Where are the academic super-stars?
The Vice-Chancellor of Manchester University is reported to be recruiting Nobel Prizewinners to join his team of academics. In fact he has already signed up the economist Joseph Stiglitz, from the USA, to work part-time. He is only the first of a series of promised “iconic appointments”. It is all part and parcel of nudging Manchester up the super-league of world-wide academic institutions.
I have no idea on what terms Stiglitz has been attracted to Manchester. But the usual deal in the international race for university super-stars is to offer them a lot of money, no ”coal-face” administrative responsibilities and a teaching load that is made up of a few chosen seminars with clever graduates – none of the basic undergraduate teaching or the standard stint on the catering committee that the rest of us undertake.
Vice-Chancellors tend to love this kind of head-hunting (for Manchester University read Manchester United?). It adds lustre to their University, and kudos to their own cv. Stiglitz is, I guess, the Beckham of Economics. But the truth is that the brightest lustre ought to go to those institutions that actually produce the Nobel Prize winners, not those that just buy them in.
It is not all that difficult for a University to entice the high-fliers to join them – it’s a question of making the terms attractive enough (and those terms tend to include a large salary and a delicate embargo on seeing too much of the undergraduates). But what happens to the rest of us when “Professor Whizzo” wings in for his couple of graduate classes a year, leaving the rank and file to run the show? According to the Manchester University website, Stiglitz has been hired just to chair their new “World Poverty Institute”. I wonder what they say to clever first year undergraduates who would like to be taught be the great man.
In fact, in most subjects, great and world-changing academics are made not born. There may be a few enfant-sauvage mathematicians who revolutionize their subject simply by solitary scribbling. In Arts subjects there are no natural geniuses (or so few as not to be worth chasing, and generally only recognized post-mortem anyway). The difference between the clever person and the clever person who makes a difference to their subject is a combination of luck, community, back-up and local stimulation. The best thing a University can be proud of is providing a context in which little zany ideas can turn into big important ones, or young maverick academics can turn into influential ones. If I have made any difference in my field, the credit goes to my institution as much as to me.
That means taking a view of the intellectual community as a whole. And it means constructing an environment in which no professor is too grand to teach first year undergraduates (in many ways they are the most important). Or, because they are off back to the USA as soon as the meeting or seminar is over, doesn’t have time to talk through the anxieties of junior colleagues, or to debate with the student representatives the rights and wrongs of the syllabus.
The sooner Universities pay as much attention to retaining and fostering home-grown talent as attracting Nobel Laureates and assorted divas from elsewhere, the better. Perhaps this is not so much unlike the message of Man U and English football. The home-grown has a longer shelf-life, and in the end may score more goals.