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Academic Celebrities

On April 13, the New York Times front page contained the usual cheery fare: a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, the resignation of a Venezuelan chief and a scandal in the Catholic Church. But there was one item that didn’t quite fit—the announcement that Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 would be departing for Princeton.

Here at Harvard, the center of the academic universe, it’s easy to take for granted that the rest of the Times readership would take interest in the loss of one of our most visible professors. If the Times reports on the comings and goings of a Yankee or a Knick, then the comings and going of a Harvard University Professor certainly warrants attention.

But in light of the widespread belief that Harvard is detached from the “Real World”—while, say, the offices of Goldman Sachs and the halls of the Pentagon comprise this “Real World” where real money is earned and real issues are fought over—it is all the more striking when real news overlaps with Harvard news.

Why should people outside of Harvard care when one of our professors leaves?

The first answer is that people in the “Real World”—at least, those who read the Times—care when men of brilliance and distinction like West or Stone Professor of International Trade Jeffrey D. Sachs ’76 or Carswell Professor of Afro-American Studies and of Philosophy K. Anthony Appiah leave Harvard. The particular Ivy League name they bear is newsworthy in the same way as a Scottie Pippen trade. The second answer is that people in the “Real World” are attracted to controversy and stories of intrigue, especially where Harvard is placed in awkward and embarrassing situations. But West is not the only eminent scholar to leave Harvard under murky circumstances, and others that have don’t receive even a fraction of the national media attention that West has received.

What drove West to the front page was not his scholarly brilliance or the magnitude of the injustice he claims was committed, but a kind of mass media celebrity rare within the academy. I choose the word “celebrity” for a particular reason. Michael Jordan is an unambiguously great basketball player, and he is a celebrity because of that; however, Jordan will remain a celebrity after his skills have declined beyond recognition (which may in fact have already happened). The magic of celebrity is that it transcends a person’s qualities—a man or woman can then be famous just for being famous (Carson Daly comes to mind).

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The fact that one is famous doesn’t mean one does not deserve it. In the case of West, his scholarship is among the most cited of all Harvard professors and has provided inspiration for many young scholars making headway into the studies of pressing societal problems. What is interesting, though, is the question of whether celebrity by its very nature damages scholarship.

The danger of celebrity is that it can confer a prominence that outlasts merit. In an academic institution like Harvard, this point is less obvious, because Harvard’s fame tends to attract brilliant men and women anyway. At the same time, Harvard actively recruits celebrity professors, in part to perpetuate its image, and this can run contrary to the University’s academic mission. A celebrity professor may win awards, go to important parties and attract the best grad-student lackeys, but none of these things necessarily contribute anything to pioneering intellectual thought.

More likely, celebrity distracts from scholarship. In reality, there is little to gain by further inflating the egos of academics. The beauty of the life of the mind is that it is unadulterated by temporal concerns like fame and money. An academic’s habits need not resemble those of a Benedictine monk, but the driving force of an academic’s ambition should be truth for the sake of truth.

Granted, it is unlikely that budding Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz said to himself fresh out of college, “I want to be famous, but I think Hollywood is too phony, so I’ll become a professor.” But a hotshot professor may be tempted to coast on the wake of early accomplishments into a prosperous but unproductive middle age. Harvard should not be in the business of providing office space to professors who have outlived their time in the academic sun, even if they are faddish talking-heads or best-selling authors.

Mass media has the potential to project groundbreaking ideas to an audience of millions, but professors should tread carefully to avoid prioritizing the size of the audience over the quality of ideas.

Evan J. Lushing ’04 is a mathematics concentrator in Eliot House.

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