Gary Hamel, one of today's hottest management gurus, was speaking to a crowd of top business-school officials via a large video screen. His message was not reassuring.
Imagine, Mr. Hamel postulated, if a virtual university brought to one online venue the best business-teaching minds - a superstar team. Wouldn't that change the competitive landscape for business schools worldwide?
"It was a pretty cool moment," recalls Theodore Buchholz, president of Harcourt College Publishers, who was present at the Santa Monica, Calif., gathering last spring. "What Hamel said sent a shiver up everyone's spine.... It seemed like the immovable could be shaken."
Afterward, conversation gradually returned to normal. But the idea that faculty superstars might one day become "unbundled" from their universities has become a point of growing debate in higher education.
While the impact of online education gets the lion's share of attention, other factors, such as a growing split on campus between well-paid full professors and poorly paid adjuncts, are helping erode ties faculty once felt to a single institution. The result is that already independent-minded professors perceive themselves more as free agents than ever before, some say.
"The faculty is going to face a serious redefinition," says James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, who is involved in a project to assess the future of universities. "In a sense, what we are going to see is the technology democratize access to learning opportunities, knowledge resources, and to scholarship."
If the foundations of prestigious schools are not shaking yet, that may be because higher education has so far mostly coexisted quite nicely with its star professors.
Yet it's also true that in the past century, most faculty stars have played second fiddle to the great universities where they teach. But that is changing. Only news junkies who watched CNN through the election wrangle, for example, would probably know Laurence Tribe is Harvard Law School's High Court superstar.
As 21st-century technology and publishing trends alter professors' roles, signs of the shift include:
* Peter Navarro, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine, replaces his own lectures with a CD-ROM. Recordings and samples of his course are available on the Web and for sale worldwide through a textbook publisher.
* Jerry Porras, an author and professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, is one of several professors from prominent universities helping Cardean University, a "virtual" school, create an online management class.
* Harvard Prof. N. Greg Mankiw is rewarded a record $1 million advance from a publisher for a new economics textbook.
Some academics envision a sea change in the next five or 10 years in which the likes of Drs. Tribe, Mankiw, Porras, and Navarro might sell their teaching services to the highest bidder. They might command even more money if they can attract a mass audience over the Internet.
"The best faculty would have the recognition rock stars enjoy," says Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. "They might be able to attract maybe 100,000 students worldwide, instead of being limited to 1,000 at a single big university."
That change would precipitate a further shift of power in academia. Picture a world in which two or three professors in each academic discipline are paid like Manny Ramirez, the Boston Red Sox superstar, who just inked a contract for $160 million over eight years.
Faculty haves and have-nots
If that seems a stretch, consider the changes in compensation since the 1980s, when university faculty members all received roughly similar pay, with few standouts. Market forces have torn asunder that practice, says Jack Schuster, a professor of education and public policy at Claremont Graduate University in California.
The trend in faculty pay and status today is toward haves and have nots, rather than equity.
There are about 1 million faculty members, about half of them full time, at the roughly 3,700 accredited two-year and four-year institutions, Dr. Schuster says. Full professors may pull down $100,000 - and a tiny fraction are "superstars" who earn perhaps $150,000 to $200,000 in salary, plus royalties and consulting fees, he says.
Meanwhile, a growing proportion of the faculty are low-paid adjunct professors who migrate from job to job without any prospect of tenure.
That dichotomy could create a powerful incentive to split from the university and go with the highest Internet bidder.
Changes in the way learning is delivered are going to happen much sooner than people realize, says Dr. Duderstadt, the former president of the University of Michigan.
But it won't be all smooth sailing for faculty. Just as universities will have trouble maintaining their hold on academic credentialing, the faculty itself "won't have a monopoly on scholarship either. They're going to have to compete with a lot of folks around the world that they've never had to compete with before," Duderstadt says.
Universities aren't standing still, though. A number have created for-profit arms to offer degrees online. And many schools are more closely overseeing contractual relationships faculty have with publishers and online entities (see story at right).
The Carl Sagan effect
Dr. Levine compares what's happening to the shift that occurred in Hollywood in the middle of the past century.
"Once upon a time what mattered were the studios," he says. "They employed the actors. Today, if a film is from DreamWorks or Universal, do you care? No. But if it has my favorite star, that will take me to the movies."
Until his passing in 1996, astronomer Carl Sagan was one of the most popular professors ever, Levine points out. From his televised explanations of the cosmos, references to "billions and billions" of stars entered the popular lexicon.
"It doesn't matter where Carl Sagan came from," Levine says. "It could have been Harvard or Cornell. No one cares. People just wanted to see him."
Not everybody worries that technology will displace traditional education, of course, including Mankiw, the Harvard professor who last summer won a million-dollar advance in a bidding war over his new college textbook, "Principles of Economics."
Mankiw observes that no less a thinker than Thomas Edison thought textbooks would be made obsolete - and others were convinced television in the classroom was the wave of the future.
"There's always been a question about whether technology would revolutionize education," he says. "I still think the good teacher, small class, books, and discussion groups are the best way to teach. The advantages of the Internet and PowerPoint [presentation software] and everything else people are pushing these days is wildly overstated."
Even some who might be expected to endorse an overthrow of the establishment are not doing it.
Take, for instance, Cardean University - a virtual university that draws its teaching talent for its online business courses from universities including the London School of Economics, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago.
"There's been lot of concern about this free-agent phenomenon in higher education - everyone's seen bits of it," says Geoff Cox, former vice-provost at Princeton University in New Jersey, now provost at Cardean University.
"We've taken the position that the real measure of credibility is from the institution, not from the individual professor."
Students siphoned off?
Navarro of UC-Irvine isn't so sure that the universities are doing enough to prevent an erosion of the faculty if predictions about all-star teams come to pass.
He himself uses new technologies, giving students a CD-ROM for basic instruction so that class time is free for more-complex discussion. Studies over several years, he says, have shown no dropoff in how much students learn through this new style of class.
But Navarro worries that a superstar faculty on the Web is inevitable and will decimate institutions like his own.
"Will students choose the superstar economics professor from Wharton - or take the class here?" he asks.
It's a question Gary Burke thinks about a lot. As publisher for economics at McGraw-Hill Education, he helped produce Navarro's CD-ROM and has put sample content from it on the Web.
Mr. Burke says the push toward faculty superstars who span several media are a trend in his industry.
Burke plans to make Paul Solman, a Harvard economics professor who appears frequently on the "Lehrer News Hour," available to college students around the world on different digital platforms.
"He'll give lectures and demonstrations on the basic concepts of economics," Burke says.
"We will put them on the Internet, CD-ROM, DVD, and so-forth. He could be a superstar. We'll see."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society