Universities Prepare for Era of 'Star Professors' ; Reach of the Internet Encourages a Free-Agent Effect

By Mark Clayton writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 23, 2001 | Go to article overview

Universities Prepare for Era of 'Star Professors' ; Reach of the Internet Encourages a Free-Agent Effect


Mark Clayton writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Gary Hamel, one of today's hottest management gurus, was speaking to a crowd of top business-school officials via a large video screen. His message was not reassuring.

Imagine, Mr. Hamel postulated, if a virtual university brought to one online venue the best business-teaching minds - a superstar team. Wouldn't that change the competitive landscape for business schools worldwide?

"It was a pretty cool moment," recalls Theodore Buchholz, president of Harcourt College Publishers, who was present at the Santa Monica, Calif., gathering last spring. "What Hamel said sent a shiver up everyone's spine.... It seemed like the immovable could be shaken."

Afterward, conversation gradually returned to normal. But the idea that faculty superstars might one day become "unbundled" from their universities has become a point of growing debate in higher education.

While the impact of online education gets the lion's share of attention, other factors, such as a growing split on campus between well-paid full professors and poorly paid adjuncts, are helping erode ties faculty once felt to a single institution. The result is that already independent-minded professors perceive themselves more as free agents than ever before, some say.

"The faculty is going to face a serious redefinition," says James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, who is involved in a project to assess the future of universities. "In a sense, what we are going to see is the technology democratize access to learning opportunities, knowledge resources, and to scholarship."

If the foundations of prestigious schools are not shaking yet, that may be because higher education has so far mostly coexisted quite nicely with its star professors.

Yet it's also true that in the past century, most faculty stars have played second fiddle to the great universities where they teach. But that is changing. Only news junkies who watched CNN through the election wrangle, for example, would probably know Laurence Tribe is Harvard Law School's High Court superstar.

As 21st-century technology and publishing trends alter professors' roles, signs of the shift include:

* Peter Navarro, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine, replaces his own lectures with a CD-ROM. Recordings and samples of his course are available on the Web and for sale worldwide through a textbook publisher.

* Jerry Porras, an author and professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, is one of several professors from prominent universities helping Cardean University, a "virtual" school, create an online management class.

* Harvard Prof. N. Greg Mankiw is rewarded a record $1 million advance from a publisher for a new economics textbook.

Some academics envision a sea change in the next five or 10 years in which the likes of Drs. Tribe, Mankiw, Porras, and Navarro might sell their teaching services to the highest bidder. They might command even more money if they can attract a mass audience over the Internet.

"The best faculty would have the recognition rock stars enjoy," says Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. "They might be able to attract maybe 100,000 students worldwide, instead of being limited to 1,000 at a single big university."

That change would precipitate a further shift of power in academia. Picture a world in which two or three professors in each academic discipline are paid like Manny Ramirez, the Boston Red Sox superstar, who just inked a contract for $160 million over eight years.

Faculty haves and have-nots

If that seems a stretch, consider the changes in compensation since the 1980s, when university faculty members all received roughly similar pay, with few standouts. …

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