I’m not really a professor; I just play one on TV

by Dennis Baron

When I was just a few years out of graduate school I wrote a “treatment” for a television series to be called “The Young Professors.” The show tracked the adventures of three new assistant professors as they negotiated the ins and outs of life at Soybean State College, a medium-sized, teaching-intensive public institution somewhere in the Midwest.

This was in the mid-1970s, when series about young doctors and lawyers were big. So, knowing that nothing succeeds in commercial TV like a knock-off, and hoping for a source of income other than teaching summer school, I took a crack at putting college on the small screen. While I billed the show as “The Halls of Ivy” meets “The Mod Squad,” my project had no legs. My plots were not exactly ripped from the headlines, and although any resemblance between the characters that I depicted and actual persons living or dead was purely coincidental, or so I claimed, those characters weren’t going to keep viewers from changing the channel. A small flurry of interest from a local public broadcaster led nowhere, and now the yellowing, typed pages of “The Young Professors” sit in a folder with the rest of my juvenilia.

My efforts to “write what you know” notwithstanding, the classroom remains an occasional backdrop for television, and while the successful shows from the medium’s golden age, like “Our Miss Brooks,” “Mr. Peepers,” and “Room 222,” portray a strikingly unrealistic version of the high school experience, occasionally we’re treated to a media distortion of college life as well.

To be fair, we may pretend that the media tells it like it is, but we know very well that even reality television is far from real. Cop shows are notorious for misrepresenting life on the streets, and lawyer series fail to capture the highly-nuanced world of torts and contracts. Life in the E.R. is not all high concept relieved by short commercial breaks. And Ralph Kramden was no ordinary bus driver. But college professors don't even get the kind of attention we lavish on Cosmo Kramer or Archie Bunker. TV hasn't brought us the Dead Deconstructionists' Society, or anything that looks at college from a faculty perspective. Woody Allen occasionally reduces Brandeis to a cultural stereotype in his movies, and there was a popular TV series about life of a pre-med at the fictional University of New York, but don’t hold your breath for a dramatization of Harvard MBA’s-in-training, not to mention the Sarah Lawrence experience.

When it does notice higher education, television can treat it as comic. For example, there’s Ross, the museum paleontologist on “Friends” who becomes an NYU prof. But more often than not, TV prefers to take a lurid look at campus life. The fictional Hudson University was apparently founded in the 1940s to serve as the alma mater of Batman’s sidekick, young Dick Grayson, and it provided the backdrop for some of Batman’s adventures. Today Hudson is a recurring venue on TV’s “Law and Order” and its spin-offs, where it serves more as a source of L&O’s killers and corpses than as a provider of expert witnesses to testify in court.

The hijinks at Hudson are a far cry from swallowing goldfish or stuffing frat boys into a Volkswagen. At Hudson’s labs, researchers are killed by animal rights activists when they’re not too busy subjecting students to trials of dangerous experimental drugs without informed consent. Hudson undergrads regularly lose roommates to murder, and grad students occasionally kill their advisors, or are killed by them, often after having sex without informed consent.

hudson sealIn fact, many of L&O’s higher ed plots revolve around “Sex and the City University.” In one episode a grisly murder leads the police to a Hudson anthropologist who’s desperately trying to hide from his wife his unhealthy appetite for young boys. In another, the president of Hudson is bludgeoned to death by a serial murderer from Australia masquerading as an English don. Instead of acknowledging her misdeeds and copping to “man 2,” the fake Englit specialist must face nonrenewal of her contract and the disappointment of her lesbian lover, who also happens to be her dean.

In contrast to the gritty reality of the L&O classroom cum crime scene, the 1950s half-hour sitcom, “The Halls of Ivy,” presents a bucolic Ivy College that is nothing like Hudson University. “The Halls of Ivy” starred Ronald Coleman and his wife Benita Hume as William Todhunter Hall, the genial, urbane president of Ivy College, in the town of Ivy, somewhere in the Midwest, and Victoria Cromwell Hall, the college president’s equally genial and urbane wife. After a successful radio run from 1949-1952, “The Halls of Ivy,” following the earlier lead of “Our Miss Brooks,” migrated to television in 1954.

“The Halls of Ivy” had great promise and strong backing (it was one of the most expensive TV series of its day). But while Eve Arden’s portrayal of Constance Brooks, everyone’s favorite high school English teacher, captivated viewers for four years, America wasn’t ready for a show about college foibles, and “The Halls of Ivy” lasted only one season. Although created by one of the lead writers for the populist radio series “Fibber McGee and Molly,” the plots on ”The Halls of Ivy” were too high-brow for the television audience. Indeed, many of the thirty-eight episodes that CBS aired (seasons were longer then) could have been ripped from the headlines, provided they were the headlines of the Chronicle of Higher Education. One TV history says the show flopped because it was too literate and lacked action.

