December 2, 2003

Sponsor Works to Extend Cleese's Term as Professor

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When John Cleese — comedian, actor, author, Python — started his term as an Andrew Dickson White Professor-at-Large on July 1, 1998, the expectation was that he would lecture on humor and maybe pass on some insight into the business side of the entertainment industry. According to Cleese’s faculty sponsor and nominator, Prof. Steve Ceci, human development, Cleese has done that and more.

“He’s done more than we ever expected, than we ever dreamed he would do. In all of the years that I have been involved in the visiting professor program at Cornell, this man has stood out for his enormous energy and generosity to Cornell,” Ceci said.

At the end of June, however, Cleese’s six-year term is scheduled to end. “He’s been so generous, so hard working that we’d hate to see it end,” Ceci said. To keep Cleese aboard, Ceci has started the process to extend the actor’s term by two years.

“Ceci… has indicated that he intends to submit a request to extend John Cleese’s appointment by two years,” said Gerri Jones, administrator for the Program for A. D. White Professors-at-Large. “The request will need to be fortified by letters from the faculty and campus organizations describing potential activities for Cleese, should his term be extended.”

The request would be considered in April by a selection committee made up of University faculty, which would pass its recommendation on to the President and the Board of Trustees for final approval, Jones said.

Given Cleese’s range of activities and unusually close involvement with the campus, garnering such recommendations should not be a serious issue. “There’s been a lot of faculty involved with his visits and a shared perception that he has been a very good friend of Cornell’s,” Ceci said.

Although Cleese has taken time to present some of his own films, such as the controversial comedy classic, “Life of Brian,” and field questions about his career in the infamous Monty Python comedy group, Ceci is quick to point out that he has brought a lot more than his peculiar British wit to Cornell.

“He has contributed many different pieces to the Cornell community,” Ceci said. Cleese has held workshops on screenwriting and management and lectured on topics as diverse as consciousness and face recognition. In addition to large-group lectures, Cleese has taken time to meet with faculty in a more personal setting.

“Last April, Cleese met with a group of eminent social scientists and economists ,” Ceci said. At the meeting, the researchers discussed their work with Cleese. “The uniform reaction afterwards was that [the researchers] felt as if they were dealing with a colleague rather than an entertainer. He’s an extremely intelligent man and it comes through when he asks questions about research.”

Prof. Beta Mannix, management and organizations, was at that meeting and agreed, saying Cleese “clearly has a desire to interact with faculty and students on an intellectual level, and I think that is of enormous value for the school.”

Joe Thomas, associate dean of academic affairs, evinced similar sentiments. “He is humorous, of course, but he is also highly intelligent and an astute observer of the world in which we live,” Thomas said.

Prof. Emeritus Richard Ripple, education, stressed Cleese’s value to students. “I am a complete Cleese supporter,” he said. “He engaged Mews frosh residents in an informal conversation on creativity for more than an hour on his last visit to campus. His approach… was academic/intellectual without being stuffy.”

Ripple said that many of the students, on the advice of Cleese, now carry around “scruffy notebooks” to record ideas that occur to them during the day. “Cornell cannot get enough of John Cleese,” Ripple said. “Please extend his term.”

Cleese has paid surprise visits to student labs and dining halls. “Instead of the usual model for visiting professors, who come to campus and give one or two addresses in their area, Cleese is a workhorse. He’s constantly volunteering. ‘Can I go up to North Campus dining halls and meet with freshmen? Can I visit this class or this lab?'” Ceci said.

Ceci also noted, as has Cleese previously, that much of the professor-at-large’s value derives from his ability to attract other persons of note.

“On many of Cleese’s visits, not only has he come, his wife [Alyce Faye Eichelberger] has come and has contributed to campus life in her own right. She’s an accomplished analyst and writer and has given several talks that were excellent… Additionally, Cleese often brings outsiders to Cornell during his visits. He has brought screenwriters and biographers that have added immensely to his visits,” Ceci said.

“He wants us to program him continually during his visits, not merely the occasional public lecture,” Ceci said. “This is the kind of guy he is… Cleese’s style is, while he’s here, he wants you to work him as hard as you can,” Ceci said. If Ceci’s request for an extension is granted, Cleese will have two more years of hard work to do, delighting and informing both students and faculty.

Archived article by Michael Morisy