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Want instant prestige? Just add famous names

If you haven't noticed yet, we have an inferiority complex here at Duke. It's subtle, but you start to see it soon enough. It manifests itself on the highest levels, as in the administration's ongoing social engineering projects (e.g., shackles on the fraternities, a more restrictive curriculum, etc.) to turn us into Harvard. And it's there on the lowest levels, too, in the sheepish giggling of the tour guides when they tell Duke's creation myth about how our university was founded by tobacco barons who first tried to buy Yale and rename it before endowing Trinity College.

I even notice it in myself sometimes, like the time last year when my friends and I sat up late drawing up plans for an Anti-Ivy League featuring ourselves, Stanford, and Chicago. And when you furiously thumb through the U.S. News rankings, discover that we're still only number eight, exclaim "Bulls--t!," and then hang your head in resignation, it will have hit you, too.

Under normal circumstances, resolving this kind of problem would take years of soul-searching and debate on the part of the entire community. But if we've learned anything from Duke's founding family, it's that there has never been a problem that cannot be solved with very large amounts of cash. That we have--Duke University's endowment totals about $3 billion.

Here's what I'm proposing: Let's sign the nation's top 50 professors to multiyear contracts of $50 million each. What else do we need for instant prestige? Name just three Duke professors famous to the general public. I can't do it. Now, this shouldn't be taken as criticism of Duke's current faculty: The professors I've had have been excellent. But our present need isn't excellent professors, it's famous ones.

Think top academics are above the pull of money? History would suggest otherwise. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, the University of Chicago bought Clark University's entire psychology department. In 1982, Steven Weinberg, the nation's leading astrophysicist, was lured from Harvard to Texas with a six-figure contract.

And this year there was Cornel West, the man who, I believe, will go down in history not for any specific contribution to African-American studies but as the father of academic free agency. This is the man who left Harvard for Princeton, in part because Harvard's president neglected to call him while he was in the hospital. In short, even ivory-tower intellectuals have bank accounts and egos, which mean they can be bought.

So Duke can engage in a comprehensive program of professor-stealing. Because prestige is a zero-sum game, their loss will be our gain. Famous names are there for the picking: Alan Dershowitz (Harvard), Toni Morrison (Princeton), Harold Bloom (Yale), Stephen Hawking (Cambridge), and Maya Angelou (Wake Forest). Why not? I bet they'd all like $50 million.

But maybe the very best are unavailable. We can still do quite well--like the New Jersey Nets with Jason Kidd--rehabilitating tarnished superstars. Imagine Doris Kearns Goodwin (plagiarism), Stephen Ambrose (plagiarism), and Joseph Ellis (lying about war record) rediscovering their academic game as the stars of Duke's history department. Imagine them thanking our school for giving them a second chance in a tearful, nationally televised press conference.

State politics, too, can be fertile ground. There should be a chair of political science polished and waiting for Liddy Dole or Erskine Bowles, whoever loses November's Senate race. And what better place could there be than the academy for a retiring elder statesman like Jesse Helms to spend his last years on earth? At the very least, let's name something after John Edwards.

These are just examples for your consideration. The opportunities are limited only by our imagination and money. Of course, some will argue that Duke would be starting a dangerous bidding war, but I reply that that's exactly what we want.

For one, we can lock up our top picks before other schools know what's going on. But more importantly, the effects of such spending will trickle down to the rest of society, and everyone will benefit. Think of a professorial draft right out of grad school, for starters. Secondary education will reap rewards, too, as the top high school teachers try to make the jump to the big leagues and the big money.

Most of all, our brightest students will for the first time be able to entirely ignore the real world and dedicate themselves to the pursuit of pure knowledge. No longer will they be forced to sell out and become lawyers and doctors to make a decent living, because intellectuals of all kinds will be highly-paid celebrities. We can use money, that which Americans respect most, to end a long tradition of anti-intellectualism.

It can all start right here at Duke. This is our choice: We can continue to wallow in our inferiority, dependent entirely on Coach K and the men's basketball team for our collective self-esteem, or we can spend the money to turn Durham, N.C.--like Athens, Aachen and Florence of old--into the world capital of learning.

So who's up for some professor-stealin'?

Rob Goodman is a Trinity sophomore. His column appears regularly.


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