Andrea Wickham explores LSE’s appointment of Angelina Jolie as a visiting professor.

Last week, the London School of Economics (LSE) and Political Science announced the appointment of Angelina Jolie Pitt as a Visiting Professor in Practice on one of their Masters’ courses.

Movie stars and musicians have long been used by aid organisations to use their star power to draw the spotlight to causes or crises, and to promote aid work to wider audiences. This dates back to the appointments of actors Danny Kaye, Peter Ustinov and Audrey Hepburn as UNICEF ambassadors the 1950s and 1960s.

On the same day that Angelina Jolie Pitt’s professorship was announced, the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul featured a gathering of global political and aid leaders, augmented with celebrity participation from Daniel Craig, Forest Whittaker and Sean Penn among others. Whether or not celebrities are effective in these roles, and who is best served by such arrangements, is a topic for a separate discussion.

Aid worker, academic or celebrity?

At a time when celebrities are used more and more by United Nations agencies and aid organisations as spokespeople and ambassadors, is Ms Jolie Pitt’s appointment a natural progression for movie stars? Or is it a sign that the lines between aid workers, academics and celebrities have been increasingly blurred?

Angelina Jolie Pitt has a history of engagement in humanitarian issues, and has long been an advocate for women in conflict situations. Following visits to refugee camps in Cambodia during the filming of Tomb Raider, she was appointed a goodwill ambassador for UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency) in 2001.

Having made over 50 field visits with the agency, she was appointed a Special Envoy to the organisation in 2012. The role allows her to represent UNHCR and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at a senior diplomatic level and her advocacy focuses on major crises that cause mass displacement of people.

“Many have viewed these appointments as a cynical move – ‘a cheap publicity stunt’”

In a press release on May 23rd, LSE announced the appointment of Ms Jolie Pitt as a visiting Professor in Practice on the university’s new MSc in Women, Peace and Security – the first course of its kind internationally.

Angelina Jolie Pitt was one of four such visiting Professors appointed for the programme.  William Hague (Lord Hague of Richmond), former British Foreign Secretary is a co-founder of the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative with Angelina Jolie Pitt and will also be a Visiting Professor on the MSc programme.

The other two Visiting Professors will be Jane Connors, Director of International Advocacy at Amnesty International Geneva and Madeleine Rees OBE, Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Visiting Professor role

What will the role of Ms Jolie Pitt and the other Visiting Professors be? According to the LSE’s own statement:

LSE confers the title of Visiting Professor in Practice on persons who have appropriate distinction within their area of (non-academic) practice. It includes individuals who have achieved prominence in public service, or who have attained distinction in their profession and through their practical experience.

While Angelina Jolie Pitt has visited numerous humanitarian projects with UNHCR and other agencies over the past decade, do these visits qualify her for such a role? I do not believe that this meets the requisite ‘practical experience’ needed for such a professorship. While her work as a Goodwill Ambassador and now Special Envoy have provided her with valuable insights, would she be better employed as a guest speaker or workshop panellist?

The LSE has also pointed out that the Visiting Professorships in the Centre for Women, Peace and Security are unpaid. At a time when university fees in the UK are rising, in particular at postgraduate level, many have viewed these appointments as a cynical move – ‘a cheap publicity stunt’ as the  chair of the LSE Labour Society put it – to boost interest and enrolment in their postgraduate courses, at no additional cost to the university.

Meeting student needs

As a former postgraduate student on a similar course, I can imagine how I would have benefitted from hearing the experiences of a Visiting Professor in Practice – a seasoned aid worker or development professional, who could articulate the challenges of the work I was hoping to pursue, and also provide insights into viable career paths within the sector. Prospective students of the MSc in Women, Peace and Security might really benefit from the experiences of Jane Connors and Madeleine Rees, and even William Hague, for those students interested in pursuing careers in public service.

But Angelina Jolie Pitt’s experience as a humanitarian activist has largely come as a result of her career as a Hollywood actor. Is this a path available to any of the students likely to be sitting in her lectures come September? What can she teach them that they might be able to replicate in their own careers? I believe that there are professionals working in the areas of Women, Peace and Security who have more professional experience than Ms Jolie Pitt, and whom the students could learn more from, in terms of the development of their own careers.

Over the past fifteen years Angelina Jolie Pitt has proven herself to be a passionate and committed advocate for refugees and women in crises situations through her work with UNHCR, the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and numerous other initiatives and philanthropic endeavours. But does this experience make her a suitable Visiting Professor in Practice for future LSE students? I am not so sure.

Author: Andrea Wickham

Andrea is currently working as an independent consultant in the areas of Humanitarian Policy and Communications. She has worked for a number of aid agencies as a Humanitarian Funding Adviser in Chad, Kenya, Iraq and Ethiopia. She studied History and Political Science in Trinity College and a Masters in International Communications and Development at City University London. Andrea was a volunteer on the Suas Volunteer Programme in Calcutta in 2006 and a Coordinator in Delhi in 2008. Follow her on Twitter at @adwickham.

Photo credit: Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy to the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, at the launch of the UK initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict, 29 May 2012, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Creative Commons license.

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