Sterling Professorships distinguish Yale’s top scholars

The name Sterling resonates in the minds of many Yalies. It is, after all, the namesake that distinguishes Yale’s finest assets — the library, the law buildings and even the professors.

Through the Sterling Professorship, Yale rewards its top academic leaders who have done exemplary work in their professional fields.

Founded by John William Sterling, an 1864 Yale graduate, the endowed professorships are part of Sterling’s $15 million donation to the University. The gift, which Yale received upon Sterling’s death in 1918, helped to build campus landmarks such as Sterling Memorial Library, Sterling Law Buildings, and the Hall of Graduate Studies. Article 28 of Sterling’s will set aside $5 million — an amount that was later doubled — to fund what has now become Yale’s most prestigious academic honor.

Currently, 30 Yale professors hold the title of Sterling Professor. A faculty member in any department of the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences or in one of the professional schools is eligible for the professorship.

Those who are eventually selected for the honor represent some of Yale’s finest academic figures. Famous Sterling professors include Jonathan Spence, Harold Bloom and Sidney Altman.

University President Richard Levin has appointed 16 Sterling professors in his nine years as president. Levin said scholarship in general is definitely weighed over a professor’s teaching.

“[The title] is really to honor people who are the most distinguished scholars with some weight to contributions to the University as a whole,” he said.

Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said the title is the highest honor at Yale.

“[Sterling professors must] be at the forefront of their field and great intellectual citizens of the community,” he said.

Many members of the University community contribute to the actual selection of Sterling professors.

Yale Provost Alison Richard, the University’s chief academic and financial adviser, said the University president discusses his choices with many colleagues.

“Like all endowed name professorships, they are awarded to faculty by the president and then voted upon by the Corporation — the president consults with the faculty and the dean and with myself about who are distinguished candidates,” Richard said.

James Tobin, Sterling Professor emeritus in economics, said he has done a lot of work in finance theory, monetary theory and macroeconomics, which could have contributed to his appointment as a Sterling Professor.

He said he believes the Sterling Professorship is one way that Yale holds on to top instructors in various fields.

“There’s always an interest of other universities in grabbing off these professors, and Yale wants to keep them,” Tobin said.

He added that though the Sterling title only provides “a modest amount of money for research,” Sterling professors often have many ways to finance their work.

“Most Sterling professors have other sources of funding for research,” Tobin said.

Peter Brooks, Sterling Professor in comparative literature and French, who is on a leave of absence this year, said Sterling professors still bear the same workload as other faculty members.

“It is an honor, and a very nice one to have, but it doesn’t reduce your teaching load or give you more time for research. — [It] doesn’t change your life in any practical respect,” he said.

Brooks started the literature program at Yale in the 1970s and does most of his teaching in the literature department.

While many Sterling professors teach in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, a number of professional school faculty members also hold the rank.

U.S. Circuit Judge Guido Calabresi, Sterling Professor emeritus in law and former Law School dean, said the nature of the endowed professorship at the Law School is slightly different.

“Sterling hasn’t really changed my work because the Law School gives you a lot of freedom to do what you want,” he said.

Calabresi specializes in tort law and started an approach to law called economic analysis.

He said there are more Sterling professors in the Law School than in any other part of the University, a fact that might be attributed to Sterling’s background.

“Sterling was a lawyer, so his trustees felt the Law School should get a significant share,” Calabresi said.

Sterling professors may carry a similar teaching and research workload as colleagues without the endowed professorship, but most are pleased to have been recognized.

Brooks said that though the Sterling hasn’t changed his academic life, he considers it a special honor.

“I think it’s very nice because it’s an award for academic achievement, and it’s nice that the University has an award for that,” he said.

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