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.