Oprah in the classroom

I’m a Celebrity – get me in there

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a diverting article on the appointment of celebrities as visiting academics at US universities. Celebrity adjunct culture as it is described brings many challenges, not least of which is the resentment of existing staff at the pay and perks afforded the star academic. But it can be positive too:

Celebrity hires can work out well, says Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, but institutions must be more open about their motives. “Universities have tried to find pedagogical cover for their publicity ventures,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to attain publicity for your school, but there needs to be more truth in advertising what these positions are all about.”

Celebrity professors, says Stephen M. Walt, a Harvard professor of international affairs, can be particularly helpful for lower-profile institutions that want to improve their name recognition. When the University of North Florida hired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African social-rights activist, as a visiting scholar in 2003, for example, the institution was not shy to publicize its professorial catch.

As the article notes, there were positives and negatives with a number of celebrity hires, including:Oprah Winfrey

David Petraeus

Eliot Spitzer

Michael Dukakis

Arnold Schwarzenegger

and, most strikingly

Oprah!

Meanwhile, back in North Florida:

Earle Traynham, the university’s interim provost, says he recalls university officials asking Archbishop Tutu to participate in a handful of fund-raising events while he was on campus. During his single semester at North Florida, Mr. Tutu led several noncredit mini-courses, as well as one semester-long course titled “Truth and Reconciliation,” focusing on his time heading South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a post-apartheid restorative justice body.

It is not uncommon, some administrators say, for institutions to pay more than they would ideally like to hire a high-profile adjunct professor if they perceive a potential payoff. That payoff, says Richard K. Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, may come through things like positive publicity or fund-raising opportunities.

So, pluses and minuses. But you are unlikely to get much in the way of a REF return out of them.

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