Ex-UUK head in new role as smaller-than-life action hero

US academic's bespoke model of Sir Steve Smith is 'a lot thinner', subject observes. John Gill reports

August 4, 2011



Credit: Kobal


The US military has GI Joe, the Transformers entertainment franchise has Optimus Prime - and now UK universities have an action hero of their own: Sir Steve Smith.

The outgoing president of Universities UK, who ended his term of office this week, has been immortalised in seven-inch plastic form by a US academic.

Jesse Weiss, associate professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, Arkansas, began reworking action figures to resemble fellow academics after he picked up a model of a 1980s wrestling star and its head fell off.

"I realised it was possible to take them apart and repaint them, so I started remodelling them on people I knew," he told Times Higher Education.

He tested the water with his family, before moving on to model Rick Niece, president of Ozarks. Fortunately for Professor Weiss, his boss "got a kick out of it". Since then he has created more than a dozen figures based on colleagues and students.

Professor Weiss acknowledged that the build of the average academic was not the same as that of those of most professional wrestlers, but said he had had no complaints.

"I'm always a little worried that people might be offended, but the truth is that if you make their biceps a bit bigger most people don't mind."

He said that as a sociologist, the people he would most like to model are the "big three" social theorists, Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim.

For the model of Professor Smith, which was commissioned by THE, he used the head of Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, a wrestling manager and "bad guy in the business".

"I had to do quite a bit of modification. Bobby 'The Brain' had a pretty full head of hair, and I also had to do some alterations to the brow. It was a little more challenging than some of the others I have done."

He said the fact that Sir Steve was knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours also "put a bit more pressure on".

"I was a bit anxious. It's the most high-profile one I've done," he said.

Sir Steve said he was flattered by Professor Weiss' depiction. "What can I say? I wish I looked like the model, which seems to be quite a lot thinner than I am. Did he only have a photo of me from the neck up?"

He added that "at the end of two years at UUK I suspect the model has more 'action' left in it than I do".

The action figures have turned out to be useful teaching aids, according to Professor Weiss, who is something of an action man himself, as a trained "wilderness first responder".

"I set one assignment where I get students to re-imagine Barbie dolls in a way that is in violation of gender stereotypes, to articulate the importance of toys in the socialisation of gender. The students really respond to that.

"Toys are really culturally and socially important in the way we socialise our children - what's appropriate and what's not, what's beautiful and not. It's a hobby that meshes the personal and the professional."

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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Optimus Prime is the leader of the Autobots, a faction of heroic Transformers from the planet Cybertron who wage battles to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons.

He is brave, powerful, wise and compassionate and strives to improve the Universe around him. Optimus is dedicated to protecting all life, particularly the inhabitants of planet Earth. He battles his foes with unyielding resolve.

Sir Steve Smith is the former leader of Universities UK from planet Earth, a faction of heroic vice-chancellors charged with battling devastating funding cuts and saving universities from the "Valley of Death". His critics accused him of not doing enough to maintain state support, but Sir Steve counters that he got the best deal possible.

He has passed the UUK mantle to Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, who will continue the battle against higher education's foes with unyielding resolve.

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