When Your Teacher Is a Celebrity

Star professors can boost admissions—but can they actually teach?

After CUNY's six-figure offer to David Petraeus drew fierce media criticism, the former general said he would teach for $1. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

When Summer Kennedy applied to Brown, she says her choice wasn’t based on the number of teachers with familiar names "I knew Harvard had more well-known professors," she says, "but I chose Brown because of many other things." Now, as a college sophomore, she chooses her classes based on word of mouth and teachers’ ratings on websites.

Nevertheless, colleges are increasingly stocking up on "CelebriProfs." Some give students their money’s worth: The Stanford Daily reported that Condoleeza Rice’s class was "dynamic, fast paced and highly cerebral," while a student commenting at RateMyProfessors.com described Junot Diaz as a breath of fresh air from the dullness that is usually MIT." Others earn lukewarm reviews: One Princeton student at RateMyProfessors.com described Paul Krugman as "a lot more disorganized than most of my professors and also perpetually late. On the other hand, he could be very funny." Another, who took a class with Joyce Carol Oates, claimed, "Warren Oates would have been more inspiring and he’s dead."

In defense of CelebriProfs, Ann Fadiman, who has taught non-fiction writing at Yale for a decade says, "It’s exciting for students to be able to study with someone like Bob Woodward. They may give up extensive feedback, but they get depth of experience and maybe even contacts." Seminars like Woodward’s get 80 or more applicants for less than 20 spots.

From their side, CelebriProfs naturally hope to be seen as more than show ponies. "Maybe one out of four of my students come for my name," says USC Senior Lecturer Richard Reeves, author of highly regarded presidential biographies. When Elizabeth Alexander was asked whether students flock to her classes at Yale because she was chosen to read a poem by President Obama at his inauguration, she replied, "I would guess that any particular enthusiasm comes from my reputation as a good teacher. 'Poetry-famous' is nice and quiet, just the way I like it." Barnard writing teacher and transgender author Jennifer Boylan says her students didn’t really take notice of her credentials "until I was impersonated by Will Forte on Saturday Night Live."*

Once upon a time, garnering a Nobel Prize winner or a philosophy genius was the ultimate college coup. It still can be, particularly at public universities, which pride themselves on cutting-edge research. "We are not looking for celebrity when we recruit, but rather individuals who have distinguished themselves in their fields of scholarship," says Henry Yang, Chancellor of the University of California at Santa Barbara (whose faculty includes six Nobel winners). "Students today are quite sophisticated and they recognize the importance of having the opportunity to learn from, and do research with, faculty who are among the best."

Still, many universities seem to feel a famed faculty makes a difference. Universities give the CelebriProfs gravitas, and CelebriProfs give universities sex appeal. "The trend is more pronounced than ever," says Mitchell Moss, professor of urban policy and planning at NYU. "Higher education has not been a growth industry, with federal research cutbacks, and the number of college-age students down. Schools are seeking students overseas and yes, relying on non-tenure track faculty. There has been an effort to emulate sports franchises with its superstar culture, and law firms who bring in rainmakers."

Whether or not they contribute to enhanced enrollment, CelebriProfs add to an institution’s prestige and can save money in freelance contracts. They can also generate sour feelings among the ranks. NYU, in fact, got in hot water a few years back when the perks for such profs were leaked. Likewise, when General David Petraeus joined USC’s faculty this year, an article in the school’s paper declared, "rather than using the funds to help current professors, or grant scholarships to deserving minority students, the administration decides to allocate a great deal to attract celebrity professors." The outrage was even more pronounced when Petraeus was offered six figures to teach a single course at CUNY. After he and CUNY became the focus of fierce criticism (the faculty union pointed out that the sum could cover 3 percent raises for all of them), Petraeus announced that he would teach the course for just $1.

