GEORGE MASON University in Fairfax is the leading local example of the practice of bidding big for superstar scholars and building departments with quick draft choices. It recently hired noted sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset and, part-time, former jurist Robert Bork. The payoff in prestige is evident, but is it good for the university?

As universities compete more hotly, a small group of prominent scholars scoot around the country like hockey pucks. But if this acceleration is dizzying, George Mason's experience shows it can also be beneficial. With proximity to Washington as a lure and private funding as the engine, it has piled big-name hires over a decade into an undeniably solid base.

Traditionally, a university looking to build up its reputation aims for not just one star professor but enough well-known teachers to make the department attractive to other faculty in the field and to promising graduate students. For the Ivies and the preeminent research universities, "critical mass" has been reached in most fields; these institutions have in effect always used a star system, scanning the profession for the brightest and offering them tenure.

A shift came in the '80s with the tightening of federal and other resources: smaller universities saw their ability to compete for funds threatened unless they could make some dramatic leap upward in quality or otherwise put themselves on the educational map. More scholars were lured from leading universities to smaller ones that offered them more attractive packages in return for reflected luster. (George Mason's hiring of economist James Buchanan, who then won the Nobel Prize, used this strategy to great effect.) The packages often include, in addition to high salaries, the promise of light or nonexistent teaching duties, and offers to hire the professor's colleagues or, in double-academic couples, the professor's spouse. Lingua Franca, a new higher education magazine, reports that Emory lured away at one shot three of the five French professors at Johns Hopkins and 11 of the department's 16 graduate students. Similar things happen in the sciences, where one professor may control the fate and funding of four or five subordinates.

Does all this swapping erode academic loyalty, or does it merely, like any bidding war, increase the market value of scholarly excellence? As at the more established schools, the answer will mostly depend on how these newly strengthened institutions handle their faculty. But there's no reason that lavishing resources on star faculty should be any less acceptable than lavishing them on star athletes. The long-term results for students are likely to be better.