Star System

The Boston Globe has a depressing article about the star system in US universities. Maybe in the great scheme of things it doesn’t matter much, maybe I’m just a Puritan to find it so dreary. But it does seem so Hollywoodish, so rock star-ish, so hype-driven, so silly, so irrational-appeal-based, and hence so anti-intellectual.

“One couldn’t imagine all of this happening in Oxford, where there’s a kind of gentleman’s agreement that we’re all equally brilliant,” Ferguson says in an interview. “It’s extremely bad form to suggest that one person is as vulgar as to be a star.”

Yes…well I know what you’re thinking. You’re picturing a crowd of moss-covered mediocrities in Oxford contentedly trudging along the daily round, boring their students into fits and never publishing anything, but by gum they’re all equal. Fair enough. There is something to be said for making a fuss over people who teach or write better than others; for incentives and rewards. I can see that. But do they have to be so enormously better than everyone else’s rewards?

Star compensation at these “nonprofit” universities can top $200,000 for only a class or two a week, which in turn has widened the divide between haves and have-nots in higher education. Columbia offers fancy apartments with majestic views to woo stars (though not every home is as stunning as Sachs’s town house west of Central Park); meanwhile, part-time faculty who do the bulk of the teaching are forming unions just to fight for cost-of-living wage increases.

Philip Cook and Robert Frank wrote an excellent book called The Winner-Take-All Society explaining how these markets work and also why they’re not entirely desirable. All very academic.

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