Imagine turning up for a course one semester to find not just a regular professor, but instead a celebrity in charge of the classroom. Yet for some lucky college-goers, this isn’t just some amazing dream but a reality. Such high-profile specialists are often recruited for the knowledge and practical experience they can offer students, rather than, say, for their impressive academic résumés. What is more, these celebrity teachers can bring some welcome promotional opportunities for institutions. Plus, celebrities that accept such posts clearly welcome the chance to directly communicate with a new generation of curious minds – and their presence may well inspire as well as educate. Read on for ten examples of celebrities-turned-college professors.
10. Salman Rushdie – Distinguished Writer in Residence, Emory University, Atlanta
British Indian novelist Sir Salman Rushdie has won many awards during a career that has garnered both critical praise and controversy. Since the turn of the millennium, he has lived in the U.S., where he has continued to write novels and essays, but has also brought his experience to the world of academia. The alumnus of Cambridge University’s King’s College began a five-year stint at Emory University in Atlanta in 2007. He became its Distinguished Writer in Residence and also contributed his archives to the university, making them accessible to the public. Rushdie is now a Distinguished Professor at Emory, teaching, giving lectures to the public and liaising with the university’s academic society at large. The Booker Prize winner also made a guest appearance in a Shakespeare seminar on the Bard’s Othello in early 2013 and even demonstrated some off-the-cuff thespian prowess. One sophomore described it as an “amazing opportunity.”
9. Plácido Domingo – Adjunct Professor, UCLA, California
Plácido Domingo has practically become a household name since he belted out his first powerful on-stage operatic number in 1961. Domingo is perhaps most famed as one of the Three Tenors, performing alongside fellow opera legends Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras in the 1990s through the early 2000s. However, the Spanish icon not only turns his hand to singing as well as conducting, but also to teaching. In 1994 he took a position as adjunct professor of music at UCLA, working around his own schedule to hold master classes for the choral and orchestral programs. At the time, Domingo expressed his delight at becoming a professor, saying, “Coming here brings me so much joy. How great it is to work with young people.” He currently holds the post of general director of California’s Los Angeles Opera.
8. James Franco – Graduate Film Professor, New York University
James Franco arguably came to major prominence on the silver screen in the 2002 movie Spider-Man, playing friend – then later enemy – to the titular superhero. Since then, the actor’s career has diversified into not only directing and screenwriting, but also academic pursuits. The PhD candidate at Yale University has attended a number of prestigious institutions, including Columbia University, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and Rhode Island School of Design. However, in recent years he has also taught. Graduate film students at NYU were privy to Franco’s wisdom in 2011 when he lectured a one-semester course about adapting poetry for film. Don’t think he’s just a one-hit-wonder wannabe professor, though, as Franco has also taught in the English and Film schools at UCLA, USC and CalArts – in some cases attracting A-list actors like Natalie Portman to his students’ film projects.
7. Jesse Ventura – Visiting Fellow, Institute of Politics, Harvard University, Massachusetts
Jesse Ventura has had an eclectic career as a professional wrestler, actor, writer and, between 1999 and 2003, Governor of Minnesota. Ventura delayed his own college education somewhat, as after having received his diploma from Roosevelt High School in 1969, he then embarked on six years in the U.S. Navy before going to Minnesota’s North Hennepin Community College. He also went back to school after his time in office, this time as a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, where he taught during the spring semester in 2004. The chief rationale behind Ventura being offered the paid post was for him “to interact with students.” A spokesman for the institution – which has extended such positions to other politicians and high-profile figures – said at the time, “We’ll draw on his expertise and experience as we would with any other fellow.”
