VIPs (Very Important Professors): Famous College Professors

May 10, 2011

Academics don't always spend their lives locked up in the ivory tower. The following 10 VIPs either started off famous and brought their notoriety into the classroom or gained fame (and even fortune!) by bringing their research and expertise into the 'real world.'

Dr. Temple Grandin

1. Temple Grandin

Dr. Temple Grandin currently teaches animal science in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Colorado State University (CSU). She's also a renowned livestock scientist, inventor of a number of devices that make livestock handling more humane and an outspoken advocate for autistic individuals (she's a high-functioning autistic woman herself). Dr. Grandin's achievements have been memorialized in a series of books and a film, and Time Magazine even named her among the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010.

2. Spike Lee

Spike Lee is one of America's most famous and, arguably, most historically important African-American filmmakers. He has a long and distinguished filmography, including the well-known films Do the Right Thing, Inside Man, The Original Kings of Comedy, Malcolm X and, more recently, When the Levees Broke. Lee is currently the artistic director of the graduate film program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, his alma mater, where he teaches an advanced graduate course on directing.

3. Elinor Ostrom

Dr. Elinor Ostrom teaches political science at Indiana University Bloomington, where she gained notoriety in the academic world for her achievements in political science and economics. Her accomplishments include ground-breaking insights into common property. She was skyrocketed into mainstream fame in 2009, when she became the first woman to ever win the Nobel Prize for Economic Science. But that wasn't actually the first glass ceiling that she shattered - Dr. Ostrom was also the first woman to receive the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science in 1999.

4. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University. He has gained widespread recognition in the intellectual community as a literary critic, writer and pre-eminent scholar of black culture, but it wasn't until 2009 that the whole world learned his name. Dr. Gates was arrested at his own home by the Cambridge, MA police while they were investigating a possible break in. He used the incident to highlight the ongoing inequalities that black people face in the American justice system, which garnered so much national attention that President Obama invited him to the White House to discuss race relations over a beer.

5. Noam Chomsky

Dr. Noam Chomsky is a legendary figure who teaches at Harvard's rival Cambridge college, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He's an emeritus professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, where he focuses on syntax, linguistic theory and the philosophy of language. Many people in the academic community view him as the 'father of linguistics,' but he's better known in the mainstream for his radical political views and his outspoken position as a self-declared 'socialist libertarian intellectual.'

Professor Maya Angelou

6. Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is a world-renowned poet and author who was called 'America's most visible black female autobiographer' by scholar Joanne Braxton. Her many achievements include receiving a Pulitzer Prize nomination and over 30 honorary academic degrees. Angelou also wrote and delivered former President Clinton's inaugural poem in 1993. She currently teaches American Studies at Wake Forest University, which also runs the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity through the School of Medicine. The center focuses on providing adequate healthcare for the increasingly diverse U.S. population.

7. Jimmy Carter

No list of famous professors would be complete without mentioning former President Jimmy Carter. After his presidency, President Carter became a Distinguished Professor at Emory University, where he still lectures and teaches. He also founded the Carter Center at Emory, which focuses on conflict resolution, protecting human rights, promoting democracy and preventing disease worldwide. In 2002, President Carter was recognized for this work and his many other political and social achievements when he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

8. Madeleine Albright

President Carter isn't the only important political figure who currently graces a classroom. Dr. Madeleine Albright, the first woman to ever become the U.S. Secretary of State, is a professor of diplomacy in the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Dr. Albright also taught at Georgetown before her time as Secretary of State, focusing on international affairs and women's studies.

9. Al Gore

Rounding out the list of famous politicians in the classroom is former Vice President Al Gore. Even after losing a bid for presidency against former President George Bush, Jr., Gore stayed in the spotlight through his vocal advocacy for environmental responsibility. In addition to hitting the lecture circuit, Gore produced An Inconvenient Truth, a wildly popular film about the effects of global warming. Gore currently teaches one course at Middle Tennessee State University, 'Community Building: A Comprehensive Family Centered Approach,' where he also started the Gore Research Center. He holds similar single-course teaching positions at Fisk University and Columbia University.

10. Daniel K. N. Johnson

Dr. Daniel K. N. Johnson is an economics professor at Colorado College, but his fame lies in the world of sports. Back in 2000, Dr. Johnson decided to see if he could use economic variables to predict the number of medals each country would win in the summer Olympics. He was eerily accurate, and his continued to be for each summer and winter Olympics ever since - his best rate of accuracy was 97 percent! These predictions have gotten him written up in The Wall Street Journal and gained him notoriety with sports fans all over the world.

Hollywood is bursting with stars who have dabbled in academia - or academics who have dabbled in film. Learn more about James Franco, a renowned actor who is in the process of earning multiple graduate degrees and even does a little teaching on the side.


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