Every decade or two, a university uses its riches to narrow the gap between its prosperity and its academic reputation. The results can sometimes be dramatic.
Duke, for example, used its tobacco fortune to transform itself from a sleepy regional university into a hotbed of academic vitality, best exemplified by its English department, which at its peak in the late 1980s, was as wild and crazy a collection of celebrity academics, shameless self-promoters, and pure geniuses ever assembled in a single department in any field anywhere. Until it imploded, that is. That’s the inevitable reality when you put a couple of dozen prima donnas in a room together, give one or two of them disproportionate power, and lubricate with enough sherry to really let their hubris loose.
In another legendary example, the University of Texas, never doing anything less than trying to be legendary, famously tapped its oil riches to create world-class departments in philosophy and classics, among others, temporarily depleting the ranks of some of its most prominent competitors.
And in a whole scale transformation, NYU went from being a mediocre, but expensive commuter university to a first-class institution, spending way, way beyond its means (you could say that NYU pioneered the go into deep debt to make a profit policy that would reach hypertrophic form in the go-go noughts). Of course, NYU has some incomparable lures, namely subsidized housing in the heart of Greenwich Village, even if much of it consists of what would pass as a public housing projects in other settings.
However NYU also offers a cautionary tale for the wannabe rich and famous. Its locational attractions couldn’t keep such celebrities as Walter Johnson from flitting away to Harvard or Robin D.G. Kelley from moving uptown before the lure of a celebrity girlfriend (and USC’s own ambitions) tempted him to Los Angeles. Other NYU hotshots (like Lauren Benton, who looked Brown-ward) might still be lured away in the future.
But cautionary tales be damned. The noughts turned every somewhat rich university into a wannabe Duke or NYU. When future historians look out onto the irrational exuberance of the early twenty-first century, they won’t be able to miss the extraordinary ambition of those rich American universities, public and private, who stuffed their classes with teaching assistants and adjuncts while using their gains to reach for the stars and lure them with astronomical salaries and perks.
The most interesting phenomenon of all, at least to me, is the way that a few second-tier universities, places with lots of money but rather less by the way of reputation, used their riches to try to vault over the competition. Who? How about Vanderbilt. The university of the First Tycoon was well-endowed but understaffed. Some smart people, but still a sleepy place dominated by frat boys from Atlanta who like to golf and the debuntantes who loved them.
All of that started to change in the last years of the boom. Vanderbilt aspired to be the Princeton of the South and, to do that, went right to the source. They lured away Princeton historian of gender and science, Elizabeth Lunbeck, and her husband, American political historian, Gary Gerstle (an ex-Princetonian in exile in Maryland). They seduced the erudite Peter Lake, Princeton’s senior early modern British historian, with a whiz-bang university professorship. They reunited Penn’s recently-tenured hotshot Sarah Igo and Yale's Ole Molvig who, like Gerstle and Lunbeck, had tired of commuting. And they lured Paul Kramer, a rising star scholar of U.S. and the world, who had been inexplicably sent packing by Hopkins. Along the way, Vanderbilt (finally repudiating its reputation as a bastion of southern, white gentility) diversified its faculty, hiring major scholars like Richard Blackett and junior scholars Anastasia Curwood (another Princeton product) and Brandi Brimmer.
That said, Vanderbilt seems to have put most of its energy into bolstering its American history program--the recruitment of Lake, Molvig, and a few bright lights like Islamist Leor Halevi (recruited from Texas A&M) and Chinese historian Ruth Rogaski (another ex-Princetonian) aside. For now, that means that Vanderbilt won’t really compete with its idol, Princeton, or other major departments with formidable faculty across all fields.
Still, it's quite a start, even if the Last Tycoon’s history department is still an unfinished project. The Last Tycoon's university might be the last gasp of irrational exuberance. Whether or not its investments prove to pay off remains to be seen. The hometown of the Grand Ole Opry might have a harder time retaining its cosmopolites than NYU. But until then, yee haw!