12 Celebrity Professors

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As college students head back to class for the fall semester, many of them will take classes with professors who are well known within their fields. A select few, though, will get to listen to lectures from bona fide celebrities. Here’s a look at a few big names who have ventured into academia in the past.

1. Oprah

In 1999 Oprah co-taught a class at Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management. Her co-teacher wasn’t some stuffy tenured professor, either; it was her longtime beau, marketing consultant Stedman Graham. Oprah and Stedman taught a second-year M.B.A. course on “Dynamics of Leaderships.” The talk-show host quipped on her first day of class, “Somewhere Mrs. Duncan, my fourth grade teacher, is very happy today.”

2. John Cleese

The Monty Python funnyman left Cambridge when he was 20, but he really took a liking to another prestigious university: Cornell. Cleese became an A.D. White Professor-at-Large in 1998 for a term of six years. He proved so popular and enjoyed the work so much, though, that Cornell extended him for another two years. When that stint ended in 2006, Cornell found another way to keep Cleese on campus for another three years as the Provost’s Visiting Professor. Cleese did a little bit of everything on campus, from teaching a class on comedy to delivering a Sunday sermon to eating in the dining halls with students.

3. Tony Blair

The former British Prime Minister spent the 2008-2009 academic year as the Howland Distinguished Fellow at Yale, where he worked with both the divinity and management schools to develop the Yale Faith and Globalization Seminar, which looked at the interplay of various faiths as the global economy grew.

4. Kevin Spacey

The Oscar winner took his talents across the pond for the 2008-2009 academic calendar when he took a yearlong appointment as a theater professor at Oxford. Spacey told the British press that he hoped to help aspiring actors get a better feel for the off-stage part of show business, saying, “I'll try very hard to give them some practical advice about agents and auditions and how to just deal with the day-to-day business of trying to start a career.”

5. Jesse Ventura

Jesse “The Body” Ventura may have dropped out of college, but that didn’t stop him from getting an appointment as a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in the spring of 2004. Harvard spokespeople said that the former Minnesota governor’s appointment was actually the idea of the school’s undergraduates, and the man who once wore feather boas in the wrestling ring gave seminars on various aspects of politics.

6. Allen Ginsberg

Who better to teach poetry than the renowned Beat poet? In 1986 Brooklyn College of the City University of New York decided that the man who wrote “Howl” was just what its poetry MFA program needed, so Ginsberg taught masters students for a full academic year.

7. Salman Rushdie

Author Salman Rushdie survived a fatwa following the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, so he surely has no problem fending off students while serving as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University. Rushdie signed up for a five-year hitch as the Atlanta school’s writer in residence starting with the spring 2007 semester; the position requires him to lead a graduate seminar, teach at least four weeks a year, and participate in undergrad classes. Better still for the school, Emory’s Robert Woodruff Library also nabbed the Booker Prize winner’s archives in the deal.

8. Spike Lee

In the spring of 1992, the director rode his hits like Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever to a position at Harvard. Lee taught a film course on the history of black cinema since 1964; his syllabus said the course dealt “with matters of craft and technique as these combine to produce representative, truthful or stereotypical images of African-Americans." Lee jokingly asked his students to call him “Professor Spike” and not to talk to the press about the course, explaining, “Having the press there is not conducive to learning. I didn't come up here for that."

9. Alec Baldwin


You can’t take an MBA class from Jack Donaghy, but this was probably the next best thing. In the summer of 2002 Baldwin taught a theater class at Southampton University.

10. Placido Domingo

In early 1994 the famed tenor took a spot as an adjunct professor of music at UCLA. While students may not have been able to belt out songs quite as well as Domingo, they did get the pleasure of having him conduct several orchestral and choral concerts.

11. Kal Penn

Kalpen Modi, better known as actor Kal Penn of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle fame, was a guest instructor at the University of Pennsylvania during the spring of 2008. While at Penn, Penn taught two undergrad courses, “Images of Asian Americans in the Media” and “Contemporary American Teen Films.”

12. Dennis Green

The rest of the faculty may have been who students thought they were, but in 2008 former NFL coach Dennis Green joined San Diego State’s College of Business Administration as an instructor in the Sports Business Management MBA program. Green taught BA703, Strategic Management, an appointment that no doubt prompted a few derisive chuckles from fans of Green’s old Vikings and Cardinals teams. No word on whether he taught students the ins and outs of throwing tantrums in press conferences, but rest assured that he didn’t let his students off the hook for anything.

Image Credits: Oprah Winfrey: Reuters/CORBIS; Jesse Ventura: Andy King/Sygma/Corbis; Alec Baldwin: NBC.

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September 2, 2010 - 9:33am
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