When higher ed benefits from celebrity buzz

By Sharon Aschaiek | Sept. 4, 2019

The University of Texas has hired actor Matthew McConaughey as a film professor

Is it a good idea to promote your higher education institution with celebrities?

According to the University of Texas at Austin, the answer is “alright, alright, alright.”

UT Austin’s Moody College of Communication has hired Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey, a UT Austin alum, to teach this fall in its Department of Radio-Television-Film. McConaughey, a Texas native and Austin resident, completed a film degree there in 1993, and has served as a visiting instructor since 2015, co-teaching the Script to Screen class, and will now be teaching it on his own.

Hiring McConaughey as a full-time professor is smart on multiple levels. With his experience acting in more than 50 films, many of which are critically acclaimed and have earned him top industry awards, McConaughey brings a considerable depth of knowledge and insider insights about making a major Hollywood feature. And as a charismatic and attractive star, he is sure to help UT Austin attract more students.

Communication value of celebrity

That last point speaks to the tremendous communication value of having a celebrity on staff at a university or college. Brands of all stripes regularly pursue celebrity endorsements because it works—we take notice, we get drawn in, and we’re more likely to become fans of the product or service. The company becomes bathed in the positive aura that surrounds the star.

It’s not clear whether the communication folks at UT Austin were involved in this hiring decision, but my guess is they’re pleased with it. The announcement was covered by many major media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone and NBC News. That’s the kind of positive attention that most higher ed institutions dream about.

Other celebrity professors
Oprah professor northwestern university
Northwestern University recruited Oprah Winfrey to teach a course on leadership

UT Austin is far from the first school to make this kind of move. Northwestern University hired Oprah Winfrey to co-teach a course on Leadership with her partner, Stedman graham; James Franco has taught film classes at New York University, the University of Southern California and the University of California Los Angeles; NYU and Harvard University have both hired Spike Lee to teach filmmaking. These are just a few examples on a very long list.

Generally, these types of arrangements help schools elevate their public profile and increase their reach, which can translate into stronger student recruitment and retention. Although as with any high profile employee, a Hollywood star benefits a school as long as his or her reputation is intact—that’s an important point to consider when a school is considering potential celebrity profs.

How much should building affiliations with celebrities be a formal part of a higher ed institution’s communications, marketing and branding plans? Communication leaders at school can use their expertise to amplify the communications impact of these hires, but maybe they can go a step further. Should they be involved in working with academic deans to identify and pursue high-profile academic instructors with relevant expertise? Based on the buzz surrounding McConaughey’s role at UT Austin, I’d say it’s an idea worth exploring.

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