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Top Universities Shoot the Moon in Pursuit of New Stars

November 17, 2002|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

Universities, like ball clubs and Hollywood studios, have always competed for the big names. Leah Price isn't one of them.

But Price, a 32-year-old scholar of Victorian literature, finds herself nonetheless at the heart of a cross-country tug-of-war between two of America's most prominent universities: UCLA and Harvard.

Price, whose scholarship includes examinations of love and sex in Victorian fiction and a look at the role played by -- gasp -- abridgements in the rise of the novel, won't say which way she's leaning in the (mostly) gentlemanly battle for her services.

Yet, at a time when faculty recruiting wars are more often fought over distinguished scientists or prominent minority professors, the eager pursuit of Price provides a window into the intensifying competition in academia for other sorts of top scholars, including women and young humanities stars.

It also reflects a new push at Harvard, led by President Lawrence H. Summers, to hang onto more of the university's most gifted junior faculty members by offering them tenured positions earlier than tradition has allowed, officials there said.

And it spotlights the growing reputation of the UCLA English department for savvy, aggressive recruiting as the school tries to sell itself as a cutting-edge alternative to the Ivy League.

Price, whose research and teaching topics range from the history of the novel to detective fiction and even journalism, has taught for just two years at Harvard, where she earned her undergraduate literature degree summa cum laude.

She received her doctorate from Yale in 1998, then spent three years doing research at Cambridge University.

Yet this fall, in a move precipitated in part by UCLA's interest, the Harvard English department offered to make her a full tenured professor, years ahead of the typical timetable. If she accepts, Price will become the first woman to rise to tenure through the college's English department without a stop at another university.

"We have been so tremendously impressed with her intellectual firepower and her work in teaching that we took the leap, with full consciousness of how unusual it was," said the chairman of Harvard's English department, Lawrence Buell.

UCLA has yet to extend its own formal tenure offer, but officials say they are talking with Price. She has interviewed with department leaders and visited the campus as part of the university's effort to woo her to the West Coast. She is spending the year on a fellowship and book leave at Stanford University's humanities center.

"We're not in any hurry," said Thomas Wortham, chairman of UCLA's English department. "Leah has to decide what's going to make her happy. She's a very fortunate young woman."

If UCLA loses, Wortham said, he would have this satisfaction: "If our having identified a very exciting young scholar finally made Harvard come up into the mid-20th century in its hiring practices, we're delighted."

Reached by e-mail, Price declined to comment, saying she does not wish to "complicate negotiations that are still ongoing." She said she would decide soon.

Neither side would discuss salary details or other possible inducements, such as offices, research assistants and grants. In the University of California system, tenured or tenure-track professors earn an average of $93,000. Harvard, a private institution, doesn't divulge its salaries. Wortham said the UCLA department identified the young prospect through a search for an expert on 19th century British literature and was immediately struck by the quality of her scholarship.

"She's doing very innovative work in a well-established field, and she's demonstrating that at a very early stage in her career," said Wortham, who also edits a leading scholarly journal on 19th century literature.

Across the country, Buell said the Harvard English department had been encouraged to act by Summers' push for the university to make more tenure offers to younger scholars. Summers, an economist and Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, won tenure himself from Harvard at the age of 28. He became president of Harvard in July 2001.

But the main impetus, Buell said, was Price's innovative, even quirky, scholarship.

A specialist in 18th and 19th century British fiction who lists herself as at least competent in Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian and Latin, Price has published widely. Her first book, "The Anthology and Rise of the Novel" (Cambridge University Press, 2000), examined literary anthologies and shortened forms that other scholars have ignored.

Reviewers praised Price's insights into, among other things, the less-than-thorough way that everyone reads, at least occasionally. Skimming, Price notes in the book, is much like abridging, while skipping is like anthologizing. This observation, one reviewer noted, is "delightfully scandalous," especially in an academic context.

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