Deans on Film: university leaders at the movies

We’ve looked at movies and TV programmes about higher ed before and indeed explored a range of simply terrible looking films flimsily based around university life.

Accepting that it is quite difficult to get HE looking accurate on the big screen and the fact that much that goes on isn’t terribly cinematic, it is perhaps unsurprising that there have been some pretty ropey portrayals of senior university managers in the movies.

This list of Hollywood’s least believable campus leaders has a few characters I’d heard of and some really old ones I hadn’t.

Meet the new boss…

DEAN VERNON WORMER, ANIMAL HOUSE (1978)

Often imitated, never duplicated, John Vernon’s Dean Wormer is the quintessential villainous administrator. Pitting students against the campus’ powers that be is a common feature of college movie plots, but Wormer, in his plotting and scheming against the troublesome Deltas, is the Darth Vader of deans. There’s a reason why the deans in more recent movies like Old School and Accepted seem like cheap knock-offs by comparison.

MARCUS BRODY, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) AND INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989)

The dean of students at Marshall College, Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) is a loyal friend and patron to Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones. Portrayed in a serious manner in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the respected archeologist and National Museum curator takes on a comedic sidekick role (“He got lost once in his own museum”) in 1989’s Last Crusade. Even after Elliott’s death, the dean of students’ presence is still felt in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when his statue plays a vital role in a chase sequence.

CHANCELLOR SARA GASKELL, WONDER BOYS (2000)

A much more serious modern college film, Frances McDormand’s Chancellor Sara Gaskell is involved in a love triangle with the protagonist, English professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), and antagonist, English Chair Walter Gaskell (Richard Thomas). The film takes a few dark turns, but ultimately wraps up with most of its characters in a better position. Answer us this, though: How many real campus administrators would be likely to own a piece of movie memorabilia like Marilyn Monroe’s jacket?

DEAN RICHMOND, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1996) AND THE NUTTY PROFESSOR II: THE KLUMPS (2000)

In this remake, Dean Richmond (Larry Miller) is an insulting, but more-bumbling-than-menacing, antagonist to Eddie Murphy’s Professor Sherman Klump. Then again, what administrator wouldn’t antagonize a professor if their failed experiment cost their department nearly all of its funding? By the time the sequel rolls around, however, Richmond has pulled a 180 and become a friend to Klump.

DEAN LARRY BENSON AND CHAIRMAN JONATHAN KIRKLAND, HERE COME THE CO-EDS (1945)

 

DEAN YAGER, GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)

By all accounts, Jordan Charney’s Dean Yager should be reviled. He kicks Doctors Venkman, Stantz and Spengler off campus right when they’re on the verge of a major discovery that probably would have brought the unnamed New York City university a great deal of funding. However, his decision to do so leads to the formation of the Ghostbusters and ultimately results in the city being saved, so it’s not so bad in the end, except for the fact that his department and university as a whole can’t share the spotlight for the scientific breakthrough.

But one other, not mentioned here, is the disappointingly minor role of the Registrar in the film Lucky Jim. Played by Ronald Cardew he sadly doesn’t get much of an opportunity to get involved. Things may have worked out better if he had.

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