Professors: Hot at Their Own Risk

Christine Prichard for The Chronicle

Gary A. Hoover, an economist at the U. of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, has found notes under his door asking "what it would take to lasso me."
August 08, 2010

When Robert Brinkerhoff first arrived at the Rhode Island School of Design, his students thought he was so good-looking they nicknamed him Baberhoff.

Sure, a part of him was flattered. But that doesn't mean he was pleased to be featured on Lemondrop.com's national listing of the 50 hottest male professors. (He was No. 32, and the caption under his photo read: "We see something fine, and it ain't just the art.")

In fact, Mr. Brinkerhoff, who heads the school's illustration department, pretended that he hadn't even seen the online ranking when a fellow professor brought it to his attention. "I was too embarrassed to admit I knew," he says. "Something like this does begin to compromise your credibility."

Research shows that attractive people do better in life. They are treated better by teachers, doctors, even strangers, and are more likely to be hired and promoted than those who are less attractive. But in academe, being hot has a downside: Professors who are considered too good-looking can be cast by their peers as lightweights, known less for their productivity than for their pulchritude.

"You have to be acceptable-looking, but being gorgeous can be a problem," says Judith Waters, a professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University who does research on beauty and success. "If you look as if you spend more time in the beauty parlor than in the library, that's going to be a problem."

Cari B. Cannon, who heads the department of behavioral sciences at Santiago Canyon College, agrees. "Any idea that you might put any effort into how you look means you are not putting effort into reading the latest journal article," she says. Ms. Cannon was No. 5 on a list of the 50 "hottest" professors compiled last academic year by the online teaching-evaluation site RateMyProfessors, which lets students award "chili peppers" to faculty members.

Although research shows that students give better teaching evaluations to professors they think are attractive, good looks can also be a burden in the classroom.

Students have been falling in love with their professors for decades. But the professor used to be a larger-than-life figure on whom the smitten student nurtured a quiet crush. Now sites like RateMyProfessors allow undergraduates to broadcast their feelings, sometimes in the crassest terms.

That can be a particular problem for women. Ms. Cannon says she tries to maintain a distance from students. "It keeps the majority of them from being too aggressive," she says. Even so, male students ask what she is doing over the weekend and invite her to parties. One young man even offered to give her a massage.

Juann M. Watson, an assistant professor of behavioral sciences at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, came away with first place on RateMyProfessors's top-50 list. "Not only is she unbelievably hot, she can teach, too," one student wrote.

Ms. Watson, who is 44 years old, says she was taken aback. She dresses conservatively, in suits or dresses. "I don't show too much flesh if I don't have to," she says.

'Relatively Laughable'

Male professors are less accustomed to attracting attention because of their looks, and less comfortable with it. "I wasn't sure if this was a joke," says Bradley P. Stoner, an associate professor of anthropology and medicine at Washington University in St. Louis who appeared on Lemondrop's list. "I'm not a good-looking person."

Lemondrop, an online site for women that calls itself "sweet, tasty, and tart," put together its list of the best-looking male professors last year based on nominations from female students. Another professor who appeared on the list refused to be quoted by name. "One's first reaction is of egotistical pleasure," he wrote in an e-mail message to The Chronicle, "and then of course disappointment that this is not about your stellar research and that in fact on a scale of hotness academics aren't all that hot, relatively speaking, and to make a list of hot ones is thus, relatively laughable."

Gary A. Hoover, a professor of economics at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, made No. 8 on the Lemondrop list. He's found notes under his door asking "what it would take to lasso me." And female students coyly ask his advice on whether it's OK to date professors once a class is over.

In fact, Mr. Hoover grew tired enough of dealing with the come-ons that six years ago he moved 45 miles away from the campus so he wouldn't run into students outside of class. "I don't want to end up in a bar and see some nice-looking lady," he says, "and then come to find out, 'I'm in your Tuesday/Thursday class.'"

Todd C. Riniolo, an associate professor of psychology at Medaille College, published a paper in 2006 based on a study comparing the teaching evaluations of professors who got chili peppers on RateMyProfessors with those of professors who did not. On average, faculty members with chili peppers scored 0.8 higher overall on a 5-point scale.

But the "hot" ratings may have just as much to do with a professor's effectiveness as with his physical appearance, Mr. Riniolo says. "It's an overall reflection of whether students like a professor."

After all, he acknowledges, most professors could never win a beauty contest outside of academe. "When students are rating us, they are rating us against other professors, which is not exactly a real strong reference group as far as looks go," he says.

Indeed, professors are famous for giving little thought to their looks. That makes Ebony A. Utley an anomaly. Ms. Utley, an assistant professor of communication studies at California State University at Long Beach, has a Web site called The Utley Experience, where she advertises herself as a speaker on "life, love, and relationships." On a pink-and-white background, the site displays pictures of Ms. Utley wearing a low-cut dress, while R&B music plays and an echoey female voice urges visitors to "Experience ... new visions of love."

The professor, who blogs for Ms. magazine, posted an item in May admonishing students for asking her out and making comments about her appearance. But that wasn't the worst of it. Ms. Utley also tells The Chronicle that one student even advised her that she would make more money as a "high-class hooker." She was so shocked by the comment, she says, that she didn't know how to respond.

But Ms. Utley also says she realizes that interest from students comes with the territory. And she acknowledges that she uses her looks to her advantage.

"When I have to teach the heavy stuff about race," she says, "I make sure my hair is done, my outfit is cute. I know it's going to be a difficult conversation for students, and if I have a cute dress on, it becomes easier to talk about race and prejudice."

She says professors should dress well and mind their appearance if they want to be successful in getting their ideas across, especially in the visual age of social media.

"You are in competition with people who don't have your training or your intellectual productivity in terms of publications, but they are trying to pull it off based on their looks," says Ms. Utley. "It's time for academics to step up their game and look the part. Put on heels and a suit and take your training to the world."