The Perks and Perils of Recruiting Academic Superstars
Imagine having to jump on 10 planes to get to six cities in five days, fulfilling commitments that include — among other things — giving an interview to ABC’s 20/20, and consulting with HBO producers on an upcoming program about actor Charles Dutton.
For DePaul University professor Michael Eric Dyson, it’s all in a week’s work. Not bad for a teenage father who didn’t start college until he was 21. Since then, 41-year-old Dyson has finished his doctoral degree, written five books and become one of the most sought after public intellectuals in the country.
Formerly a communications professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Dyson decided to accept an offer earlier this year to become the Ida B. Wells Barnett University Professor at DePaul University in Chicago. The move was considered a major coup for DePaul.
“At a lot of institutions, a high-profile intellectual would be a source of consternation and controversy,” Dyson says in an interview from the road. “But DePaul saw the bigger picture. They understood that I was intellectually provocative and I would raise their profile.”
Universities around the country are looking to Dyson and other Black academic superstars these days to serve as ambassadors for their institutions. The comings and goings of these public intellectuals provide grist for the gossip mill as colleagues constantly speculate about how much money universities pay to recruit them and grouse about the little work they do compared to other scholars. But this speculation shows no signs of abating as universities embark on a shopping spree for Black academic stars to increase their national reputations.
Administrators say, the reason senior Black faculty members have become hot commodities in the academic marketplace is because universities realize that they must do more to try to diversify their faculty ranks as more of their students are Black, Latino or Asian.
Vanderbilt University also was interested in Dyson’s services. But Dyson says DePaul made him a very generous offer, letting him teach two classes a year so he has the flexibility to lecture and write. Still, Dyson’s move caused a lot of raised eyebrows.
“It’s player-hating,” he says, adding that it is business as usual for universities to raid each other’s faculties. “Nobody ever complains about the White scientists, law professors and economists who are getting paid enormous sums of money.”
DePaul officials say they hired Dyson because they hope he will bring the university more national attention.
“We’re not looking for him to teach a load similar to our other professors,” says Dr. Richard Meister, vice president for academic affairs at DePaul. “We’re looking for the influence and impact he can bring us in terms of national visibility.”
Meister says the university first approached Dyson after he gave a speech at the university last year. Dyson was finishing up a visiting professorship at Columbia University and wasn’t looking forward to returning to Chapel Hill. Meister says the university was interested because Dyson’s work cuts across many disciplines including philosophy and religion.
“This is not an ordinary university professorship position. [Dyson] doesn’t fit into any category. [He] bridges theory and practice, he can talk about hip-hop and Jacques Derrida in the same breath,” Meister says.
But critics warn that universities are creating a two-tier system for Black faculty members — one for “stars” and the other for the rest of Black faculty members.
“Universities are playing musical chairs,” says Dr. Walter Allen, professor of sociology at the University of California-Los Angeles. “They’re recycling academic superstars and not doing anything to address the problem of the small number of faculty of color in the academy.”
Nevertheless, administrators say senior Black faculty members in demand can benefit by moving to a more prestigious university with more perks, including bigger offices, more graduate assistants, more equipment, reduced teaching loads and more time to conduct scholarship.
In return, universities get publicity about such scholars and their work. That can make the universities look more attractive to other faculty of color who may not have considered teaching there before.
The Wages of Success
Despite appearances, celebrity Black scholars say it is not as easy to move from one university to another as people believe. Because the universe of senior Black faculty is so small, professors say it doesn’t take long for word to get around when a university begins courting a prospect.
The intricate dance between scholars and the universities that want them can take years to consummate. Deals frequently fall apart because of jealous faculty members in the affected departments, the need to find jobs for the scholars’ spouses and the high cost of living in some cities.
“African American scholars inhabit this tiny world and we are highly visible,” says Dr. Nell Irvin Painter, professor of history and director of the African American studies program at Princeton University. “When people find out a Black scholar has an offer, it’s a source of anxiety. Graduate students become nervous because they think you will abandon them. Colleagues get antsy and ask, ‘Why are you leaving us?’ You spend all your time trying to manage the rumor mill. And if it doesn’t work out, you’re perceived as a failure.”
The process often inspires envy and resentment among colleagues. Meister says the university had Dyson visit the university twice. Then he asked the faculty if they were willing to make the sacrifices to bring Dyson to campus.
“I said, you know this person is different. Are you willing to do what it takes to bring him here? The vote was unanimous.”
That was not the case for the Nikki Giovanni at Virginia Tech. In the beginning, hardly anyone in the English department there wanted to hire her. It didn’t matter that she was a world-famous African American poet. Most of the professors didn’t want to give her tenure.
“There was a lot of resistance,” says Dr. Virginia Fowler, an English professor at the university who originally asked Giovanni to come to the school as a visiting professor. “It was fine as long as she was a visiting professor. They had no problems with her credentials. They just didn’t want to tenure her. They were jealous, resentful. Even when you’re a star of color, you’ll have to deal with the entrenched White scholars who control the committee.”
When it became clear the department wasn’t going to hire Giovanni, Fowler called the president and asked him to intervene. Giovanni says she wasn’t worried because she enjoyed the support of the president and the provost.
