UCLA graduate student Ayappa Biddanda enjoys hobnobbing with music industry celebrities while working at his off-campus marketing job with a record label. But Biddanda has discovered that he doesn’t have to leave the classroom to brush up against people with a measure of star power.
In the fall quarter he took a film course taught by Academy Award-winning producer Peter Guber. In the winter quarter Biddanda studied public policy issues with Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee.
One of Biddanda’s few regrets is that he hasn’t been able to squeeze in a class with Kenny Burrell, the legendary guitarist who directs UCLA’s jazz studies program.
In celebrity-rich Southern California, big names are a big deal, and academia has joined the chase. UCLA and USC are at the head of the class among the nation’s universities in hiring instructors whose photos might be more likely to pop up in People magazine than in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
For some students, studying with notables who earned their fame outside academia “is a blast,” said the 27-year-old Biddanda, who is working on a master’s degree in public policy. “How often do we get a chance to learn from someone whose name can easily appear in the headlines?”
These celebrity professors -- some still famous, many others with their glory days in the past -- typically have thinner academic credentials than regular faculty and sometimes drop onto campus only a couple of times a year.
But their host schools say they often offer students inspiration and a sharper view of real-world experience, particularly in entertainment, the arts, media, politics and business. They also lend glamour to a campus and sometimes give schools ties to wealthy prospective donors.
“There’s more of a public relations mentality in academia than there used to be, and this is one manifestation of it,” said Alexander W. Astin, founding director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.
Professional resentments, of course, flourish in academia, where faculty struggle to earn PhDs and tenure. Even so, most regular faculty welcome celebrity instructors, said Martin Kaplan, an associate dean at USC and director of its Norman Lear Center, which studies the impact of entertainment on society.
“It’s exciting for everybody in the university community when accomplished or famous people come to you,” he said. “People get the impression that you’re a hot, happening place.”
USC, for example, landed a major celebrity recently in Midori Goto, the virtuoso violinist who famously debuted at age 11 with the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. This school year Midori, now 33 and generally known by just her first name, began teaching at USC’s Thornton School of Music part time. She spends about two days a month with students.
In Southern California, the trend extends to Malibu’s Pepperdine University (Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr is the law school dean, and former NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer is an adjunct faculty member), Cal State Northridge (jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard is an artist in residence) and Pomona College in Claremont (author David Foster Wallace and trumpeter Bobby Bradford).
The phenomenon occurs elsewhere, too. Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., brings in actor John Cleese of Monty Python fame, author-neurologist Oliver Sacks and former astronaut Mae Jemison for a week or two every year.
Brown University in Providence, R.I., hosts Mexican author Carlos Fuentes and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, while Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., boasts of ex-Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and former Central Intelligence Agency chief George J. Tenet.
Former President Carter has been a “university distinguished professor” at Emory University in Atlanta since 1982, lecturing about eight times a year. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey co-taught a leadership course for two terms at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Academics caution, however, that celebrity professors don’t always make for good education.
A common failing “is that you get people who have done famous things, and they come in and tell war stories. And good teaching is not war stories. Good teaching is creating really interesting generalizations out of war stories,” said Derek Bok, former president of Harvard and author of the 2003 book “Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education.”
What’s more, busy, big-name instructors can be elusive outside class. They occasionally demand more perks, like secretarial help, than the usual teacher receives. And although they might raise the profile of a school or department, they don’t necessarily produce extra tuition revenue, because enrollment in their classes is commonly capped.
Administrators insist that the hirings are not extravagant. In a few cases, such as that of Guber at UCLA, the celebrities teach for free.
At USC, celebrity instructors who take on full-time campus roles are typically paid in line with full professors, who earn an average of about $120,000 a year.
“I’m sure there are exceptions where somebody has said, ‘If you’ll give me a lot of money, I’ll come for a year.’ But money, in general, is not the driving force for these folks,” said Lloyd Armstrong Jr., USC’s provost, without specifying names or salaries.
USC’s theater school has the George Burns Distinguished Visiting Professorship, endowed by $1 million from the late comedian. Since its creation in 2002, the position has been held by Jason Alexander of TV’s “Seinfeld"; Gates McFadden of television’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation"; and, currently, Jason Robert Brown, a Tony Award-winning Broadway composer.
During their one-semester stays, the visitors have taught two to four courses, typically studio classes with no more than 15 or 16 students, and have been available for students outside the classroom.
Their classes commonly have “all the steps a course should have,” including a syllabus, a midterm and a final presentation or paper, said Madeline Puzo, USC’s theater dean. What’s more, she said, “students get a chance to actually know people who have achieved in the field in which they dream of achieving.”
The high-profile instructors’ motivations vary. For those retired from their former careers, it’s a way to stay involved. For some highly regarded but financially shaky artists or authors, it means a steady income. For others, teaching college is a way to pass on knowledge to a new generation.
“It renews my spirit. It keeps me enthusiastic,” said Guber, who has taught at UCLA for more than 30 years.
Guber, 63, juggles a busy schedule to make time for teaching. He is chairman of Mandalay Entertainment Group and is co-host of the AMC cable television program “Sunday Morning Shootout.”
