November 3, 2009

The worst Nobel intentions

Tenuous connections to the University should not be trumpeted.

When I first heard that the University of Chicago had claimed two new affiliated Nobel laureates, I thought to myself: Just how many T-shirts, mugs, brochures, and information sessions are they going to have to change?

It seems to me that among top universities in the world, claiming Nobel laureates for prestige has become an absurd Easter egg hunt. Each Nobel Prize is another golden egg in the basket. Instead of allowing the plethora of achievements the individuals at this university have accomplished to stand alone, the University of Chicago, with its arbitrary practice of designating Nobel laureates as affiliates, is just another participant in the race for a better reputation.

Truly extraordinary people have worked and studied here, and we should give proper accolades where they are due. But my question is: Where do we draw the line? When does a loose “affiliation” become an excuse to increase the Nobel count to 85? Or is it 87 now?

According to the University’s Web site, affiliated Nobel laureates were University of Chicago “faculty members, students, or researchers at some point in their careers.” The last six words allow for virtually any degree of actual involvement at the University, be it as a temporary assistant professor for less than a year or as a lifetime senior researcher. The further we extend the definition of an affiliate, the more we are willing to discount the work and reputations of those who are far more involved in the University.

One recent example is Ada Yonath, the 2009 co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Although over the course of her career she has conducted research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Max-Planck Institute Research Unit at DESY in Germany, and, most notably, the Weizmann Institute of Science where she now works, the U of C insists that her two years as a visiting professor (1977–1978) warrant her a spot as an affiliated Nobel laureate.

Additionally, the news article on the University’s Web site states that her research was based on data collected from the Advanced Photon Source at the University of Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory. While this is true, when one considers the vastly interconnected free flow of data and information that is common in the scientific community, this claim seems trivial.

The fact of the matter is that due to the organization of academia and science, an individual over the course of his or her career will have done research or taught at several institutions. Mentioning a minor association with this university in order to gain another affiliated Nobel laureate functions more like an excuse to inflate our prestige than a verifiable reason to acknowledge a valuable member of our institution.

The general attitude seems to be: “What things can we find to connect this Nobel laureate to the University?” While the ideal attitude toward true affiliates should be: “There are too many things the Nobel laureate has done here—which ones should we emphasize?”

The case of Ada Yonath as an affiliated Nobel laureate is representative of the University’s never-ceasing drive toward maximizing prestige. In a competitive world of rankings and arbitrary lists, where the qualities of universities are measured, quantified, and pitted against each other, the number of affiliated Nobel laureates is just another statistic to boast about.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. The University of Chicago, with all that it stands for—persistent inquiry, freedom of thought, and independent action—should be the last to indulge itself with arbitrary Nobel laureate grabbing. There is no reason to attach ourselves to brilliant people when such an attachment simply isn’t due. Let the plentiful accomplishments and prestige of the individuals of this university stand on their own merit.

Eric Chow is a first-year in the College majoring in economics with a minor in environmental studies.