America's new breed of 'fat cats'

April 24, 1998

TOP economist Robert Barro's highly public change of heart over a sweetheart deal that almost lured him from Harvard to Columbia University is fuelling the debate over the "star" system creeping into American academia.

Dr Barro was courted by Columbia with a $300,000 a year salary and other perks, including a well-paid university post for his wife, private schooling for his son, and a budget big enough to hire half-a-dozen aspiring economists.

He accepted the offer early in April. But days after details of the lavish package were leaked to the press, he told Harvard he had had second thoughts.

One outspoken critic, University of California history professor Joyce Appleby, said she felt a "twinge of sorrow" for Columbia. But "they got themselves into it, they are playing this corrupt game," she said.

Fellow economist Paul Krugman said that universities' rush to gain prestige through tempting big name academics was becoming a "game of musical chairs".

It is nothing new for certain academic figures to outshine their contemporaries. But all manner of factors - a busy conference and lecture circuit, university departments competing for rankings in magazines, growing media demand for quotable professors - are blamed for a new "celebrity-it is" culture that critics complain may devalue teaching and traditional scholarship.

The average salary for full-time professors in the United States ranges from $62,816 at research universities to $45,243 at two-year colleges.

At Harvard, it is $112,000. Although economists described Dr Barro's deal as unprecedented, social sciences have seen a mushrooming of big deals for "stars", Dr Appleby said.

Medical and business schools have also traditionally paid well, compared with subjects such as foreign languages, geography and anthropology.

Dr Barro, 53, has an international reputation as a economist of conservative bent and has published 11 books. He was the Lionel Robbins lecturer at London School of Economics in 1996. At Harvard, he was prominent in an economics faculty, regarded as the national leader, at the country's wealthiest private university.

Columbia, however, wanted him to anchor its move to revive its economics department. As a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and Business Week magazine, he was sure to raise the university's profile.

The debate over the "star system" has been running in academic publications over a year. It was the New York Times, however, that brought it to wider attention.

The affair became the talk of the East Coast intelligentsia, earning headlines in mainstream and student press in New York and Boston. Harvard Lampoon even published a satirical article about the affair.

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