Yale will lose two top professors to archrival Harvard University after this semester.
Psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji and History and American Studies professor Nancy Cott depart Yale for Harvard even as they praised the opportunities they have had here.
“Leaving Yale for me is filled with many mixed emotions,” said Banaji, who has taught at Yale for her entire professional career. “Yale for me is much more than an institution where I’ve been a faculty member.”
Cott, the Sterling Professor of History and American Studies, specializes in the history of women in America, and Banaji’s work focuses on the unconscious basis of prejudice.
“These are both people of the highest intellectual creativity who have also been major citizens of Yale,” Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said. “It’s a great, great loss.”
Banaji accepted a joint appointment at Harvard and will work at the recently constituted Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard as well as in Harvard’s psychology department.
One of the major features of the Radcliffe Institute is the Schlesinger Library, which focuses on the history of women in America, and which Cott now will direct.
“It has a very important place in my own personal history, in my professional history, and in my heart,” Cott said of the library, where she said she has done research for about 30 years.
Cott has taught at Yale since 1975, and Banaji has taught since 1986 — when she started on the same day as Psychology Chair Peter Salovey.
“We would sit at adjoining tables in the evening writing our lectures for the next day and egging each other on,” Salovey said. “Somebody of Mahzarin’s caliber will certainly be missed, and at the same time we will certainly rebuild.”
Even as Yale looked to replace Banaji and Cott, Harvard professors said they were delighted to add the top scholars to their faculty.
“[Cott] was the dream candidate,” said David Blackbourn, the chair of Harvard’s history department.
Although Banaji and Cott both expressed excitement at working with the Radcliffe Institute and its new director, Drew Gilpin Faust, they also both cited different reasons for going to Harvard. Cott said she looked forward to working at the library as well as to a change of scenery.
“I’ve had strong connections for many years in the Cambridge area,” Cott said. “I thought it would be really interesting to have a change of my location and my life.”
Banaji said she is excited to take advantage of interdisciplinary opportunities at Harvard.
“It’s the configuration of things that are available to me” at Harvard that is attractive, Banaji said.
She cited the Radcliffe Institute, the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy, and the African-American Studies department as good resources for her work.
In addition, the offer at Harvard had personal significance to her, as she will become the third person to hold Harvard’s Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics chair. The first person to hold the chair was the person she called her “intellectual grandfather,” Gordon Allport — the advisor of her thesis advisor, Anthony Greenwald.
While Banaji and Cott are leaving for traditional rival Harvard, both professors expressed no dissatisfaction with Yale.
“I’m not leaving because Yale didn’t support me or my work,” Banaji said. She said Yale gave her the freedom to pursue difficult research early in her career, and added that she is proud of the way she has helped the psychology department rebuild in recent years.
“Basically in many ways I’m bummed about leaving when things are so great,” she said.
And Cott said she did not see the departures as signifying any notable power shift between Harvard and Yale.
“I think it’s more accurate to call it an unhappy coincidence for Yale,” Cott said.