Two months ago, an economics professor named Robert J. Barro almost left Harvard for Columbia and $300,000 a year--supposedly the trendsetter for a generation of academics demanding sports-star salaries.
But instead of a pioneer or even really a problem for Harvard, Barro may have just been a distraction from a very real vulnerability: the power of academic perks.
In particular, Stanford University's offer of greater funding for these non-salary perks--especially in the form of increased research funding, reduced teaching responsibilities and the support of academic centers--may be sapping the strength of Harvard's American government Faculty.
Barro's decision to stay at Harvard--which he attributed to the quality of his colleagues and students--had seemed a triumph for Harvard's egalitarian salary system. With above-average but relatively equal wages, the University said it could keep a stable of contented academics without entering bidding wars for "star" professors like Barro.
But Harvard's own Faculty say to focus on salary is to miss the point. Money well-spent is undeniably a powerful force in attracting top Faculty. Salary, they say, is not.
In salary, Harvard treats its Faculty fairly equally. In non-salary benefits and academic perks--the real draw for those who entered academia seeking distinction over dollars--it follows the same kind of "star system" it criticizes in others.
Top Faculty know they could make more money in or out of academe by leaving Cambridge. By choosing Harvard in the first place, they signal that more important than a fat paycheck is the academic support that will put them ahead in their fields.
These are the areas where carefully spent funds can and do tempt top professors--as an aggressively-spending Stanford political science department continues to show through its recruiting of the Americanists in the Harvard government department.
And some say the government department might be the first sign of a larger problem: In the "star wars" to attract top faculty, a conservative Harvard is losing the battle more often than it once did.
If You Fund It...
According to Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles, the mean salary for Harvard Faculty is "at or near the highest in the country" in all age groups. Beside a few higher-paid University professors, most salaries are tightly clustered around this mean of about $125,000.
The result of this egalitarian treatment is that most professors could make more money as a franchise professor at a less prestigious university or even in the private sector, where the pay scale is not so evenhanded.
Knowles acknowledged this in his annual budget letter to the Faculty. "We could all earn more elsewhere as the lone star in a less luminous firmament," he writes.
But this realization does not always make Harvard vulnerable to lesser schools willing to commit big money to pay a few star professors.
"There's no question that Harvard salaries are lower than [they could be] at comparable universities," says Associate Professor of Government Eva R. Bellin '80. "But they were that way when we were attracted to Harvard. That's not the all-important issue."