Universities, like ball clubs and Hollywood studios, always have competed for the big names. Leah Price doesn't have one yet.
But Price, 32, a scholar of Victorian literature, is at the heart of a cross-country tug of war between two of America's most prominent universities, the University of California at Los Angeles and Harvard.
Price, whose scholarship includes examinations of love and sex in Victorian fiction and a look at the role played by 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 cutting-edge scientists or prominent minority professors, the eager pursuit of Price sheds light on 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 keep more of the university's most gifted junior faculty by offering tenured positions earlier than tradition has allowed, officials there said.
And, it spotlights the growing reputation of the UCLA English department for savvy, aggressive faculty recruiting, trying to sell itself as the cutting-edge alternative to the Ivy League.
Price's research and teaching interests range from the history of the novel to detective fiction and journalism. She has taught for 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 in research at Cambridge University.
Yet this fall, in a move precipitated in part by UCLA's interest in her, the Harvard English Department offered to make her a full tenured professor, years ahead of the typical schedule. If she accepts, Price will become the first woman to rise to tenure through the university'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 Lawrence Buell, chair of Harvard's English department.
UCLA has yet to extend a formal tenure offer but says it is talking with Price. She has interviewed with department leaders and visited the campus. 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."
Contacted 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 will talk about salary specifics and other possible inducements, such as offices, research assistants or grants. At UC, tenured or tenure-track professors earn an average of $93,000. Harvard, a private institution, doesn't divulge salary numbers.
Wortham said the UCLA department identified the young professor through a search for an expert in 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 in 19th-century literature.
Across the country, Buell said the Harvard English department was encouraged to act by Summers's push for the university to make more tenure offers to younger scholars. Summers, an economist who served as treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, won tenure himself from Harvard when he was 28.
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," examined literary anthologies and other shortened forms that other scholars ignored.
Reviewers praised Price's insights, among other things into the less-than-thorough way that everyone, at least occasionally, reads. 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.
"Very few people, and even fewer academics, ever publicly admit to being bored by long novels, to skimming them, or to skipping to passages which seem more interesting," reviewer Claudia Johnson wrote in the London Review of Books.
According to the schools trying to woo her, Price is unusual partly for her youth. Humanities professors typically don't reach their creative peaks until their late forties or early fifties, several said, unlike scientists and mathematicians, who often do so 10 to 20 years earlier.
The reasons for the difference are complex, several said, but humanities are interpretive disciplines in which scholars examine works of literature through the prism of their own experience, returning to a book again and again, with new insights each time.
Helping Price is that Harvard, UCLA and many other premier universities are searching for top scholars who are also women.
Although female students are a 56 percent majority at U.S. colleges, a gender imbalance persists in faculties, especially in their upper reaches, according to John Curtis, research director at the American Association of University Professors. Women represent fewer than 1 in 5 of the tenured faculty at the nation's four-year public and private universities.
The issue is certainly a factor in hiring, said Wortham, whose UCLA department has 38 men, all but one with tenure, and 20 women, 18 of whom are tenured. "To hire a woman at the senior level these days is a pretty arduous task, so you look at the younger ones. And they're out there, like this one, and they're good."