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THE CLASS OF ’96 DIDN’T GRADUATE this spring—by which I mean Antonio, Jessica, David and Stroke, who began their freshman year at fictional Havenshurst College in the 1993 Fox series Class of ’96. The show was one of the rare diploma dramas actually resembling real campus life, so of course it was canceled before the students became sophomores. While many universities bestow honorary degrees on TV personalities from Cosby to Kermit the Frog (provoking anchorman Jim on Murphy Brown to sneer, “It’s Dr. Heather Locklear now”), TV hasn’t returned the compliment. Professors onscreen are seductive gurus—like Kelly’s psychology adviser on Beverly Hills, 90210—or pompous snobs, as on the moronic Boston Common. Even when intellectual Murphy (Candice Bergen) returns to her unnamed Ivy alma mater to visit the women’s studies program she endowed, she meets a humorless feminist instructor who calls a seminar an ovular. The most likable sitcom academic is physicist Dick Solomon (John Lithgow) on 3rd Rock from the Sun, and he’s an alien.

Well, nobody’s perfect. But as a professor myself (at Princeton University), I’d like to see my peer group get a little respect. When ER’s Carter (Noah Wyle) worries about making resident, it’s a crisis, but when Cybill’s Kevin (Peter Krause), the son-in-law prof, gets turned down for tenure, this serious matter is treated as a joke. Kevin doesn’t tell his wife, and she suspects he’s being secretive about an affair. When she learns the truth, she cries in relief, “Tenure? That’s all this is about?”

University of Southern California English professor Leo Braudy the consultant on Class of ’96, says TV’s attitude toward higher education is “a mixture of anxiety and condescension”—which is not unlike higher education’s attitude toward TV. For all the honorary degrees schools dispense, too many academics routinely deplore television. Yet many viewers are in those dorms, and a recent MTV poll of young adults, slated to air in a Choose or Lose special June 10, revealed that educational issues like student loans, affirmative action and career training are among their top election concerns.

Next season will see lots of shows about inner-city high schools, and Molly Ringwald will star in an ABC offering called Townies—don’t a few gownies deserve some equal time?

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