Why you should be critical of Professor Angelina Jolie Pitt’s LSE gig

The message of Angelina Jolie’s appointment as Professor of Practice in LSE’s new MSc course on women, peace and security has probably been shared and commented on more widely than detailed news from the World Humanitarian Summit.
Aid workers and academics alike shared critical comments and it is worth to engage a bit more comprehensively with the underlying issues of academic corporatization and the celebritization of aid work and development research/teaching.
Hannah Fearn’s comment that over-sensitive inhabitants of the ivory tower should drop their
academic snobbery is a rather short-sighted critique of some of the broader issues that culminate in ironic facebook comments or snarky Tweets:

Timing and context
It is important to look beyond general comments such as ‘universities always had practitioners joining their classes’ or ‘Angelina Jolie knows a lot about the subject’ and at the specific context of this announcement:
The UK now has the highest tuition fees in the OECD world, there is currently a strike going on at UK universities over salary negotiations and students in London, the very city the LSE is so centrally embedded in, are withholding rent in a protest about affordable accommodation, Sean Penn just released what critics described as an
appalling new movie with an aid work backdrop and the absence of global leaders (celebrities) was felt at the World Humanitarian Summit.
So when it comes to representations of development in connection with celebrities and a struggling UK higher education industry, some commentators may be more critical than they would have six or so months ago.

Understanding the corporate university

A second important aspect is that we need to be clearer about Angelina Jolie’s appointment in the context of a higher education enterprise aka the London School of Economics and Political Science.
She is unlikely to hold office hours on campus, sit in a seminar room with ten postgraduate students or participate in a faculty research away-day. She will be a guest lecturer and rather than labeling her visiting something-or-other the marketing department created a title such as ‘Professor of Practice’. It’s a win-win-win…win:

1. Professors of Practice probably teach pro-bono (for free…not in support of the guy from U2…) and ease the teaching load of ‘proper’ academic staff who can then focus on seemingly more important issues such as journal article writing or applying for grants. Win for many academics and the finance department.

2. Professors of Practice are usually experienced professionals who enjoy classroom teaching-especially as it does not come with the pesky administration around grading papers, sitting in five faculty meetings, discussing evaluations or staffing courses with part-time adjuncts. Win for the professors and to some extent for the students.

3. Students, hungry for ‘practical insights’ and keen on networking after they paid overseas entrance fees and exorbitant living cost in London are happy to have practitioners in the classroom. Win for the student experience survey and for the business side of the university.

4. Professors of Practice are great brand ambassadors-imagine what one Tweet from Angelina Jolie on how much she enjoys her class at LSE can do for your global recruitment-the very fact that this issue is being discussed so widely is a huge success for viral marketing. A win for recruitment and for the finance department.

Whether or not we want to talk about ‘capitalism’ or ‘neoliberalism’, LSE’s appointment of Angelina Jolie is an important case study in global higher education marketization in an area outside the ‘usual suspect discipline’ such as business schools or law faculties.

Mediatization and celebritization of aid work – ‘first they came to do my job, now they are after yours’
So maybe the attention for the new program on
women, peace and security is a good thing? Well, it depends. As a graduate of the world’s largest Peace Studies department at the University of Bradford I am less sure on how groundbreakingly new a program is just because you are skillfully re-arranging words in the title. But new programs need new (fee-paying) students...There is nothing wrong with an entertaining lecture, but in the age of TED talks, Hans Rosling visualizations and a higher education sector that is now less ‘ivory tower’ than it ever was, we have to critically assess how ‘fun’ university studies can and should be.

That is particularly important in ‘our’ area of development and humanitarian aid where short-term field experience, volunteering stints or superficial engagements with large and/or powerful organizations all come with their own problems; Angelina Jolie, unfortunately, represents that modus operandi and her appointment helps to legitimize an approach that places ‘doing’ over ‘thinking’ and ‘reflecting’-two fundamental traits higher education should defend more vigorously.

It is in this particular contemporary context that we should have more critical debates beyond shallow Tomb Raider jokes or serious head nodding when emphasizing Jolie
’s work as a UN goodwill ambassador.
Carrie Reiling elaborates on
how celebritization reinforce(s) stratification and hierarchy’ in the field of women, peace and security in her excellent post.

As much as I agree that academia needs to be open and accessible, there are still elements of my actual job that I trained and studied hard for – just as my aid or humanitarian professional colleagues did.
As one friend remarked on social media: ‘Maybe they should invite Joe Stiglitz to “Inside the Actors Studio” to talk about development economics’ – that could be entertaining, but we still need to acknowledge our professional spheres and identities.

And with so many inequalities in London at the moment finding balances between a marketing stunt and challenging the underlying themes of the very course Jolie will be teaching in should be on the agenda of any university in this great city.


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