Professor Rockstar

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so you readers here can have an idea of my writing in college. Here is the twelfth of my opinion columns, Professor Rockstar, originally published December 1, 2006.

A bit of a kerfuffle recently spilled across The Diamondback’s pages regarding athletics funding – in particular, coaches’ compensations. A lot of people are questioning Ralph Friedgen’s high salary, especially when compared with the median salary of academic professors. But that comparison is a bit misleading.

The fact is, our football team brings in a lot of publicity and money by attracting tens of thousands of paying fans to each home game and earning the ad revenue and national profile that come from our games being nationally broadcast on ABC and ESPN. You cannot get these things without a strong football program, and to get a strong program, you need to spend the market price on a good coach. So the amount we are spending on Friedgen is at least somewhat justified.

I think our problem lies not in the fact that we have a superstar coach, but that we lack superstar professors. This isn’t just a Maryland problem, of course. It affects the entire collegiate system. Why can’t there be more people like Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan or Isaac Asimov? Where are the engaging, brilliant professors with the ability to draw huge crowds and inspire interest among the general public? In a nutshell, where are the highly profitable professors?

Some would argue that I am calling for all professors to put off their “real” work and turn into rock stars of the academic world. Not so. I merely think it would be advantageous if a few of our most enthralling professors would shift attention toward scientific and academic outreach. Yes, their own research might suffer a bit, but if in the process you get thousands of Americans interested in pursuing academics in higher education, isn’t it worth it?

It would be nice having some famous professors at Maryland. They could give talks across the country, drawing large crowds and bringing this university a lot of favorable publicity. Instead, we have professors whose audience is largely limited to their peers and their students, while our sports teams go on national television and draw many viewers. Publishing papers in academic journals is good and all, but we should have more professors putting hard work into educating the general public. Higher education’s cost is a lot easier to justify to taxpayers when they see palpable results.

Now don’t get me wrong, we do have some famous professors, such as John C. Mather, this year’s Nobel Prize winner in physics, who drew a large crowd at a talk two weeks ago. Or Sylvester James Gates Jr., a physics professor who has appeared in multiple PBS documentaries. I am sure we have professors with equal accomplishments from other departments, I just have not heard of them because I do not travel in those circles.

And therein lies the problem. We should have professors who are so famous within their fields that people outside their fields cannot help but to have heard of them. What student wouldn’t want to show up to class every week and hear a brilliant lecture given by a professor whose book is currently on The New York Times Best Sellers list? Who would you prefer: a random, unknown professor or a professor deservedly more famous than K-Fed?

Having more great thinkers, orators, writers and teachers would bring a lot of positive attention to the school. The only problem is you have to pay the market price to get them. It’s worth it with Friedgen. Isn’t it worth it with professors? If football coaches are seemingly more valuable than academic types, it is not because we are overvaluing football coaches. We are undervaluing professors.

And why yes, this column was me being extremely hopeful that more people could adopt some of the idols that I have. To this day I’m still shocked whenever I run across someone who doesn’t know who Carl Sagan or Isaac Asimov are.

Comments are closed.