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How Sterling Professors Get That Way
The most obvious legacy left to Yale by John William Sterling, Class of 1864, is a series of buildings funded by the “fabulous sum” the corporate lawyer bequeathed to the University when he died in 1918. The $15 million fortune—at the time, it was the largest gift ever received by an American university—and the $25 million subsequently given to Yale by the estate’s trustees was used to build the Sterling Memorial Library, the Law School, the Hall of Graduate Studies, and other campus landmarks ranging from the Divinity Quadrangle to the School of Medicine.
But while this infusion of funds has had a profound impact on the University’s physical appearance, the Sterling gift has also helped to shape Yale’s intellectual architecture. The reason is Article 28 of the Sterling will, which set aside $5 million (later, the estate’s trustee’s nearly doubled this amount) to endow what has become the most prestigious professorship that the University has to offer.
In 1920, President Arthur Twining Hadley appointed chemist John Johnson as the first Sterling Professor, and since then, various Presidents have tapped 159 educators for the University’s top academic honor. “The Sterling professors represent the very best of our faculty,” says deputy provost Charles Long. “They’re people who have made their marks at Yale in the classroom, through their research, and by their service to the institution as academic leaders. The professors who hold these chairs reflect our highest aspirations.”
The names of some of the past Sterling designees read like a who's-who of the University’s most influential academics. Professor of English literature Chauncey Brewster Tinker is among them, as are such other luminaries in the English department as Wilbur Lucius Cross, Maynard Mack, and Louis Martz. Professors of French Henri Peyre, Georges C. May, and Paul de Man were so honored, as were historians Charles Seymour, Ralph Henry Gabriel, and C. Vann Woodward. Jurist William O. Douglas, physician Harvey Cushing, and biologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson are also on the list.
While membership in this select group is open to any member in any discipline of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences or the professional schools, a vote by the Corporation in 1958 limited the number of Sterling professors to a maximum of 27 at any one time. According to University officials, this is roughly what the income from the original Sterling endowment—which is used to cover salary and benefits and to provide each honoree with an annual $4,000 research fund—will support.
“This is an expensive program, because Sterling professorships are by definition awarded to Yale’s most distinguished, productive, and therefore highly paid faculty,” says Long. “But it’s clearly worth it.”
There are currently 27 holders of the Sterling rank, and their interests cover the intellectual spectrum. Harold Bloom, author of the critically acclaimed Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Bloom has written or edited more than 400 other books), was named Sterling Professor of the Humanities in 1983. D. Allen Bromley—science adviser to President George Bush, dean of Engineering, and experimental physicist—became Sterling Professor of the Sciences in 1993. Also in the ranks is Frank Ruddle, a founder of the Human Genome Project, Sterling Professor of Biology since 1988; Edward Zigler, the father of Head Start, who was named Sterling Professor of Psychology in 1976; and Brevard Childs, an expert in old and new testament theology, and Sterling Professor of Divinity since 1992. Last December, the Yale Corporation approved President Levin’s latest appointees to the group: Edwin McClellan, Sterling Professor of Japanese Literature, and David Mayhew, Sterling Professor of Political Science.
The longest tenure in the current group belongs to Gerhard Giebisch, who has been Sterling Professor of Cellular and Molecular Physiology since 1970. The record, incidentally, was set by Oystein Ore, Sterling Professor of Mathematics from 1931 to 1968. Second place is held by Nobel laureate economist James Tobin and by physiological chemist Cyril Long, both of whom held Sterling chairs for 31 years.
The first woman to join the club was Marilyn Farquhar, who was a Sterling Professor of Medicine from 1987 to 1989. She was followed in 1991 by Sterling Professor of Genetics Carolyn Slayman, who is a deputy dean of the Medical School; Sterling Professor of English Marie Borroff, who held the chair from 1992 to 1994; and Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Joan Steitz, who was appointed last year.
In light of the prestige of the professorship, it is perhaps surprising that relatively little behind-the-scenes lobbying goes on in support of any particular candidate when a vacancy (usually due to retirement) occurs. “There was no academic politicking involved,” says Jerome J. Pollitt, who was named Sterling Professor of Classical Archaeology and the History of Art in 1995 and retired with Emeritus status last year. “The appointment just came out of the blue on a quiet Sunday afternoon when I got a call from President Levin; it’s one of the nicest surprises I’ve ever received.”
