard promised something that has become the signature of star status: a job for his partner, Emily. But it was not as good as her existing post at Davis, and Taylor, concluding that he too had been very well treated there, decided to stay. Taylor's new prominence helped persuade the university to grant three graduate fellowships in his department, as well as match Harvard's offer.

"I was trying to make the system work for the benefit of my university and my department," Taylor says. But he cautions that it "can and does work negatively" when "other working faculty are under paid and exploited".

Harvard professor Laurel Ulrich followed a similar path. Ulrich was teaching part-time at the University of New Hampshire when she, too, won a Pulitzer for American history. She says she left UNH "not because Harvard offered me a lot of money but because I was pretty discouraged by the overall commitment to faculty" at her home institution. "I wouldn't have wanted to stay as a 'superstar' in a department where equally good, but less visible colleagues were being paid unfairly."

Ulrich and others question what the presence of one or two highly-paid faculty members can do for the spirit of a campus. Along with housing or a partner's job, the tell-tale signal of real star treatment is a sharp reduction in teaching loads.

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