The Professor: A Reminder of Academic Freedom

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Recently, being bored one evening, I decided to watch The Professor starring Johnny Depp. The movie starts with Depp’s character Richard being diagnosed with terminal cancer. The remainder of the film features Richard committing various violations of social protocol both on and off campus. In one instance Richard’s antics nearly result in his termination, but he is saved by his leverage over the President/Chancellor played by Ron Livingston of Office Space fame whose infidelity against his own wife involves Richard’s wife.

The actions of Richard socially: drinking and smoking pot with his students “during class,” inappropriate physical interactions with students, habitually drinking in his on-campus office, and more would result in Richard’s termination in a real-world situation.

However, Richard’s adjustment to his course based on his cancer diagnosis provides an insight into Academic Freedom. A former Math teacher once uttered the phrase “everyone has the right to fail.” In higher education this sentiment is often combatted by administration with the edict “they pay a lot of money; they must be passed.” Dependent on the credibility of the administrator they understand there are reasons why students Earn Failing Grades and therefore there is no argument against failing them.

What does The Professor have to do with Academic Freedom? Simple. Early in the film Richard meets with his course and suggests anyone who intends to get into business, does not read for pleasure, and does not dress appropriately for the public need to leave his class and will automatically receive a C in the course. Richard immediately puts the onus on the students who he believes will take the course most seriously and therefore who he should spend most of his time on.

Richard’s conduct is questionable, but his actions inspire and even influence his students. Through Richard’s conduct students are empowered to be themselves. The one assignment the students need to complete and are graded on are to read and analyze a book they have not read before. Only two or three of the students have any real role in the film, but the “one assignment” requiring an analysis of an entire book via oral report requires the students to use their critical thinking skills and quickly develop presentation skills.

Despite Richard’s erratic behavior, removing much of the course in the first course, and only requiring one assignment there is no outside interference deterring the curriculum of the course. By allowing the teacher and students to pursue their own academic path to success the albeit fictitious institution of higher learning is empowering Richard and his students in their academic freedom. Richard is allowed to teach what he believes is important in living and the students are allowed to analyze what they believe is important in the book they read and express their views.

Forcing educators and students to follow certain arbitrary guidelines has the potential to limit their engagement, advancement, and development as individuals. Providing reasonable leeway allows the academic freedom necessary for educators and students to grow.

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