Pollitt explained that he was gratified that “somebody thought my work was worthy of recognition,” and he added that the accompanying research fund, particularly in the often cash-strapped humanities, proved useful. (The money went to purchase photographs of ancient art objects.) But in Pollitt’s case, as in those of the other Sterling appointees, the basic professorial assignment—teaching—remained unchanged.
Almost all universities have endowed professorships that are reserved for the best people in the field. But some of those people find their research far more compelling than their contact with students. Accordingly, the most senior rank at some universities comes with what is considered a perk: deliverance from teaching undergraduates, particularly freshman and sophomores.
That option has never been part of the Sterling package. Indeed, electing to stay out of the classroom would be “very un-Yale,” says Joan Steitz. Her colleague, Sterling Professor of Biology Sidney Altman (a Nobel prize-winner), agrees. “I did not expect to be excused from teaching—nor did I want to be,” says Altman, who has even taught introductory biology, a large lecture course that in many universities is precisely the type of class from which the top-ranked professors would seek dispensation. “It’s the most satisfying teaching assignment I’ve had,” says Altman. “There’s a palpable feeling of excitement because you’re awakening students to new ideas.”
Many of the “new ideas” that Altman talks about were discovered by Sterling professors, and the chance to learn about them from their discoverers is an invaluable part of a Yale education. But teaching is always a two-way street, says Roberto González Echevarría, the Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literatures, and teachers—even the best—often receive as much as they give. This is particularly true in working with undergraduates. “They reward you by taking you out of your natural habitat and bringing you back to the large and timeless questions,” González Echevarría notes. "Teaching keeps us honest.”
For biologist Sidney Altman, 1989 was a good year. First, there was President Benno Schmidt Jr. on the phone with the news that Altman had been named Sterling Professor of Biology. Then, there was a call from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to tell Altman that he and his University of Colorado colleague Thomas Cech had been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
“I appreciated the recognition,” said Altman. “One is frequently not a prophet in one’s own land.”
The scientist would certainly know. Both Yale and the Nobel committee honored him for work that, only a decade earlier, had been considered so heretical that scientific journals wouldn’t publish his results, federal support for his research was suspended, and some of his colleagues called him crazy.
What prompted this reaction was a discovery that Altman had made in the late-1960s when he was a postdoctoral research fellow in the Cambridge, England, laboratory of Sydney Brenner and Nobel laureate Francis Crick. Altman, who was born in Canada and earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at MIT and a doctorate in biophysics from the University of Colorado, explained that when he was a student, prevailing dogma had it that the sole job of the genetic material RNA was to convey hereditary information. The researcher would soon uncover another role: RNA could also be an enzyme and catalyze chemical reactions.
Altman continued this line of study when he came to Yale in 1971, and his findings eventually became the new dogma. “Much of what we’ve done has been motivated by pure intellectual curiosity,” says Altman, who served as dean of Yale College from 1985 to 1989. “But recently, we’ve also come up with a method to inactivate undesirable genes, and this may turn out to be useful in medicine.”
Basic research often returns rich dividends. Not the least of them is giving the next generation of discoverers an opportunity to learn, first hand, from the best in the business.
Bruce Ackerman, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science, is something of an endangered ideological species. “I’m a liberal,” says Ackerman unapologetically. In a recent book, The Stakeholder Society (Yale University Press), he and his coauthor, Professor of Law Anne Alstott, argue for a program aimed at achieving “genuinely equal opportunity for all” that harks back to the Great Society and the New Deal.
“As a citizen of the United States, each American is entitled to a stake in his country: a one-time grant of $80,000 as he reaches early adulthood,” they write. “This stake will be financed by an annual 2 percent tax levied on all the nation’s wealth.”
Such a bold proposal is nothing new, says Ackerman. “I’ve made suggestions of this kind throughout my career.”
The son of a tailor, Ackerman grew up in the Bronx, earned a bachelor’s degree at Harvard in 1964 and a law degree from Yale in 1967. He then clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John M. Harlan after which he joined the University of Pennsylvania faculty. Ackerman’s studies of environmental law earned him tenure there at the young age of 29, and after a return to Yale from 1974 to 1982, and a five-year-stint at Columbia, he settled in at Yale in 1987 as a Sterling Professor.
A wide-ranging thinker, Ackerman has written 11 books and nearly 50 articles in such areas as political philosophy, comparative law and politics, economics, the development of the American constitution, the environment, and social justice. “My students are central to me,” he explains. “I teach what I’m working on, and they provide feedback on every thesis. I couldn’t write without these kids.”
