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Archive for Sunday, April 15, 2007

Colleges turn to star power to raise profile

April 15, 2007

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— College brochures tout Ivy-covered campuses, plush dorms and high-tech fitness centers. But when it comes to getting the attention of students - and rival institutions - nothing works as well as a little star power.

Relatively unknown schools like Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., experienced a boost in enrollment after Al Gore taught at the school. And well-established schools hoping to secure truly elite reputations are signing up celebrity professors, like Atlanta's Emory University did when it inked a five-year deal with acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie.

Landing a big name to teach gives a school an air of credibility with some prospective students it might not otherwise get, some observers say.

Sheila Peters, associate provost at Fisk, a traditionally black college of 900 students, said Gore's decision to teach at the school following his failed 2000 presidential bid thrust the school's name into the limelight. The vice president also taught at Middle Tennessee State University in Nashville and Columbia University in the wake of the election.

"I'm sure there were people who didn't know about Fisk that became introduced to us by virtue of his being here, and we are forever grateful for that," associate provost Sheila Peters said. "I don't think it hurt recruitment by any means."

Students from colleges around the Nashville area and community member were vying to get a seat in Gore's 100-student class, and prospective students were shuttled past Gore's classroom. Freshman enrollment, which had dipped to 151 students in 2001, jumped to 220 the next year.

Other schools to have gotten in on the act include Northwestern (Oprah Winfrey), Creighton (Clarence Thomas) and the University of Pennsylvania (Kal Penn, star of "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle").

Emory already is fielding calls from current and prospective students interested in taking Rushdie's four-week literature seminar next fall, school officials say.

Mark Schmidt, who took Rushdie's class this semester, said studying with the author was like being in the classroom with a rock star. He said having such a high-profile thinker on campus gives students a sense that they picked the right place to go to college.

"Coming from New Jersey, a lot of people have not heard of Emory. But they hear of this on the news, and they start saying 'Maybe they've got something going on down there,'" said Schmidt, 27. "Students who would look at Harvard or Yale, it allows them to look at Emory, too."

Kumar goes to Pennsylvania

"Harold and Kumar" star Penn is slated to teach two classes at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall - one examining Asian-Americans in the media and the other looking at teen films.

Grace Kao, director of the university's Asian-American studies program, said she has been flooded with inquiries from students wanting to take the classes.

"If some students come in thinking they're going to be hanging out with Kumar, it's going to be a shock," Kao said.

Marty Kaplan, who heads the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, which studies entertainment, media and culture, said bringing a celebrity to campus to teach is a sign that a school has emerged on the national stage.

"The professors may be incredibly distinguished and be world renowned in their field, but it's not the same as having name recognition with parents and students," Kaplan said.

Universities in the Washington, D.C., area have long drawn popular political figures to teach, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (Georgetown University) and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (George Washington University).

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