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NOBELS WANTED

Just inside the door to George McLendon's office hangs the head of a moose. Not a real moose, but a trophy nonetheless. For the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, the Bullwinkle-like visage is a constant reminder of his goals in the hiring and retention of faculty at Duke. Its message keeps him focused on the types of scholars he wishes to avoid.

"They have a purely decorative function," he says. "They're very large and impressive, but they don't actually contribute to the intellectual life of the University."

It's the reason, McLendon says, Duke doesn't poach professors who have Nobel Prizes on their resumes.

"If you have a Nobel Laureate for purely decorative purposes, I don't see that it serves any real value in the education of our students, which is really our primary responsibility."

At other institutions with student bodies and faculty of a similar caliber to Duke's, it is hard to walk through a quad without bumping into a Nobel Prize Laureate. With the exception of the two-year tenure of chemistry professor Dr. Peter Agre, who announced his intentions to leave Duke earlier this year, the University has been Nobel-free for a very long time.

"For a university of its standing, Duke is sadly lacking in Nobel Prize winners," wrote The Chronicle's editorial board in the wake of Dr. Agre's announcement that he is departing for a position at Johns Hopkins University.

But Duke would not be able to maintain its "standing" or its competitive edge without superior peer reviews. So how has the University consistently remained ranked in the top 15 research universities globally but has yet to successfully nurture a Nobel Laureate faculty member?

Most students would likely agree that it is somewhat troubling that no faculty member has taken home the world's most prestigious research award. But, like most impressive aspects of a university, such acclaimed awards come at a price. In fact, the process of fostering a candidate is in itself a game of strategy and a drain on a university's resources.

First and foremost, there aren't many areas of study here that have a legitimate opportunity to win. Of the six award categories, Peace and Literature are not often associated with universities. (Literature tends to be awarded for a career in writing rather than critical theory, which Duke Professor Frederic Jameson certainly would have won, McLendon says.)

That leaves awards in the fields of physics, chemistry, economics and medicine up for grabs by research institutions like Duke and its peers.

As the largest undergraduate major, economics has received its fair share of resources and attention from the administration. Despite consistent growth in recent years and the addition of several trend-setting researchers, the economics department at Duke still hasn't cracked the upper-echelon ranks that many of its peer institutions have.

One major factor is age.

"Economists are only eligible if they are alive," blogged Steven Levitt, heralded University of Chicago economist and co-author of Freakonomics. "That pushes the committee towards awarding it to older economists who might die soon."

For intentional reasons, these types of professors don't comprise Duke's economics faculty. Instead, in an effort to take on forward thinkers, hiring has focused on vibrant, exciting professors, says Thomas Nechyba, the department's 39-year-old chair.

"Duke is very unusual. It's a young institution and looks for energy more so than other places in young people on the cutting edge," he says. "If we hire someone who is 55 or 60 years old with a Nobel Prize, they will expect things to be built around [them]. We're trying to build around an intellectual vision."

Youth is not a surprising component of Duke's makeup. After all, as an institution in its mid-80s, the University can't compare with the centuries-old traditions of Princeton, Chicago or Columbia, which were world-renowned long before the foundations were laid for the Duke Chapel.

"It takes decades for scientists to be recognized to win some of those big awards," says Eugene Oddone, vice dean for research at the Duke University School of Medicine. "It may not seem like a lot-the difference between 75 years and 100 years-but we're still pretty young compared to our peer institutions."

Although economists tend to work at various universities throughout their careers, scientists in other fields are less likely to be recruited mid-career, Oddone says, which makes attracting current Nobel Laureates to the South a bit difficult.

Columbia and Chicago currently pride themselves on the number of Nobel Laureates at their institutions, particularly in their economics departments.

"Nobel Laureates add luster and stature to a department and a university," Janet Currie, chair of the Department of Economics at Columbia, wrote in an e-mail. "People who win Nobel prizes like to think about the 'big picture' and tackle big questions. This certainly adds to the academic environment."

It's difficult to disagree with Currie's assessment. When Agre arrived in Durham two years ago, the University hoped that someone of his prestige would inspire other faculty members, Oddone says. If Duke were to hire a Nobel Laureate economist, he or she would certainly receive the same high-publicity, red-carpet treatment that Agre did when he arrived.

Roadblocks have hindered many deserving researchers affiliated with Duke medicine from receiving proper attention as well.

There is a strong focus on applied research in the innovations of new drugs and devices at the Duke University School of Medicine. Although this type of research puts Duke on the cutting edge of medicine, Oddone says it is not in the realm of basic sciences often recognized by the Nobel Prize or the National Academy of Sciences.

It is less surprising that Duke has failed to garner top-notch awards in chemistry and physics. Every year, fewer than 10 undergraduates graduate with a degree in physics, and no current faculty members in these departments have been recognized by the National Academy of Sciences.

These facts are not meant to impugn the research of individual members of the faculty, however. Many areas of research at Duke-like physics professor John Thomas' work on lasers-have been groundbreaking. It is not entirely a deficit in innovation, but rather a deficit in political clout that plagues the departments in its efforts to lobby for a Nobel Prize. Because existent members of the National Academy elect new members, it is more likely that institutions whose faculty are already in the Academy will claim more members.

What Duke lacks, it seems, is a motivated network of support bolstered by the administration to encourage the right people to apply for the right awards.

"I don't know if we've paid enough attention to making sure our faculty get the visibility they deserve," Provost Peter Lange says. "We probably need to do a better job in the future of making sure that happens."

Much of the support would need to come in encouraging a larger band of scholars to put in time and effort for the sake of their peers at the University. Most academic recognitions for outstanding research are first nominated by peers of comparable prestige. Nominators and nominees for the Nobel Prize have to fill out grant-like applications that often include a 10-20 page letter that outlines the researcher's novel discoveries and contributions to academia.

"It almost takes a good lawyer to argue a case as to why this person should win this award," Oddone says. "Some people are not self-promoters in that way so that process may seem off-putting."

Top University administrators are looking to be more strategic in supporting faculty applications to be considered for renowned awards in the future.

"I wouldn't kid anyone," Oddone says. "All the leaders here would love for this institution to be more recognized nationally."

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