Putting the Rock Star in "Rock Star Professor"

A totally wired Professor Dolby
As a Gen-Xer turned parent of a Johns Hopkins University student, imagine my delight to hear about the first Homewood Professor of the Arts: Thomas Dolby. In announcing the appointment, the Baltimore Sun immediately reminded readers of Dolby's one-hit-wonder status with the headline "'She Blinded Me With Science' singer named Hopkins' 1st Homewood professor of the arts." I'm sure Dolby is used to it, but this persistent association with his signature hit overshadows his impressive, subsequent achievements in film and digital music entrepreneurship. Still, I had to wonder: Why Dolby over any number of lesser-known but more traditionally qualified candidates to lead Hopkins' effort to bolster its arts curriculum? It occurred to me that there's a dimension to this that nobody seems to be talking about: Professor Dolby is meant to impress me as a Hopkins parent more than he will ever will impress my son. My first year JHU student, born 14 years after Dolby's signature pop hit, doesn't know Thomas Dolby from Thomas Edison. For that matter, Dolby's not a household name for some of my peers with less omnivorous tastes in music than I.

The hirsute Professor Stipe
Professor of the Arts is a second act for more than one Post-punk pop star. R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe (looking rather professorial in his graying beard and spectacles) recently joined the ranks of NYU faculty in a teaching / artist-in-residence role. Arguably, Stipe brings more rock star to his turn as "rock star professor," and his chops as a multi-media artist are at least as impressive as Dolby's. But the higher education devil's advocate in me has to question the motivations behind such hires. Does the cult of personality and "real world" experience (cited by Dolby as the foundation of his resume) trump a PhD., list of publications, and other tenets of traditional academia? How many with such Ivy League credentials did Dolby—whose formal education ended at age 16—and Stipe—who didn't complete his undergraduate art degree—leap-frog into their positions? Could it be that these appointments are part of a strategic appeal to those paying tuition at these august institutions (typically, mom and dad)? Here I am, expending bytes on the matter, so perhaps the ploy is working. 

Dolby and Stipe's foray into higher education are nothing new in the sense that academia has been trying to add dimension to its relevance through innumerable "real world" connections and collaborations for years. In the age of TED (for which Dolby has been music director for 12 years) and MOOCs, it should come as no surprise that more on-campus professors are less, well, professorial in the diploma-bearing sense. But if this is to be the trajectory of academia, I hope that institutions won't continue to tap the ranks of semi-retired media icons of the 80s exclusively. If they're looking for relevance beyond the stuffy ivory tower, they might consider musicians and artists that will resonate with current students as part of their world, not part of their parents' world. 

Meanwhile, it's rumored that a Professor Vedder will join the faculty of the University of Chicago in 2015. No word to date on whether Bono will accept a post recently offered by Oxford.


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