Roberto González Echevarría
If the weather at Cornell had been better, Roberto González Echevarría might never have become a student of Cuban baseball. “It was cold and dreary, and I couldn’t play ball,” said González Echevarría, a catcher, first baseman, and distinguished scholar of the “golden age” of Spanish literature (the period from 1499 to 1681). Instead, during the 1970s when he was teaching at Ithaca he discovered in the library “a tremendous collection of material on Negro League baseball.” As he read, González Echevarría found ties to Cuba, his birthplace and the country from which he and his family fled in the early 1960s.
“In Cuba, my mother was a professor of Latin American literature, and my father was a lawyer, but in Tampa where we settled, we had to remake our lives,” he explained. Within a few years, he would earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Florida, and by 1970, he had completed a doctorate at Yale. From 1971 to 1977, he taught at Cornell, and there he learned that in the years before Jackie Robinson broke the color line, many Cubans played in the Negro leagues where teams such as the Cuban Stars and the New York Cubans were welcome.
González Echevarría carried the information with him when he came to Yale in 1977. And though his primary work has resulted in numerous books and papers on Hispanic literature—this is the scholarship that figured in his being named a Sterling professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literatures in 1995—he continued his extracurricular activities both on and off the field. “I still can’t hit a curve ball,” he admits, but his love for the game has certainly produced a pair of academic home runs. In 1998, González Echevarría was invited to deliver a special lecture about his passion at the Yogi Berra Museum, where he met the famous Yankee catcher, and last spring, Oxford University Press published his definitive study, The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball.
When Jonathan Spence arrived at Yale in 1959 on a two-year Clare-Mellon Fellowship, the native of England ate his first meal not in a University dining hall, but at the Yankee Doodle. “I had no thought whatsoever of pursuing an academic career, but I’d been given the rarest of all things: a chance to go in any direction,” says Spence. “Some small voice told me to do something different and difficult.”
At the time, a new team of China scholars had arrived at Yale, and although Spence knew “nothing at all about China,” he found the subject intriguing enough to accept Professor Mary Wright’s challenge to produce two research papers in two weeks. “It was a baptism of fire,” says Spence, “and I was hooked by the history of the country, as well as by its art and literature, and by the difficulty and beauty of the language.”
Research took him to Australia and Taiwan—mainland China was then closed to foreign scholars—and he finished a doctorate at Yale in 1965. Spence was then hired by the University as a junior faculty member, and he has been here ever since. Spence was appointed Sterling Professor of History in 1993. Over the years, he has written nearly two dozen books (See “In Print,” p. 18) and numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Chinese history and culture, and he has become well-known for advocating an iconoclastic approach to scholarship. “I could never see why the fruits of research should be made inaccessible to the general reader,” says Spence, “and I always found it a delight to read a good story told well.”
Certainly, there were plenty of great tales to be discovered in China, and by combining the techniques of the historian and the novelist, Spence has helped pioneer a distinctly Yale approach to history. “One doesn’t aim to become a Sterling professor, and one accepts the title with a bit of nervousness,” he notes. “The title makes you work harder and teach more because now, more people want to take your courses.”
Biology keeps providing amazing things,” says Joan Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, and chair of the MB&B department. “In the cells of higher organisms we’re discovering the intriguing ways that evolution has structured the expression of genes. This is frontier science, and through both our teaching and our research, undergraduates can catch the flavor of the excitement this work is generating.”
Steitz’s path to the Sterling professorship began with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Antioch College in 1963, and progressed through her doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology at Harvard, where she studied with Nobel laureate James Watson, one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA. For several years after completing her PhD, Steitz worked in England with Watson’s colleague and co-Nobelist Francis Crick, before joining the Yale faculty in 1970.
An expert in what might be termed genetic housekeeping, Steitz explains that much of the information in each gene is, paradoxically enough, useless. “My colleagues and I have discovered the machinery a cell uses to take the junk out,” she says. Aspects of this work have generated nearly 200 scientific papers and have resulted in a number of major awards, including the Warren Triennial Prize, which she and Nobel laureate Thomas Cech received in 1989.
Displaying the kind of “don’t-rest-on-your-laurels” spirit exemplified by the typical Sterling professor, Steitz and her coworkers have recently uncovered another surprise."The junk regions aren’t completely junk,”says the biologist. “We’ve found that cells contain other machinery—a kind of proofreading mechanism—that finds bits of sense hidden among the nonsense.”
Why genes should be constructed this way remains a mystery, says Steitz, adding that “it’s just incredible what cells can do.”
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