Model. Actress. Oscar winner. Activist. Director. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees special envoy. And now professor?
Last week, Angelina Jolie Pitt was appointed as a visiting professor for the London School of Economics’ new masters program on women, peace and security. It’s created a substantial debate among academics in the global development community: Are celebrity professors effective?
Jolie Pitt, who is a champion for the refugee crisis and an activist against sexual violence, told the university she was “looking forward to sharing” her “own experiences of working alongside governments and the United Nations.” Her appointment — which will require her to deliver guest lectures, participate in public events and do her own research — starts in fall 2016 and lasts one year.
Since the announcement, quite a few academics, from human rights lawyers to professors of international politics, have shared critical comments on the appointment. Some are concerned that higher education institutions are “selling out,” while others worry celebrities may have a negative impact on important aid work.
Here’s a selection of viewpoints on and reactions to Jolie Pitt’s appointment, from around the global development blogosphere:
It’s not a big deal
Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, wants us to calm down. “Professors of practice” — or visiting professors — aren’t a big deal in the academic world, he says. In his piece A mild defense of professor Angelina Jolie in The Washington Post, he wrote:
“Everyone take a deep breath. Jolie hasn’t been given a tenured position, she’s been made a ‘professor of practice.’ … Professors of practice are based on the premise that individuals with actual policy-making experience might have something to offer to students even if they haven’t published in peer-reviewed journals on the topic.”
They can attract attention to humanitarian issues, but …
Carrie Reiling, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Irvine, outlined some of the challenges when celebrities, activists and academics get involved in complex policy debates, raising concerns that a celebrity might distort priorities. In a piece titled Thoughts on Angelina Jolie and WPS on her blog, she wrote:
“Truly, Jolie’s attention to the rights of women, especially to combating sexual violence in conflict, is genuine. But universities … should be cautious about involving celebrities, even when it brings much-needed attention.”
Big-name lecturers can be elitist
Megan Mackenzie, a senior lecturer in the department of government and international relations at the University of Sydney, recalls her own experience as a student being taught by a well-known professor in a piece for the global development blog “Duck of Minerva.”
“While attending another top university (some might say, THE top university) I took a class from a very rich female former ambassador and, I can tell you with 100 percent certainty, it was all kinda colors of white-savior/let’s hear about my amazing contributions to the world/enlightenment logic on steroids. Having this kind of ‘knowledge’ poured into some of the ‘top’ minds reproduces elitism and, ultimately, provides the following take-home message: Rich people should try to help poor people (or at least think about them) once in a while (mostly because it feels good) — all the while ignoring structural hierarchies/forms of oppression/global systems of exploitation.”
Stars have a gilded view of development
That’s the theme in a post from blogger Kate Cronin-Furman, a human rights lawyer and political scientist. For her website Wronging Rights, she interviewed Nimmi Gowrinathan, a visiting professor at the Colin Powell Center for Civic and Global Leadership at City College, New York, about the Jolie appointment:
“While masters programs often, effectively, rely on professors of practice, the ‘practical’ element of Angelina Jolie’s engagement in critical issues remains an exceptional experience that students cannot, and should not, expect to mimic. In humanitarian crises, the secure nature of her travel and access to pre-selected sample sizes rivals that of a Vatican visit. In her advocacy and activism, she is handed a microphone and captive audience of policymakers. Those that have lived to tell the tale of violence spend lifetimes navigating apathy and checkpoints, hoping to be the background noise that doesn’t get drowned out of critical conversations. Her practice of celebrity activism may be more thoughtful than most, but the next generation of scholars and analysts should formulate new critiques from an understanding of the hard realities of the development sector, not the plushly carpeted pathways to power.”
As one of my friends remarked on my Facebook page: “Maybe they should invite former World Bank President Joe Stiglitz to Inside the Actors Studio to talk about development economics.” While that could be entertaining, you would probably question his cinematic credibility.
Tobias Denskus is a senior lecturer in communication for development at Malmo University, Sweden, and the blogger behind Aidnography.