6. Bun B – Distinguished Lecturer, Rice University, Texas
Bun B, one half of rap act UGK, stepped away from hip-hop to teach at Rice University in his native Texas in 2011. Bun, otherwise known as Bernard Freeman, came in to instruct on the already established course “Religious Studies 331: Religion and Hip-Hop Culture” and was clear on what he hoped to achieve during his time at Rice. He told MTV, “I feel like being able to teach at a college university is a perfect example of showing how hip-hop can influence the minds of the next generation.” Bun wanted to demonstrate that the hip-hop movement can edify as well as entertain and to explore how it can connect to one’s faith. The class proved popular, quickly doubling to 250 attendees after Bun’s arrival. In his position as Distinguished Lecturer, Bun was also clear on what he thought of students who simply wanted to come in and hand him a demo tape. “That’s a wrap on the first day,” he revealed to XXL magazine.
5. Dennis Green – Sports Business Management, San Diego State University, California
Dennis Green has enjoyed an incredible career in American football as a coach for teams like the Arizona Cardinals and the Minnesota Vikings. In 1998 he guided the Vikings to a 15-1 finish, with the team setting a record for points scored in a season. However, in 2008 all the action in Green’s life shifted away from the field and into the classroom. In the fall of that year, he taught the Strategic Management class for San Diego State University’s (SDSU) Sports Business Management MBA program. His students contributed to a major project that confronted challenges faced by the San Diego Chargers in the area of stadium improvement. The coach revealed that he really appreciated being part of the course, although he seemed to warn that he would be just as tough off the field as on it. “You have to work hard to be a winner, so I’m not ‘letting them off the hook.’” he said.
4. John Cleese – Professor-at-Large, Cornell University, New York
John Cleese studied at Cambridge University in the early 1960s, a time when he would meet Graham Chapman and later join with him to become a part of the massively popular British comedy group Monty Python. After a hugely successful career encompassing comedy, writing and film, Cleese accepted the position of Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University in 1999, and in the role he also brought other luminaries to the college, such as Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman. It wasn’t until 2006 that Cleese left this post to become a Provost’s Visiting Professor at the same institution for three years, and he still makes welcome return visits to this day. As he himself possesses an M.A. in law, plus an honorary LL.D. from St. Andrews University in Scotland, Cleese may well be one of the most academically qualified celebrities on this list.
3. Kevin Spacey – Theater Professor, Oxford University, United Kingdom
Kevin Spacey may be busy with his duties as artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre in London – a position he’s held since 2003 – but the Academy Award-winning actor has always found time to pass on his knowledge to willing learners. In 2008 he was made a visiting professor at Oxford University, replacing Sir Patrick Stewart. The role of Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at St. Catherine’s College required that the American Beauty star conduct a minimum of one lecture, workshop or seminar each term. At the time, Spacey gushed to the press about how honored he was to be appointed to the post and said that he relished “the challenge.” He was succeeded by playwright and columnist Michael Frayn in 2009.
2. Spike Lee – Artistic Director of the Graduate Film Program, New York University
Oscar-nominated director Spike Lee has been making films for over 25 years, but he has also been sharing his vast experience with a new generation of students since 2002. That’s when the auteur was unveiled as artistic director of the graduate film program at New York University. His graduate film classes receive so many enrollment requests each year that honoring them all would mean exceeding the class’ capacity 25 times over. One university staff member described him as “a premium American filmmaker who helps and gives back in any way he can.” In addition to teaching at his alma mater, Lee has conducted guest lectures at colleges across the country, such as Chicago State University and Rutgers. In 2009 he used one lecture at Concordia University in Montreal to get the message across that students and their parents must remain positive if they are to fulfill their dreams.
1. Allen Ginsberg – Masters Teacher in Poetry, Brooklyn College, City University of New York
Legendary poet Allen Ginsberg was a leading light of the mid-20th century American Beat Generation. He achieved notoriety and precipitated a storm of controversy with his poem “Howl,” which was first published in 1956 and rallied against the capitalistic values and conformism of the U.S. Still, as anti-establishment as Ginsberg may have been, in 1986 he took on a post at the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, teaching poetry in the fine arts masters program. He took over the position from Pulitzer Prize-winning New York poet John Ashbery, and the alumnus of Columbia University remained in the role of Distinguished Professor of English until his death in 1997. On Columbia’s online tribute page, Ginsberg is referred to as a “countercultural prophet.”