AFTER THE SHOCK and the fairy tale time in
Stockholm, I went through what my wife would call postpartum depression," says Burton Richter of Stanford University, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize for physics. "Here I was, 45 years old, with a long scientific career still ahead of me. What would I do for an encore? Could I ever match this?" Richter says that being given the greatest honor in the academic world was disorienting for about a year. There was pressure to join committees and to give speeches. Even his graduate students at Stanford backed off and accorded him an awed respect. "I was a little surprised to find that an external award made the students think they couldn't treat me as they had before. They seemed to think, 'Gee, maybe he's too important to talk to.' "
Gradually, though, the novelty of the situation wore off, and both Richter and Stanford benefited from the Nobel. Richter gained an endowed chair, had greater access to funding for his research, and found that he had easier access to officials in Washington. Stanford could use the prestige of Richter's Nobel as a selling point to attract top students and--perhaps more important--top dollars from donors and research foundations.
Stanford is one of 30 American colleges and universities with Nobel laureates on the faculty. Harvard is at the head of the list, with 10 Nobel winners currently teaching, and four with emeritus status, followed by the University of California-Berkeley with 10 winners, and Stanford with nine who are either emeritus or active faculty members. The teaching laureates are heavily concentrated in the sciences. Only about 11 percent of the current Nobel laureate professors received their prizes in nonscientific fields.
The highest ratio of Nobel laureates to students is found at tiny Rockefeller University in New York, which has a total enrollment of 100 graduate students working in various lines of biomedical research. Five Nobel laureates are currently affiliated with Rockefeller University, and 11 others have either taught or studied at the Manhattan school.
Administrators and faculty members agree that Nobel winners bring an "aura of stardom" and a special reputation to an academic program. Because a certain celebrity accompanies the Nobel, recipients are often courted by other universities and research groups, almost the way star athletes are recruited. Steven Weinberg, winner of the 1979 prize for physics, recently left his post at Harvard for a chair at the University of Texas and came in for a lot of criticism in the process. In truth, though, Weinberg's move was nothing new. Nobel laureates have changed universities with some regularity for many years. Weinberg says he enjoys his new students and his new university. He sees his appointment as an opportunity to help Texas become, "as Berkeley did, an excellent state university across the board." One of his duties in Austin is to recruit other scholars to form a new community of academic excellence within the university.
Most Nobel winners at American universities consider teaching a stimulating adjunct to their research. Some work mostly with graduate students, but others, like physicist J. Robert Schrieffer of the University of California-Santa Barbara, make it a point regularly to teach courses to freshmen.
Not simply a reward for achievement, the Nobel is widely regarded as a sanction of excellence, as well. Recognizing the climate of privilege that the Nobel brings with it, Richter says, "I have the best of both worlds. I'm a university professor and I'm sitting here in my lab doing the kind of work I want to do."