On the other hand, the fact that "The Halls of Ivy" drew a national audience at all was itself a cultural phenom. America was undergoing one of its most intellectually deadly moments at the time, with universities the target of rabid red baiters. On top of that, “The Halls of Ivy” dealt with issues that were surely sensitive in 1954 and are still pressing and controversial in the academy today: racism (a Chinese student is ostracized by classmates and runs away); athletics vs. education (the cross-country star quits the team because track is taking too much time away from his studies; a top pre-med student wants to give up dreams of the O.R. up to become a professional boxer). The show even dealt indirectly with gender stereotyping: while Vicky often plays the role of ditzy sidekick to her husband’s competent-administrator pose, a minute later she’ll put on her "Murphy Brown" persona and trade literate barbs with Toddy like any self-assured and hip chronicler of human foibles.

To be fair, whole episodes of “The Halls of Ivy” were devoted to issues over which the American public both then and now might be expected to yawn: the eroding faculty/student ratio; professors who aren’t publishing; a candidate for a named chair who might be a fraud; a department in danger of being closed because of low enrollments. There was even a half hour devoted not to drug trafficking, a problem that’s endemic at L&O’s Hudson University, but to traffic congestion on Ivy’s no-longer-sleepy campus, and Dr. Hall’s attempts to dodge a ticket he got from the college police. I doubt if even the readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education would have patience to sit through those segments today, compelling as they seemed to the show’s producers at the time.

But “The Halls of Ivy” did deal unashamedly with the facts of college life. While Ivy’s president is in no danger of being bludgeoned to death, in the pilot episode of “The Halls of Ivy,” President Hall nervously waits while the Board of Ivy College votes on renewing his contract. A short three episodes later, well into his second term, we see that the president is still insecure: Toddy and Vicky hurriedly throw together a meal without letting on that their guest – the fussbudget chairman of the governing board – has come to dinner one night too early. In other episodes, Hall sweet-talks an eccentric donor who demands that the college display one of her sculptures in exchange for a new gymnasium, and he must find a way to avert a mandatory faculty retirement that will be disastrous for the college. In two episodes Hall deals with the problems of what we now call returning or nontraditional students, but in the blunt language of the 50s were simply old folks going back to school. Later in the season he intervenes to quell rumors that the new Latin professor is a sexual predator. And in another segment, Hall deftly confronts the problem of an honor student who is about to be expelled because she never finished high school. Toward the end of the show’s run, Hall puts on kid gloves to handle a gangster come to campus to find out why his nephew was kicked off the football team.

It wasn’t the limited-interest plots or the controversial issues that kept “The Halls of Ivy” audience coming back week after week. It was the finely-tuned scripts and the ensemble acting, and the show’s theme song, a Whiffenpoof-style chorale that managed to enjoy some commercial success independent of the series. But while Dr. Hall had no trouble convincing the Board to renew his contract, it soon became clear that Ronald Coleman had done far, far better things than portray a college president, and the audience eventually dwindled to a point where it was too small to warrant CBS picking up the show’s option for a second season. As the redeemed Latin prof might have put it, “De gustibus non disputandum est.”

I was ten when “The Halls of Ivy” aired, and though I knew nothing of academia I looked forward to the show each week. It still seems to me that academic life should generate at least as much public interest as infomercials for food processors or exercise equipment, but perhaps it was best that “The Halls of Ivy” bowed out gracefully. And while it was nice for me to dream that the “The Young Professors” would one day generate as many spin-offs as “Law and Order,” which seems to be on one cable channel or another every hour of the day, I know that it’s best that my show never got off the ground. Even public-access cable channels aren’t ready for a series focusing on tenure, struggles over who gets the nice office, or endless committee meetings. “The Young Professors” would have been, in effect, a show about nothing, and as such it was no doubt far ahead of its time.

While I don’t expect television to portray college faculty with docudrama accuracy, I still believe there’s a role for higher education on TV beyond “Law and Order,” “The College Bowl”-style quiz, the “Book World” interview, or the CNN talking head. Most academics are not pretentious boors or stuffed shirts like the one in “Annie Hall” who expounds vacuously on Marshall McLuhan’s theories while standing in a movie line, prompting an exasperated Woody Allen to bring out the real Marshall McLuhan to chide him. McLuhan was also an academic, by the way, though clearly not much of an actor. And few of my colleagues have the get up and go of Indiana Jones, a movie professor who can turn into a villain-bashing superhero just by taking off his glasses and putting on a pith helmet.

Instead of reducing us all to cultural stereotypes, it would be nice to see shows in which professors contribute to the solution rather than the cause of crimes, have sex lives which are dramatically compelling without being criminally dysfunctional, or participate in witty sitcoms like “The Halls of Ivy,” or what I hoped that the “The Young Professors” might become. While there’s no “Law and Order” network, at least not yet, there are entire networks devoted to animal antics, do-it-yourself projects, and city council meetings. Surely a show about professors could find a niche on one of the 500-cable channels while being both too literate and lacking action.