CelebriProfs come in different sizes and shapes, so let’s take a moment to distinguish here:

There are longtime academics who have, as a result, become stars. This group includes experts like Douglas Brinkley, who teaches History at Rice; John Gaddis, a Cold War specialist at Yale; Ezekiel Emanuel, director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the NIH, who heads a department at Penn; Melissa Harris-Perry, an African American Studies scholar and media personality, who teaches at Tulane and Wake Forest; and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who taught economics at Princeton for 14 years and is moving next year to CUNY. As dedicated as they are, these types rarely shy away from the spotlight. Brinkley lists "CBS News Historian" among his credits, and Harris-Perry hosts a weekend program on MSNBC. The group includes the occasional anti-talking head like Terence Tao, a UCLA mathematician who has turned down numerous requests to appear on the Colbert Report; one producer there calls him a "rock star" in Analytic Numbers Theory. Tao will finally appear on the program in November.

There are policymakers who, for various reasons, gravitate, or return to, academia. Here would be former government operatives like Madeleine Albright at Georgetown, Condoleeza Rice at Stanford, David Gergen of the Kennedy Center at Harvard, and Robert Reich at UC Berkeley. Not to mention Donna Shalala, who teaches political science while serving as president of the University of Miami, and Janet Napolitano, who was the surprise selection to take over the massive University of California system (for which she receives more than half a million dollars, plus  housing and car expenses).

There are numerous bestselling authors who have more than dabbled in academia. This group includes Jamaica Kincaid at Harvard, Mary Gordon at Barnard, Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton, Tobias Wolff at Berkeley, Junot Diaz at MIT, and Michael Pollan at Berkeley. David Brooks co-instructs a Yale course called Grand Strategy and heads up a seminar, which, he says, "is ironically called 'Humility.'"

The writers clearly like the interaction and, well, the security. "As a freelance writer for most of my career, benefits like health care, dental and even eyeglasses are much appreciated," says Pollan.  

Finally, there are those who may delve into university life when their own careers are on the wane or shifting gears. David Petraeus hopped aboard after a sex scandal. Another military giant, General Stanley McChrystal, has been teaching a "Leadership" class at Yale since President Obama asked for his resignation. Jill Abramson, recently fired as executive editor of the New York Times, is now embarking on a year at Harvard, and has moved in and out of academia for years. Call it the four Rs: Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic … and Rehab?

In cities like L.A. and New York, it can be especially hard for schools to resist the lure of nearby luminaries.  One of USC’s most popular classes—"Entertainment, Business and Media in Today’s Society"—is taught by Mary Murphy, a longtime entertainment writer and frequent talking-head on television. She brings in guests like Lisa Kudrow, Tom Selleck, beat reporters, and studio executives, and admits that her students "know I have connections" that may help them eventually. Even Boston’s Emerson College has opened a Hollywood branch, where students can spend a semester gaining access to those for whom they’d like to work someday.

Still, most students can tell the difference between glamour and quality teaching, says Nathanial Meyerson, a senior at Emory. "If professors aren’t engaged, the students certainly won’t be," he says. "It makes for boring lectures and underwhelming classroom discussion. It can be tempting to take celebrity professors’ classes, but you’re better off taking a class with someone who’s known for being a great teacher. It just might change your life." A student at Columbia, who recognized Alan Brinkley’s name from books and TV appearances, took the class and said the teacher "could have phoned it in." In many such classes, the TA’s do most of the post-lecture work.

When it works, though, the arrangement can benefit teacher and student alike. "I’ve enjoyed mentoring young people and whenever they succeed, it’s a good day," says Michael Pollan. Ann Fadiman figures she writes some 60 to 80 reference letters for students every year. Jill Abramson, now happily ensconced at Harvard, says, "Teaching has made me a much sharper writer and has kept me in tune with how younger readers get their news. I think I connect better with young, aspiring writers than with the neurotic, fully developed journalists who worked for me."

* This post originally referred to Barnard professor Jennifer Boylan as Jennifer Barnard. We regret the error.