“This is a difficulty not just at Virginia Tech,” she says. “This is not an interest to White professors. They want to talk the talk but not walk the walk.”
Jealousy is not an emotion exclusive to White professors either. Some Black scholars say Black professors will sabotage the appointment of other Black professors.
“Some of us want to be the HNIC [Head Negro in Charge], the one that White administrators refer to and seek counsel,” Dyson says. There have been several cases, where “the White professors are ready to recommend an appointment and the sole Black person has been allowed to scrap that person. It’s just horrible.”
High-profile scholars like these say that when they move to another institution they take great pains to maintain a cordial relationship with their colleagues.
“You don’t want your colleagues to hate you and make your life miserable,” says Dr. Vivian Gadsden, professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. “You get the best deal you can get without making your colleagues upset.”
When scholars move, they often ask for two graduate assistants, or they may get quarter-time or half-time buy-outs where they don’t have to teach the two classes they were expected to teach in an academic year.
Families play a huge role in deciding whether a scholar is willing to move to another university. This was the case when Duke University was able to lure Houston Baker and his wife Charlotte Pierce- Baker from the University of Pennsylvania.
Baker had made it clear that he would only move to an institution that would give his wife a position to pursue her research. Pierce–Baker is now an associate research professor in Duke’s women’s studies department.
“This is a very long process,” says Karla Holloway, dean of humanities and social sciences at Duke. “You have to develop patience because people want to move to a place where they can do work, exchange ideas and reinvigorate their scholarship.”
It took six years for Stanford to hire Dr. Linda Darling Hammond from Teachers College in New York.
“It was not easy; from agreeing in principle that she would come to Stanford, to working out the logistics,” says Dr. Richard Shavelson, dean of Stanford’s School of Education. In addition to Darling Hammond’s major research grants, her husband, Allen, was a law professor at the New York School of Law and her children were in high school.
But Shavelson says he wanted to bring Hammond to the university because she was a leading expert on teacher education reform. In addition to the grants, Darling Hammond also has responsibility for rebuilding the teacher education program at Stanford. “People want to work with Linda,” Shavelson says.
Sometimes the push to diversify the faculty comes from administrators. For 10 years, the University of Illinois at Chicago has been giving academic departments $20,000 a year for each professor of color they want to hire for as long as the professor remains at the University.
Under that program, the university has been able to hire professors like Kerry James Marshall, associate professor of art and design who won a MacArthur award two years ago. The university also hired Darnell Hawkins, a prominent professor of criminal justice. When Hawkins came to the university he said he wanted to have time to teach at historically Black Arkansas State University.
Creative scheduling arrangements coupled with the financial incentive for the recruiting academic unit have helped the university hire 33 tenure-track Black faculty members in the past 10 years.
“We’re gaining attention even though we’re not a high-profile university,” says John Wanat, vice provost at the university.
Guarding Against Prospectors
With all this attention being paid to high-profile Black faculty, administrators say they have to do everything they can to retain the Black professors they already have.
“Our associate professors are easy pickings,” says Dr. Lester Monts, associate provost for academic affairs at the University of Michigan. “They’re easily lured away because someone will make them full professor right away.
“We’re trying to build programs here, so we have to fight to keep these people.”
Monts says Michigan has matched salary offers, offered additional research money and accelerated the decision to make some faculty full professors to keep them from leaving.
“When a professor leaves, you’re not just losing a faculty member, your graduate students are losing an adviser, your students are losing an excellent teacher and there is a down turn in the university’s reputation,” he says.
Indeed, the reputations of departments can rise and fall because professors are lured away to other universities, says Princeton’s Painter. Because Princeton’s Afro-American Studies is a program rather than a department, she says she cannot hire professors directly. Rather, she must do it in conjunction with a department. That presents a problem because departments want someone to satisfy particular slots.
“We’ve been losing people because Princeton is a place with attractive faculty,” Painter says. “And it’s easier to lose than to gain.” Painter says she must conduct an intricate, exhaustive dance to hire a senior faculty member who will satisfy her colleagues.
“I finally understand what they mean when they say ‘small numbers of people.’ This is not much of an issue when you talk about White faculty. You can mess over some of them and still have some left over … [If] you spit in [their] face and they go off in a snit, there’s another one. But if you do that to a Black historian, it fouls the pool.”
Other faculty members say that it also very difficult to hire Black professors if their White colleagues do not consider them to be superstar material.
“You have to be a super Black person to be hired in many of these departments,” says UCLA’s Allen. “There are incredibly high standards, and everybody wants to hire the same three people. You’d have to be a Nobel laureate to get some of these positions.”
But most scholars agree that there is a place for stars on university campuses.
“Some people get upset because they feel these these people don’t work as hard as they do,” Gadsden says. Scholars like Princeton University’s Toni Morrison do a different kind of work, she says.
“Universities want to give people freedom to do free thinking. Do you want Toni encumbered? No, we want her incredible presence to expand our sensibilities.
“In some cases, we say we do want the name. This person has produced enough and is so important in the intellectual arena. They’ve been in the right places. They wrote and took stances like Derrick Bell. And they have changed the way we conduct discourse in the academy.
“Their presence is important to us.”
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