Favourites boost profs' popularity

September 1, 1995

A series of radio spots in which celebrities will talk about "My Favourite Professor" is being planned in the United States.

Faced with a hostile Congress and a battery of negative publicity, the 44,000-member American Association of University Professors is backing the series, hoping that Bill Clinton will go on air to tell the world about his favourite professor at Georgetown University where he was an undergraduate.

It would also like the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, to broadcast her enthusiasm for an academic at her alma mater, Wellesley, the liberal arts college outside Boston; or maybe for a professor at Yale, where she trained as a lawyer and met Bill.

The radio spots are the brainchild of Mary Burgan, general secretary of the AAUP, who believes that teaching is being undervalued today.

"It is about much more than the transfer of information. It is about a critical exchange from one generation to another, between those who know and those who want to know," she says. "I believe we must reaffirm the power of this exchange. We can do it by hearing from people whose lives have been affected by their teachers."

High on her list of people for the radio spots is talk show host Oprah Winfrey and the novelist Toni Morrison, author of Beloved. She believes that Hollywood star Robert Redford would be a good candidate as would Stephen J. Gould, the Harvard biologist, and Bobby Knight, basketball coach at the University of Indiana. No one has been approached yet, because planning is still in its early stages.

The association has two motives for the initiative: it wants to improve the image of academics, and it wants to encourage students to go to college. Higher education has taken a severe beating during the 1990s over a range of issues - political correctness, tuition fees, accountability and a research expense scandal which rocked Stanford University.

Congress has been highly critical of student loan fraud. Newt Gingrich, leader of the House of Representatives, and a former professor, is given to denigrating academics for not working hard enough and not producing good enough research. Above all, he attacks them for being liberals.

"They're really not all liberals," says Mary Burgan, a former professor of English at the University of Indiana.

The radio spots could make a difference to someone, she believes. "And they could make a difference to faculty - giving them some kind of affirmation for what they're doing."

The association is expecting to have to find $20,000 to $30,000 (Pounds 13,000 to Pounds 20,000) for the making of one-minute radio spots, and is approaching foundations for help with this expenditure. It hopes that by acquiring endorsement from the Advertising Council of America it will not have to pay to air the advertisements.

Help is being provided by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, a non-profit association whose expertise lies in public relations, fundraising and alumni organisation.

Television advertising has been ruled out for now because of its expense. But the AAUP has other projects up its sleeve, including one which would involve the association in hands-on activism. Professors would teach their subject to disadvantaged pupils in urban or rural areas, showing that academics were useful and prepared to help the community.

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