There is something about Angelina Jolie’s sustained interest in world politics that leads many of my students and colleagues into paroxysms of frustration. When Jolie was made a term member in the Council on Foreign Relations, my Fletcher School students at the time mumbled and grumbled about the unfairness of it all. Why should their barriers to memberships in exclusive foreign policy clubs be higher than Jolie’s?
Similarly, some of my academic colleagues are … less than pleased about this LSE appointment:
It is certainly true that LSE has had some … let’s say “ethical issues” in its dealings with other high-profile individuals. But let’s also say that Jolie has never, to my knowledge, taken an active part in running a dictatorship, so maybe that’s not a great comparison.
The Guardian’s Esther Addley offers some more detail on Jolie’s appointment:
Jolie, who became a UNHCR goodwill ambassador in 2001 and is now a special envoy, said she was very encouraged by the creation of the course, and hoped other universities would follow suit. “It is vital we broaden the discussion on how to advance women’s rights and end impunity for crimes that disproportionately affect women, such as sexual violence in conflict.“I am looking forward to teaching and to learning from the students, as well as to sharing my own experiences of working alongside governments and the United Nations.”The one-year course, for which students can apply from this autumn, will run from the beginning of the 2017 academic year. An LSE spokeswoman said Jolie and Lord Hague would teach at least once a year for the period of their fellowship, “as often as their schedules, and their commitment as agreed with the centre director, will allow”. (emphasis added)
So, a few semi-serious thoughts on all of this.
1. Everyone calm down about eroding academic standards. This is one of those stories where the headline conjures up a narrative that is way worse than the truth. “Jolie appointed as professor” makes it seem like she has bypassed all of the academic requirements and been granted a cushy academic sinecure because of her non-academic attributes.
Everyone take a deep breath. Jolie hasn’t been given a tenured position, she’s been made a “professor of practice.” Public policy schools, like the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, make these kind of appointments on a fairly regular basis. Professors of practice are based on the premise that individuals with actual policy-making experience might have something to offer to students even if they haven’t published in peer-reviewed journals on the topic.
I don’t know how LSE does it, but at Fletcher there is an academic council that would have to approve of Jolie’s appointment, even as a visiting professor of practice. As someone who has written about celebrity activism in world politics, I’d wager that Jolie could impart a bit of wisdom on her topic. She’s been “working alongside governments and the United Nations” for 15 years at this point. She has written a few things on the subject, including in this august newspaper. I have never met Jolie, but foreign policy people who have met with her tell me that she knows her brief. Assuming she was willing to teach, I wouldn’t be inclined to vote against her appointment.
2. Maybe teach more than once a year. If Jolie’s name came up at Fletcher, the red flag for me would be granting her this appointment for only one lecture a year. There would need to be a wee bit more of engagement than that to merit the title. I recognize that Jolie is a busy person, but maybe four or five guest lectures would be more appropriate.
3. Teach about being a celebrity activist. I fear that Jolie will react to her academic appointment by doing everything to de-emphasize her agency and focus exclusively on the the substantive problems of women in situations of violent conflict. No doubt, that should be the a big part of any class she teaches (FYI, Angelina, here’s a book you might want to assign).
But if there is anything Jolie knows more about than anyone else, it is using her celebrity to set the policy agenda. She’s really good at that. LSE students who aspire to be policy entrepreneurs would probably like to know the tactics and strategies of using celebrity activists to garner attention and political momentum. This is Jolie’s true comparative advantage. I hope she talks about that part of her life with students.