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Stealing the show: more university leaders on the big screen

Paul Greatrix counts down the greatest university administrators ever to grace the cinema.
This article is more than 4 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

A while back we did a brief feature on university leaders who had appeared, not always successfully, in the movies.

From Ghostbusters to Animal House there was a decent selection but naturally my favourite of these was the fleeting appearance of the Registrar, played by Ronald Cardew, in the film version of Lucky Jim.

An old school Registrar at the movies

There are a few more from this list added below but we did inexplicably miss a few out and I am indebted to Alex Usher and Smita Jamdar for prompting the update of the list with a few excellent suggestions. I’ll be honest though, I’ve not seen all of these so can’t verify the quality.

Dr Philip Barbay, Back to School (1986)
In Back to School, business school dean Dr. Philip Barbay (Paxton Whitehead) clashes with Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield), a rags-to-riches corporate clothing store founder who decides to go to college with his son.played. The primary source of conflict between the two is Barbay’s Ivory Tower book smarts pitted against Melon’s experiential knowledge of business, but Melon also strikes up a budding romance with his literature professor—also Barbay’s girlfriend. Naturally, student-versus-administrator hijinks ensue. Another dean, Dean Martin (Ned Beatty), also gives Melon trouble, accusing him of academic fraud at one point in the film.

The Dean, College (1927)
The dean (Snitz Edwards) in this 1927 silent film doesn’t really have a name beyond his title. He describes his school, Clayton, as “athlete-infested” and assists the movie’s scholarly main character in winning the girl. Don’t you wish students still viewed the administration this way?

Trustee Ed Keller, The Male Animal (1942)
Touching upon Red Scare sentiments, this film stars Henry Fonda as Midwestern University English instructor Tommy Turner. Turner finds himself at odds with the school’s trustees—Eugene Pallette’s Ed Keller, in particular—after word spreads that he plans to read Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s sentencing statement to his class. Apparently, the literary works of the time just wouldn’t cut it when he needed an example of English composition. Academic freedom takes center stage as the trustees threaten Turner’s livelihood over the whole debacle.

Dean Ulich, Revenge of the Nerds(1984)
Adams College’s Dean Ulich (David Wohl) is perhaps the most sympathetic administrator this side of the aforementioned College. In Revenge of the Nerds, he assists the nerdy Tri-Lambs in their war against the school’s jocky frat, The Alpha-Betas. The dean even gets a bully of his own in John Goodman’s Coach Harris, but would a real campus administrator really get involved in student warfare like this?

Dean Hardscrabble, Monsters University (2013)

I don’t think we need to say much about this one.

Dean Pritchard, Old School (2003)
Mitch, Frank and Beanie are disillusioned with their personal lives begining when Mitch’s girlfriend, Heidi, cheats on him, then former party animal Frank gets married, but unwilling to let go of his wild life, and Beanie is a family man seeking to reclaim his wild and crazy youth. Beanie suggests that they form their own fraternity in Mitch’s new house on a college campus to re-live their glory days by bringing together a variety of misfit college students, losers, middle-aged and elderly retirees as their new friends and later try to avoid being evicted by the new Dean of Students, Pritchard, who still holds a personal grudge against all three of them.

Ben Lewis, in Accepted (2006)
A high school slacker who’s rejected by every school he applies to opts to create his own institution of higher learning, the South Harmon Institute of Technology, on a rundown piece of property near his hometown. He does manage to get one academic to join the staff who is exceptionally helpful when the leadership team meets the panel from the Accreditation Board:

Uncle Ben : [to Group] What is learning? It’s paying attention. It’s opening yourself up to this great big ball of shit that we call life, and what’s the worst that could happen? You get bit in the ass. Well let me tell you: my ass looks like hamburger meat, but I can still sit down.

Uncle Ben : [the panel has demanded to know if there is any real faculty at South Harmon] Present and accounted for!
Dean Van Horne : Oh, for God’s sakes! Dr. Alexander, this man has not been a part of academia for three decades! We were on the faculty together at Harmon in our 20s, but he washed out. He’s a drunk, he’s a degenerate and he’s looney tunes!
Sherman Schrader : HEY, ASSHOLE! You’re talking about my Mom’s brother!
Dean Van Horne : OH, SIT DOWN!
Sherman Schrader : [meekly] Okay.
Uncle Ben : HEY! Why don’t you take your *P-h-D*, and shove it up your *A-S-S*!
[all the students cheer]

Uncle Ben : You know a lot of people say that college is a time when young men and women expand the way that they look at their world when they open their mind to new ideas and experiences and when they begin that long journey form the innocence of Youth, to the responsibilities of Adulthood… now isn’t that a load of horse shit! AHAHAHAHA!

Larry Summers, The Social Network (2010)

Douglas Urbanski plays Larry Summers in “The Social Network.”

And then there is this on screen representation of a real University President, Larry Summers of Harvard, who appears in the dramatised tale of the creation of Facebook. As The Washington Post noted:

In a short but memorable scene, Summers (then president of Harvard) meets with twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, who want the university to punish Mark Zuckerberg for supposedly ripping off their big idea for what became Facebook. Played by Douglas Urbanski, Summers is depicted as dismissive and arrogant, mocking both the twins and the idea that a social network site could be worth millions.

“I’m sorry, President Summers, what you just said makes no sense to me at all,” says one of the twins.
Retorts the celluloid Summers, sarcastically: “I’m devastated by that.”
Is that really how it went down? A rep for screenwriter Aaron Sorkin told us only that “everything in the scene is sourced.” While the encounter is played for laughs, the actual meeting was much more contentious, according to one party involved. “He had a massive opportunity to put some teeth into the university ethics code,” Cameron Winklevoss told our colleague Monica Hesse. Instead, he says, Summers blew them off.

I’m sure there are many more higher ed leaders in films. But I’m yet to hear of any Registrars on the big screen since the release of Lucky Jim over 60 years ago. Some day perhaps.

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