Professors Who Rock Harvard

When History Professor Niall C. D. Ferguson begins his lecture at 10:07 a.m., he abandons the podium, choosing instead to ...

When History Professor Niall C. D. Ferguson begins his lecture at 10:07 a.m., he abandons the podium, choosing instead to pace in a slow, deliberate loop around the lectern. He speaks with the kind of proper British accent that makes Anglophiles swoon. As he makes an argument about the French Revolution, his throat wraps around certain words with a silky aggression that he punctuates by cocking an eyebrow or gesturing with his left hand, index finger and thumb closed into an “o” around a stub of chalk. His words are actually improvised. His paper schedule book, full of cross-country speaking engagements, is not.

“I’m actually a very boring person,” Ferguson claims later.

But it’s a message that is falling on deaf ears. As Ferguson recalls, while aboard a ferry with his family on holiday, he was cornered by the ill-placed attentions of an enthusiastic male fan. That groupie was part his disproportionately gay male fanbase in the UK who became enamored with him after seeing him on TV.

Some professors entertain cold chairs during office hours and make do without starstruck students gossiping about them in Annenberg. Some, like Ferguson, contend with a different beast of visibility. And though the three discussed here—Niall Ferguson, N. Gregory Mankiw, and Robert A. Lue—are all accomplished, impressive individuals, each of them has a different method of managing his fame.

They are the celebrity professor, the rock star professor, the professor whose book you’ve read before your family lugs your worldly possessions through Johnston Gate. They may lecture in the same auditoriums as other academics, but they inspire a far different scope of admiration. This is what it’s like.

The in-demand economist

Mankiw is tall. He has a long, thin torso that exaggerates his height and shoulders that seem perpetually raised near his ears. He looks exactly like the headshot on his wildly popular economics blog, down to the the half-smile, mysterious as that of the Mona Lisa, which never leaves his face. He sits with arms crossed, wearing a button-down denim shirt and one leg crossed, utterly relaxed except for an occasional foot wiggle. For someone with a cult of personality and a class size that sometimes reaches into four digits, he is eminently unthreatening. His aura is kind. The decor of his office, in contrast, is sparse and blocky, with the only color coming from the endless, neatly arranged books on economics lining the walls. He name drops a lot in a casual, amused manner, as if he’s surprised that everyone from the Obama administration, the Harvard Medical School dean, and the Chief Financial Officer of Facebook all read his blog.

“I’m not so self-aware as to how other people perceive me,” he says at the very beginning when asked about his fame. Indeed, there seems to be a disconnect between the “real” Mankiw and the Mankiw that is the stuff of freshman gossip. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he was clueless about his fame.

Students will set you straight.

“He’s the one freshman institution that exists,” Chris W. Danello ’12 says. “If you’re meeting someone new, you can talk about what they did that summer, you can talk about where they’re from, or you can talk about Greg Mankiw.”

His fame beyond his overcrowded freshman class lies in his lofty former positions as the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors to the Bush White House from 2003-2005 along with textbooks that have sold over one million copies and become the classroom standard. Though his duties in research and teaching keep him busy, Mankiw is uniquely known for maintaining an active online presence in the form of a

daily-updated blog and a (former) Facebook profile. His New York Times editor has pushed him to get a Twitter, but he doesn’t seem too keen on the idea and describes himself as not being up to speed on technology.

Halfway to the 5,000 Facebook friend limit he last April, he posted on his blog under the title of “I am a friendly guy”: “I now have over 2500 friends on Facebook. Call me a pushover: I am ready to befriend anyone. (Try me again if, inadvertently, I have ever ignored your request in the past).”

“The problem is, I have no idea what it all means,” he wrote.

When he retired his Facebook profile after hitting the friend limit, blogs and news services picked up on the story of the overly-popular professor. The CFO of Facebook contacted him about making a fan page rather than a profile. “I haven’t gotten around to it,” he admits.

His blog, however, has no limit of readers, who check for daily updates at the tune of 20,000 page views per day. While it’s ostensibly to keep in touch with his Ec10 students, it’s attracted a global readership. But he does have two Facebook fan groups started by non-Harvard students. One, the Greg Mankiw Fan Club, has over 1,000 members who span the globe.

One such member is Zaur Seyidov, a 19-year-old at Azerbaijan Educational Economic University, who recounts his debt towards the professor.

