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The Fix’s most memorable movie college professors

Another school year has come to a close, so to celebrate, I, Dave Huber, am offering up a look-see at some of the most notable college professors from film.

Keep in mind the following list is limited to those who taught college, not high school or prep school (sorry, John Keating). Also keep in mind that those chosen have been so for a simple reason: I actually saw the movie.

The Paper Chase’s Charles Kingsfield. The “son of a bitch” Harvard Law professor played by John “They Ehhrrrrn It” Houseman drives his students to the edge with his relentlessness. Houseman won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance, and later reprised the role in a television series of the same name.

Animal House’s Dave Jennings. Smokes grass and has sex with students, discusses Milton’s “Paradise Lost” with the motivation of a Central American sloth, and scares freshmen by informing them that “there’s a distinct possibility” that marijuana will make them “schizo.” One thing we didn’t need to see on Jennings: Donald Sutherland’s naked posterior.

Back to School’s Phillip Barbay. The snooty British business prof who “tells it like it ain’t” battles middle-aged freshman Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) both in the classroom and for the affections of Professor Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman). About the only positives to Barbay are his sports car and his desire to have a gal dress like Wonder Woman, tie him up, and force him to tell the truth.

Speaking of which …

Back to School’s Diane Turner. What more motivation does a guy need to study Joyce’s Ulysses than by Prof Turner reading from the character of Molly Bloom?

Good Will Hunting’s Sean Maguire. Robin Williams is sensational enough as Dead Poets Society’s John Keating (but, as noted, that’s high school); he’s at least as good as the community college psych prof who grounds — and ultimately reaches — the brilliant, cocky and troubled title character. Minus points for Maguire indulging Will’s (Matt Damon) penchant for Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.

Good Will Hunting’s Gerald Lambeau. Stellan Skarsgård does a terrific job as the in-need-of-constant-ego-stroking MIT mathematics professor who “discovers” Will and wants to bottle his genius.

William Macy’s character in Oleanna. The film, based on the play by David Mamet, looks as if it comes from the headlines of just about any current college newspaper. Macy’s performance should cause any male in academia — teacher and student — to be hyper-careful of how they interact with females in the modern academy. It’s quite emotionally disturbing how John (Macy) withers from being on the verge of gaining tenure … to losing everything.

Revenge of the Nerds’ Dean Ulich. The dean embodies the professorial side of the nerd-jock dichotomy as he consistently is at odds with football coach Harris (hilariously portrayed by John Goodman). These two are actually about to come to blows (below) until Bernie Casey’s U.N. Jefferson and other Tri-Lambs come to his (and the Nerds’) defense.


Says ME, you a**hole!!

Soul Man’s Professor Banks. I love James Earl Jones in whatever movie he’s featured, and despite this film’s ridiculous premise, he stands out in it. He’s completely no-nonsense, accepting zero excuses from any student, black, white, rich, poor (“I understand you are allowed one phone call from jail? Next time you get arrested, use it to call me. I’ll bring you your books. You can study in jail“), yet not completely unsympathetic:

Professor Banks: You’ve learned something I can’t teach them. You’ve learned what it feels like to be black.
Mark: No sir.
Professor Banks: Beg your pardon?
Mark: I don’t really know what it feels like sir. If I didn’t like it, I could always get out. It’s not the same sir.
Professor Banks: You’ve learned a great deal more than I thought.

The Nutty Professor’s Sherman Klump. The best scene by far in this “remake” comedy is Klump’s skinny alter ego “Buddy Love” (Eddie Murphy) getting even with comedian Reggie Warrington (Dave Chappelle) at the club where the latter previously had humiliated the (stout) professor (language warning):

Higher Learning’s Maurice Phipps. I think this site summarizes Phipps best:

A radical Political Science tutor, he alone amongst the characters in the film makes a serious effort to break through his students’ prejudices and teach them to stop viewing the world through a lens of racism. His dedication to teaching his students to face the real world is also a total contrast to some of the more irresponsible entries on this list: “In the real world, no one wants to hear excuses or empty rhetoric. They want to know that you have a plan.”

Henry “Indiana” Jones in the Indiana Jones films. Who wouldn’t Professor Jones as their archeology instructor … especially if he takes you on as an on-site intern?

A Beautiful Mind’s John Nash. Despite some personal failings, the real-life Nash’s ability to overcome paranoid schizophrenia and continue to do research … and teach … is truly remarkable. His theories are intriguing, and economists/capitalists might find interest in this:

Nash has developed work on the role of money in society. Within the framing theorem that people can be so controlled and motivated by money that they may not be able to reason rationally about it, he has criticized interest groups that promote quasi-doctrines based on Keynesian economics that permit manipulative short-term inflation and debt tactics that ultimately undermine currencies. He has suggested a global “industrial consumption price index” system that would support the development of more “ideal money” that people could trust rather than more unstable “bad money”. He notes that some of his thinking parallels economist and political philosopher Friedrich Hayek’s thinking regarding money and a nontypical viewpoint of the function of the authorities.

Who is a must-include on this list? Who are your most memorable movie college professors?

Let us know in the comments!

Dave Huber is an assistant editor of  The College Fix. (@ColossusRhodey)

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IMAGE: carbon-arc/Flickr

About the Author
Assistant Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over a decade, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.

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