University basks in glow of prize

Big day for UM

October 11, 2005|By MATTHEW DOLAN | MATTHEW DOLAN,SUN REPORTER

COLLEGE PARK -- He is 84 and technically retired, but Thomas C. Schelling appears destined to become the hot, new marketing tool for a place more popularly known for its basketball starting lineup than its superstar faculty.

That's because the University of Maryland professor emeritus of economics and public policy just won the Nobel, a prize unparalleled in academic life.

Schelling used to be recognized only in rarified circles, largely for his pioneering application of game theory to real-world problems such as nuclear proliferation. Now he could become the center of a broad effort in College Park to market higher education's most sought-after award, experts say.

"Having a prize winner gold-plates the university's reputation," said Harriet Zuckerman, author of Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United States. "Not necessarily with the young people, but rather with the state legislators, with the alumni and other donors."

Schelling's picture could now find its way into university admissions catalogs and glossy alumni magazines, Zuckerman said. His name could be trotted out for special mention in presidential speeches and invoked over recruitment dinners to lure new faculty.

If the most celebrated professors are increasingly treated like rock stars, Schelling might have just become Maryland's Bono.

In the hours after yesterday's early-morning announcement from Sweden, students and administrators celebrated at the Riggs Alumni Center by drinking champagne and eating chocolate-molded terrapins to honor a largely self-effacing man who downplayed his accomplishment.

Before the reception, Schelling sat in the front row in a hunter green jacket, red-striped shirt and tie at a packed news conference.

The professor shook his head in amazement as he received two standing ovations. Schelling made a motion for people to take their seats, seemingly embarrassed by the attention.

By coincidence, university officials were planning a lecture series to honor Schelling. Now, with the Nobel award ceremony set for December, they're thinking bigger.

"I'm hoping now I can convince him to teach again," said Steve Fetter, dean of the university's School of Public Policy.

Yesterday, Schelling became the third University of Maryland professor to be awarded academia's most revered honor.

In 1956, Spanish-born poet Juan Ramon Jimenez was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He died in 1958. In 1981, officials at the University of Maryland named the foreign languages building on the College Park campus in his honor.

William Phillips, a 1997 Nobel Prize winner in physics while at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, joined the university in 2001 to establish a concentration in atomic molecular optical physics.

University officials said at the time it was part of a broader strategy. "That's how you do it. You go and get a star like Phillips and you build a group around him," Stephen Halperin, dean of the university's College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, said shortly after hiring Phillips. "Why should you think this is any different than basketball?"

Nobel's glow is so powerful that universities don't limit themselves to basking in the light of only faculty winners.

"An extraordinary number of Nobel laureates have been faculty members, students or researchers at the University of Chicago at some point in their careers," says the university's Web site.

Chicago, which seems to have cornered the market on economics winners, places 78 people in that category.

"It's still a big deal," said Michael Behnke, vice president for university relations and college enrollment. "It has lasting power because it's an honor that doesn't go away. ... It's something we trumpet as often as we can."

In Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins University uses a similar strategy.

On its Web site, the school reports that "the following winners of Nobel Prizes have had an association with The Johns Hopkins University, either as graduates of Johns Hopkins or as faculty of the university before, at the time of or subsequent to their receipt of the prize." (For the record, the list includes 31 names, including professors who visited for just a semester.)

Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea explained: "I think it speaks well of a university to have produced a student who goes on to win a Nobel or to have a Nobel Prize winner on its faculty.

"While I don't think that playing the numbers game -- I have more Nobels than you -- is particularly fruitful," he said, "I do think that being the kind of institution where a Nobel prize winner is comfortable in pursing his work, indicates a certain quality."

Often, accommodations are made for Nobel-caliber professors such as Schelling. When he arrived at Maryland in 1990, it was after a long career at Harvard. Mandatory retirement age forced him out, he said.

"I had my eyes pointed toward Southern California," Schelling said of his retirement plans.

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