“When I entered university, I had no economic knowledge,” he says by phone at 6:30 a.m. from his native Azerbaijan. “In our nation, books are difficult to understand, [there are] no economic pictures or graphs. When I read a chapter [on the law of supply and demand] in our nation’s book, I am afraid of this and I cannot pass exam. Then I read this chapter in Mankiw. Very easy to understand and this book encouraged me to continue.”

Bryce W. Stucki started the “Greg puts the ‘man’ in Mankiw” Facebook group which sports over 100 members. Mankiw himself was a member, at least until he deleted his profile.

“His blog is much more accessible than most economists who write. A lot of bloggers tend to be pretty extreme, at least the one’s I’ve read. [But Mankiw] likes to balance both sides of the issue a lot,” said Stucki, who decided to major in Economics partly due to Mankiw’s influence.

But it’s not all intellectual firepower that gets the fans to keep clicking. The founder of the “Greg Mankiw Fan Club” describes the professor’s appeal as personal as well as academic. “If you read [the blog] a lot, you get an idea of his personality. I do consider him a mentor. I think he’s a really nice guy, a really good guy, some one to look up to.”

Mankiw has proven so lovable that at one point, an “I love Greg Mankiw” t-shirt was sold on that has since been taken down. But even with apparel, office hours aren’t as crowded as his course—about five to ten students generally show up.

A regular office hour attendee was Neeral A. Gandhi ’12, who says the professor inquired about post-college plans and Christmas vacations along with dispensing insights on the financial crisis. “He wasn’t just locked up in the ivory tower,” she says. “He had real world experience.”

But the best anecdote about Mankiw’s many readers involves a certain telephone call. A student called his home number to ask a question about economics. The professor, who’d just eaten dinner with his family, was a little surprised, but answered the question.

It turned out that the student wasn’t even in his class. It was just someone using his textbook at UC Berkeley who decided

to call up the author.

Mankiw was not upset. “It only happened once,” he explains.

The unassuming hearthrob

Ferguson radiates not warmth, but rather, a no-nonsense capability. He is a fan of conservative colors and sharp lines: his suit jacket is done by Sam’s Tailor in Hong Kong and his tie is silk. Ferguson never smiles in photos. The camera loves him anyway, particularly his perpetually roguish and brooding gaze; sometimes he’s grabbing his hair as if decoding a historical conundrum. He’s made appearances on the Colbert Report and presented a television series on his book, “War of the World.” Some zealous fan uploaded it to YouTube even though it required them to slice it into 30 parts. Part one out of 30 received over 8,000 hits. Another video of him speaking has a commenter swooning, “i love sexy intelligent british men.” His Facebook fanpage has 1,137 members.

He has no clue about any of this.

As for the fanpage, he deems the entire affair rather “silly.” Ferguson’s style of popularity is more hands off than Mankiw’s, and he cultivates adoration through his visibility in the media. He muses that he should, however, update his website.

Ferguson is known for his revisionist accounts of history that have earned as much controversy as attention. He is a supporter of counterfactual history—asking “what if” questions on what could have happened. Unlike Mankiw, he’s not camera shy, has done interviews on Charlie Rose, and has four television documentaries based on his works.

That, combined with “unbelievable” lectures leaves soon-to-be research assistant Manuel J. Antunes ’11 a little starstruck. “For me to see him up close is like watching a celebrity,” Antunes says.

“I think his fanbase comes from the scholarship he’s done,” he says, but concedes, “He’s new blood. He’s young and on TV. I can understand why people have crushes on him.”

Evelyn D. Chow ’12 agrees with Antunes that the cult surrounding Ferguson is based more on admiration and less on fanaticism. “I don’t think people worship the ground he walks on,” she says. “If I were to make a comparison, with the way people kind of idolize Greg Mankiw, i’m not sure if you’d find that same level of idolatry [with Ferguson].”

Ferguson says he gets recognized about once a week, but places his fame in context. “I have a very clear understanding that I’m not famous,” he says, “I’m just a professor who occasionally appears on TV.”

Beyond his television appearances, his image also might have something to do with it. Speculating on precisely what lights an aspiring academic’s fire, sophomore Danello says, “There’s a romantic thing. I think a lot of people see Niall as an embodiment of a certain academic lifestyle called the ‘Oxford dean’ ...a friend of mine has told me on multiple occasions that he has a man crush [on Ferguson],” he says, but keeps mum on the crusher’s identity.

