December 4, 2003

Prof. Cleese Responds to Possibility of Extension

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Famous for his caricatures of teachers and stuffy school administrators, Prof. John Cleese might have, at first glance, seemed an odd choice for the prestigious Andrew Dickson White Professor-at-Large position. However, the actor who provided a “live demonstration” for his sex-ed class in 1983’s comedy classic The Meaning of Life seems equally capable of lecturing seriously on family, business, psychology and countless other topics to audience after eager audience of Cornell students.

Indeed, the professor seems to have served his six-year term so well that many feel his stay should be extended. “A number of faculty plan to renominate him for an extension,” said Prof. Steve Ceci, human development, Cleese’s faculty host. “This has occurred in the past, when an exceptional job has been done.”

While the on-campus drive to keep Cleese builds up steam (a decision won’t be made until April), the actor/author/speaker has also expressed interest in continuing on at Cornell, and spoke with the Sun recently about his time here and his plans for the future.

“I was intrigued from the very start,” he said of being offered the position. “I was told if you’re an A.D. White professor, you come to Cornell to stir things up a bit once a year, and that’s what I try to do.” His lectures, whether the topic is one of his own movies or face recognition, never fail to succeed in that respect, igniting discussions amongst both students and faculty.

After the initial media frenzy over his visit died down and he settled into his new role as Prof. Cleese, the former Python found his work here quite enjoyable. “My visits are among the highlights of my year,” he said. “There’s very few things I look forward to more.” His comfort on the serious side of the podium should pose no surprise, as his first job, at 19, was as a teacher at his former prep school in Weston-super-Mare.

Of the University, Cleese said, “It’s extremely beautiful, that’s the first thing that strikes you … the second thing that strikes you is that there’s an understated friendliness that I find very endearing.”

Indeed, what many of his most fervent supporters say sets him apart from the typical visiting professor is that he is such a good friend in turn to the Cornell community. He has surprised classes with visits and questions, has had dinner with freshmen and he even came in to roast former President Hunter R. Rawlings III when he retired. “I’ve enjoyed all the contacts I’ve made, whether with students or faculty,” Cleese said. “I’ve made some good friends among the teachers.”

When asked about future plans, Cleese responded, “I’d like to make more visits, to spend more time with Cornell students who are studying writing and acting, to spend more time to talk with professors in the social sciences. … they’re some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had.”

When asked about what topics he would like to possibly cover in the future, he said “What I’ve done is talked to the management school, to psychology classes,” he said. “I’ve had a little bit to do with acting, a little bit to do with writing classes. I feel I have a few more things to say there.” He added he would like more time to meet with student writers and actors on campus.

When asked about his role as teacher, Cleese said, “I just enjoy the process, I enjoy the exchange. Anytime you discuss with someone something that you find interesting, something that engages you, I think that’s by definition enjoyable and rewarding.”

When asked whether he’d accept an offer to extend his term, Cleese answered, “Oh yes, I’d be very happy.”

“People ask me if I like coming here. I don’t like coming here at all,” Cleese said, citing his 6 foot 4 inch frame’s incompatibility with airplanes. “I do, however, love being here … I’d wish it would move two thousand miles south, and then I’d come and live there.”

Archived article by Michael Morisy