Obama Not Law Professor, Just Taught at Law School

Obama Not Law Professor, Just Taught at Law School In what may be the dumbest political attack of the 2008 campaign — and there are many candidates to choose from — Hillary Clinton is claiming that her lies about being under fire in Bosnia are trumped by Barack Obama claiming that he was a “professor” at the University of Chicago when he was really only a “senior lecturer.”

In response, the university has issued a statement clarifying Obama’s status.

The Law School has received many media requests about Barack Obama, especially about his status as “Senior Lecturer.”

From 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama served as a professor in the Law School. He was a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996. He was a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004, during which time he taught three courses per year. Senior Lecturers are considered to be members of the Law School faculty and are regarded as professors, although not full-time or tenure-track. The title of Senior Lecturer is distinct from the title of Lecturer, which signifies adjunct status. Like Obama, each of the Law School’s Senior Lecturers have high-demand careers in politics or public service, which prevent full-time teaching. Several times during his 12 years as a professor in the Law School, Obama was invited to join the faculty in a full-time tenure-track position, but he declined.

Apparently, the University of Chicago or perhaps law schools generally are different from my experience, in which institutions certainly didn’t “regard” part-timers “as professors” and certainly didn’t refer to their time in those positions that way in official statements.

Regardless, it’s perfectly reasonable for Obama to tout his experience as a “professor” in campaign literature. Nobody who isn’t an academic would understand the difference and “professor” is commonly used as a generic name for someone who teaches college. Within the faculty, the title “professor” (informally, “full professor”) is a very distinct rank. Nontheless, those of us lower on the totem pole would refer to ourselves as “professors” in settings where it was clear we weren’t referring to our academic rank.

I held the title “assistant professor” even though I wasn’t actually assisting any professors. Indeed, the job descriptions of full-time visiting professors, lecturers, assistant professors, associate professors, and (full) professors are essentially identical.

For the Clinton campaign to be touting this issue makes them seem even more desperate and silly than they have in recent weeks.

Both Ron Chusid and Noam Scheiber pile on.

Photo credit: Xavier Law School

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Education, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    A little resume padding is benign, to be expected, and, as you point out, operationally there isn’t a great deal of difference among lecturers, assistant professors, associate professors, and professors. The differences are more those of pay scale and prestige.

    It’s pretty darned brazen of Sen. Clinton, whose exaggeration of her foreign policy experience isn’t an isolated example of substantial resume padding, to criticize Sen. Obama for something so minor. I guess brazen has gotten her this far so she’s sticking with it.

  2. CLeduc says:

    Webster’s definitions of “professor”
    “One who professed, or publicly teaches, any science or branch of learning; especially, an officer in a university, college, or other seminary, whose business it is to read lectures, or instruct students, in a particular branch of learning;”

    Obama did that at the University of Chicago Law School

    “someone who is a member of the faculty at a college or university”

    Obama was listed among the faculty at the University of Chicago Law School

  3. CLeduc says:

    Obama graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. He was President of the Harvard Law Review. Harvard Professor of constitutional law, Laurence Tribe described Obama as one of the top two law students he ever had during his 37 years. Those are very strong academic credentials for any law professor. Obama taught constitutional law which isn’t exactly paralegal/defending parking tickets low level legal curriculum.

    I looked at old faculty and student blogs written prior to this “controversy” and they referred to him as “Professor Obama”. At the end of his final year, the law students gave Obama the second highest ratings over the entire faculty of University of Chicago Law School. This isn’t resume padding. As the university maintains, Obama was a very qualified and very capable law professor.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    The term is used differently informally and formally. Formally Barack Obama was not a professor and, since he was part of academe himself and presumably aware of it, characterizing his experience in that way is resume padding.

    Note that I’m not challenging his abilities or acumen in any way and that I’m inclined to think of parlaying the differences between formal and informal usage as benign.

  5. Grewgills says:

    Formally Barack Obama was not a professor, since he was part of academe himself and presumably aware of it, characterizing his experience in that way is resume padding.

    All of this is a relatively minor quibble, but if the university refers to him as a professor is it resume padding for him to refer to himself as a professor?

  6. davod says:

    Some voters will see this as another questionable item in Obama’s narrative. Many people have undertaken higher education and know the different levels of educator. Drip, drip, drip.

  7. Elmo says:

    You can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay …
    But ya doesn’t have to call me Hussein

    Hillary? I’d love to call her nominee 🙂
    But desperate is cool.

  8. Most of this is “inside baseball” talk. When I was an adjunct at Austin Community College, the students called me “professor” and the best way to describe to a lay person my position was to say I was an “adjunct professor” (indeed, that may have been my official title, although it may have been “instructor”–it has been almost ten years, although in looking at my c.v., I listed the position as “instructor”).

    There is also the issue what a “professor” is and what the various ranks mean in academia. If we go simply in terms of academic rank, the vast minority of profs are full professors and therefore can say that their rank is “Professor” (I am currently an “Associate Professor”).

    To James’ experience specifically, I think part of what affects it is that in the South (where he went to school and taught) most faculty are called “Dr.” not “Professor” and therefore discussions of the word end up taking the mind more in the direction of describing rank rather than as a description of what one does.

    When I went to school in California and went to school/taught in Texas at several different institutions (in terms of teaching), it was more common for all faculty to be referred to by the honorific “Professor” and less likely that they be called “Dr.” (although it did happen as well).

    I will say that it would be more accurate for Obama to describe himself as having taught as a senior lecturer at the school.

    If he just says that he was a lecturer, however, without clarification, many people might think that he simply gave some lectures at the school, and not understand that he actually taught there.

    Saying he was a “professor” is the least ambiguous term for general public.

  9. And, btw, I wholly concur that this is a silly attack for the Clinton campaign to engage in and I can’t imagine it will bear much electoral fruit.

    No wonder, as MTP reported this morning, that her negatives are up.

  10. Eneils Bailey says:

    I wholly concur that this is a silly attack for the Clinton campaign to engage in and I can’t imagine it will bear much electoral fruit.

    I agree, this is much ado about what matters little to the average person on the street.

    I am an older poot, who has a first cousin who spent many years in a state university system “accumulating titles before his name and the alphabet after his name,” as he states. He told me one night over a bottle of wine that ridding himself of the scourge of self-perceived superiority may not be a bad thing.

    He told me it was a good life, served him well, but he now enjoys just living in the country, driving his pickup, tending his land, and enjoys everyone just referring to him as “John.”

  11. Anon says:

    The term is used differently informally and formally. Formally Barack Obama was not a professor and, since he was part of academe himself and presumably aware of it, characterizing his experience in that way is resume padding.

    I think it depends on if he used it formally or informally. If he just lists “professor” in his bio, with a small “p”, I’d consider it informal usage, and not really resume padding.

    If he lists it in his official CV as “Professor”, as an official job title, instead of “Senior Lecturer”, then I’d consider it resume padding.

    I did some Google searching, but couldn’t find his official CV.

  12. davod says:

    The CV is probably long gone.

  13. KJ says:

    Can anyone use desperation, ‘scorched earth’, losing the nomination, and HRC in the same sentence?

    If we elect HRC we will deserve what we get.