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'Elvis of academia': Noam Chomsky joins University of Arizona faculty

Noam Chomsky, a pioneer in cognitive science and noted linguist, philosopher and social critic, has joined the faculty of the University of Arizona. Chomsky, an MIT professor emeritus, has been a leading American intellectual since the 1950s, and co-taught a UA course last spring.

Chomsky will begin teaching courses here in spring 2018, including undergraduate classes — something he has not done for a decade and said he's eager to return to.

The world-renowned professor and his wife have "very much come to appreciate the intellectual environment and the lifestyle," Chomsky said. "The linguistics department, which is excellent, happens to be full of former students of mine. In general, we felt that that the UA would be a good place to work and think and interact with people we like and can work with."

"We fell in love with Tucson — the mountains, the desert," Chomsky said. "Tucson has an atmosphere that is peaceful and manageable."

Chomsky has been hired as a laureate professor in the Department of Linguistics. He will also hold the title of Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice, UA officials announced Thursday.

His part-time appointment begins this month. In addition to teaching courses, the 89-year-old Chomsky will give public lectures, officials said.

"That Noam Chomsky would choose to come to the University of Arizona to write, teach and engage us in discussions of global importance speaks volumes of our campus, and we look forward to benefiting from his unmatched expertise and perspective," said John Paul Jones III, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

"Whether leading an advanced graduate seminar on theories of language — most of which bear his name — or by engaging undergraduates in discussions of contemporary economic inequalities, Noam's keen intellect, gentle presence and unwavering commitment to the wider social good is always in evidence," Jones said. "I'm delighted to be able to announce his arrival this fall."

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University officials didn't immediately provide information on Chomsky's compensation.

In addition to his academic contributions, Chomsky is a controversial social and political critic. A "libertarian socialist," he was an early and outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, and has frequently criticized U.S. foreign policy. With his anarcho-syndicalist leanings, he was placed on President Richard Nixon's "enemies list."

Much of his political writing has been about the media, including his famous work, "Manufacturing Consent."

Chomsky has previously spoken at the Tucson Festival of Books, and given other lectures at the university.

From the UA's announcement:

Considered the founder of modern linguistics, Chomsky is one of the most cited scholars in modern history and has written more than 100 books, including the groundbreaking "Syntactic Structures," "Language and Mind," "Aspects of the Theory of Syntax" and "The Minimalist Program," each of which has made distinct contributions to the development of the field. He has received numerous awards, including the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences, the Helmholtz Medal and the Ben Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science.

Chomsky's work also has influenced the fields of cognitive science, philosophy, psychology, computer science, mathematics, childhood education and anthropology. Applications of his work can be found in everyday life. He formulated the algorithm "context-free grammar," which is part of most computer programming languages, as well as programs that appear to understand language, such as Siri. He also has challenged traditional notions of learning, emphasizing how much knowledge and behavior is "built in" to the child’s brain.

One of the most influential public intellectuals in the world, Chomsky has been the subject of seven biographies, has been interviewed countless times in popular media, and has appeared in over 20 films and documentaries.

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Chomsky's connections to UA linguistics faculty are deep and long-standing. Several UA linguists were his students or departmental fellows at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Chomsky worked since 1955 as a professor of linguistics, then professor emeritus.

Chomsky says he is looking forward to regularly teaching undergraduate students again, which he hadn't done for about 10 years until this past spring when he co-taught, with geography professor emeritus Marv Waterstone, a large UA elective course on politics and global issues that attracted 250 students. Nearly 250 community members also enrolled in that course, through the UA's Humanities Seminars Program.

Natasha Warner, head of the Department of Linguistics, is thrilled to have Chomsky join the faculty.

"Chomsky established modern linguistics. He's an awe-inspiring thinker," she said. "The opportunity for UA linguistics students to learn from him on a regular basis is simply astounding. I am especially excited about the opportunity for undergraduates to learn about language and linguistics from him."

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Chomsky is credited with revolutionizing the linguistics field by introducing the Chomsky hierarchy, generative grammar and the concept of a universal grammar, which underlies all human speech and is based in the innate structure of the mind/brain.

"The importance of Chomsky's work cannot be overstated," said Ryan Smith, a linguistics graduate student. "I am extremely excited that he will be joining our department not only because of his work in establishing our discipline, but also because of his continued important research into the nature of language and the human mind."

An ardent free speech advocate, Chomsky is famous for his political commentary and has published and lectured widely on U.S. foreign policy, Mideast politics, terrorism, democratic society and war. His media criticism includes the 1988 book "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media."

Chomsky also has addressed issues such as political engagement, environmental destruction, and the rights of indigenous populations.

Chomsky's fame has extended into popular culture, leading such fans as Bono of U2 to describe him as the "Elvis of academia." The Noam Chomsky Facebook page has more than 1.2 million followers.

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Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación Argentina

Chomsky in 2015