He once was one of the biggest forces in Hollywood, as the producer of four movies nominated for best picture Oscars, including “Rain Man,” the 1988 winner. In 1989, Sony recruited Guber and his partner, Jon Peters, to run the Japanese company’s Hollywood arm. Guber resigned as the head of Sony Pictures in 1994, seven weeks before it announced a huge financial loss. Many students appear to hang on his words, and he says no one asks about his departure from Sony, which he brushed off as one of the inevitable “bumps” in a high-powered career.
During the final session of his fall film-production course, Guber paced at the front of the lecture hall, clenching a fist for emphasis, his raspy voice booming.
At one point, he told students that movies needed to balance consumers’ competing desires for predictability and variety.
“If you give them too much variety, they’re very uncomfortable,” Guber said, warning of the financial hazards of offbeat movies.
But later on he said, “Don’t just try to find the way the wind is blowing.... Once you try to do that, you’re always looking for somebody else; you never find yourself. There’s no satisfaction even when you win; forget when you lose.”
Following rules of a UCLA program that brings Hollywood insiders to teach, Guber tells students not to call him at his office or pitch their scripts.
“I’m not an employment agency,” he said.
Guber said he loved teaching but that he didn’t have time to get more involved with students.
“I have no idea of 99% of their first names ... any more than I know who is watching my movie in the theaters,” he said. On the other hand, Guber said he personally graded student papers, although he sometimes asks one of his two or three class assistants to review the work too.
Dukakis and Midori reflect other celebrity-professor styles.
The former presidential candidate is a deeply involved teacher. He has taught during the winter quarter at UCLA since 1996, and spends the rest of the year as a professor at Northeastern University in Boston.
“I’m in five days a week, at least,” said Dukakis, fit-looking and vigorous at 71. “I read and grade my own papers. I won’t let teaching assistants do that.”
Early this winter quarter, during a session of his graduate class on public-sector management, Dukakis asked whether any of the 35 students -- many of whom he called on by their first names -- were having trouble getting through to the public officials they needed to meet for their class projects.
“Most people still return my calls.... I may be able to get through to these folks and help you out,” said Dukakis, who also co-teaches a course on California policy issues.
Dukakis, who served three terms as governor of Massachusetts, wove references to his own experience in government into the class discussion.
On one occasion, he seemed to justify his governing style. Often branded a “technocrat” during his run for the White House, Dukakis said: “There isn’t any question that when you’re elected for the first time, you’re likely to be a micro-manager. That’s not because you want to micro-manage. But if you’re going to put your stamp on this thing, you’ve just got to be into this.”
Within a couple of years, he told the students, he delegated more.
Hasmik Badalian, a 23-year-old who earned her bachelor’s degree at UCLA and is working there on a master’s in public policy, just finished her second Dukakis course. Two years ago, as an undergraduate, she took a class from Warren Christopher, secretary of State in the Clinton administration.
One of Badalian’s favorite campus memories is when Dukakis dropped by Christopher’s class to say hello.
“It was kind of funny to see the two of them -- you know, these huge politicians who you’ve seen in the media -- and they’re just kind of standing there ... talking just like normal guys,” she said.
At USC, Midori’s situation reflects some of the complications of hiring celebrity professors. Rob Cutietta, the music dean, said he negotiated with Midori six to eight months about filling the school’s Jascha Heifetz Chair, named for the violin virtuoso who taught at USC from the early 1960s through the early 1980s. The problem, Cutietta said, was that “she had so many performances already arranged for the next three years.”
Some uncertainty remains. As Cutietta explains it, Midori is expected to become a full professor after two years of part-time duty. He said the full-time job would call for her to instruct a small USC “studio” of six to eight violin students and coach other music students on campus too. She also plans to continue giving concerts.
Midori apparently doesn’t consider that plan a done deal. A USC studio “is more likely than not,” she said. Still, she added, “nothing is set yet.”
This school year Midori is spending a minimum of 12 days on campus. Her visits are packed with hours of teaching and rehearsals, including lengthy practices with a trio and a quartet she has formed with USC music students.
“When I’m teaching, teaching is my first priority. My students come first,” she said.
Clara Levy, a PhD candidate in music education at USC, attended a recent talk by Midori on getting jobs in music and found the violinist “very kind” and “very humble.” But she also wondered whether the school retained Midori partly as a marketing device and questioned whether the violinist’s visits would help students.
“A student needs full involvement of the teacher,” Levy said. “Let’s say Midori awakens many questions, and there are many things you would like to ask her.... But if you want to get to her, it’s hard to do.”
Yet the superstar violinist brings the sort of excitement to campus that many other celebrity professors do. Graduate students Karina Sabac and Ruslan Biryukov, the other members of Midori’s USC trio, call her an inspiration.
With Midori, they performed four “pre-concert” performances of Beethoven’s “Archduke Trio” at Walt Disney Concert Hall in mid-February.
Afterward, Midori appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Still, she found time after that to join the students in a Disney Hall rehearsal room for more practice before leaving for a red-eye flight back to New York.
“I’ve never seen anybody able to work with such an intensity,” said Biryukov, a 27-year-old cellist from Russia who came to USC after studying at the Tchaikovsky Moscow Conservatory.
“To play with her,” he said, pausing in mid-sentence as if to savor the memory, “that is incredible.”