He adds, “I can’t say if it’s the accent or the sharply tailored suit, but perhaps people spend more time looking at him than looking at his suit.”

Still, Ferguson is quick to dismiss his own celebrity and emphasizes that ideas are the real currency in his world.

“The author is not the message. The books are the message,” he says. “I’m actually a very boring person. How do you think I write all these books? I spend all my time writing them.”

The BPF: Best Prof Forever

Robert Lue could put even the most nervous of freshman at ease. He has an easy smile and a faint Jamaican accent, a souvenir of where he grew up, although his parents are from the UK. He wears jeans and a polo. This director of the Life Sciences curriculum teaches the premed staple Life Sciences 1a, where he thrills freshmen with his animations like “Inner Life of a Cell,” a gorgeously orchestrated view of the miniature workings of a cell. Lue, even more than Mankiw or Ferguson, takes a hands-on approach to getting to know his students, perhaps best typified by the stories his students from his summer school program tell.

Sisi Pan ’11 says that Lue was both a professor and friend during the Shanghai summer school program at Fudan University. There, Lue was free for virtually any meal and students felt comfortable dropping by to ask a question or inviting the professor out to sing karaoke with the rest of the group.

During one trip on the outskirts if Xi’an, the group discovered Lue’s playful side.

“There were these sketchy bumper cars in this place that we stayed,” Pan recalls. “We just had a blast. Rob had this malicious grin on his face the whole time and just smashed into us without any hesitation.”

Pan also says that Lue was often included on e-mails planning social outings. “He would always be one of the first to respond. It was very not weird, even though he’s this big deal professor.”

Social outings might also include drinks with his students, although Lue explains, “One thing that was clear was that people were really responsible. It’s not as if I relaxed my responsibility in the sense of ‘I need to look out for these students.’”

Lue, while maintaining a somewhat lower profile than Ferguson, is well known internationally for his animations. “In New York City, the maître d’ at Pizzeria Uno recognized me from something ABC News did and wanted me to autograph a napkin,” he says with a laugh. A high school biology class also asked for an autograph after reporting they watched the video at the beginning of class everyday.

Lue came across as the most overtly approachable professor. During lectures, his appeal lies in his infectious enthusiasm for the material, says Hong-Gam T. Le ’10, a former student. “He just comes out as naturally likeable. He doesn’t seem to try,” she says.

That approachability also pays off in office hour visits, where groups of 12-15 will drop by to chat, the highest estimate of the three professors featured here. Lue also eats dinner in Annenberg on Tuesday nights where a rotating cast of students will come and dine with him—he usually gets to interact with about 20.

His Facebook fan club numbers 29 and is entirely former Life Sci students. Unlike Mankiw, he doesn’t maintain as strong of an online presence, although during the course of the interview, he finally declared, “You can say that finally, after resisting for years, I was convinced to create a [Facebook] profile.”

Despite the lack of blog or profile, summer school student Baltazar A. Zavala ’11 doesn’t feel deprived of Lue’s personal touch. Zavala says that Lue insisted that his students call him by his first name and even took them on field trips to Shanghai’s art district where he would wow them with his art knowledge. Lue was also with them during down times: on a train ride to Beijing Lue and a bunch of students sat and swapped stories about their lives for hours to pass the time.

Lue’s eclectic expertise doesn’t just extend to art. A surprised former student Mark B. Geyer ’06 recalls that Lue held his own in a conversation about Celtic languages and literature. “Dr. Lue and I then talked about Celtic poetry at our next meeting,” Geyer says.

Lue’s greatest appeal—his approachable persona and personal interactions with students—necessarily mean that while he is well-known for his animations, his most enthusiastic fans will be his own students.

“Academically yummy”

As his lecture draws to a close, the only words that aren’t in Ferguson’s vocabulary, it seems, are “um” or “ah” or “er.” Every once in a while, he’ll lean an elbow on the podium, cross his ankles, and place a hand in his pocket, then lecture from that vantage point. He never misses a beat or misreads his audience, some who didn’t manage to snag a chair.

The hour hand hits 11. After class, he’s immediately surrounded by a small swarm of students. He takes a swig of Peet’s Coffee. He makes his way out with one student glued to his elbow, glowing about how “academically yummy” today’s lesson was.

When he recounts the story of a young man trapping him on the ferry, he displays the kind of wit that made him so popular in the first place.

“I think it was a lesson to my children that fame, even small amounts of fame, can be detrimental,” he says.