Obama Too Cool For School
Two pieces by Jodi Kantor in the NYT looking at Barack Obama’s days teaching at the University of Chicago are drawing widespread interest in the blogosphere. The first, “Teaching Law, Testing Ideas, Obama Stood Apart,” is a series of anecdotes woven together to present the picture of a gifted teacher who had one foot in the classroom and another in politics and who refused to do anything, including writing scholarly articles, which might be used against him in a campaign. A companion blog piece, “Inside Professor Obama’s Classroom,” provides some primary source documents, mostly course materials.
The overnight reaction has come mostly from the Right. Daniel Halper draws our attention to this passage:
While students appreciated Mr. Obama’s professorial reserve, colleagues sometimes wanted him to take a stand. When two fellow faculty members asked him to support a controversial antigang measure, allowing Chicago police to disperse and eventually arrest loiterers who had no clear reason to gather, Mr. Obama discussed the issue with unusual thoughtfulness, they say, but gave little sign of who should prevail — the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the measure, or the community groups that supported it out of concern about crime.
“He just observed it with a kind of interest,” said Daniel Kahan, now a professor at Yale.
Nor could his views be gleaned from law review articles or other scholarship; Mr. Obama has never published any. He was too busy, but also, Mr. Epstein believes, he was unwilling to put his name to anything that could haunt him politically, as Ms. [Lani] Guinier’s writings had hurt her.
“He figured out, you lay low,” Mr. Epstein said.
Halper thinks this signifies a man with too much ambition, a point AllahPundit also makes. Perhaps. It’s also a remarkable demonstration of discipline. Clearly, Obama loves to debate ideas and to engage. That he could be so careful for so long in an attempt to achieve something so incredibly unlikely as the presidency is stunning. (Perhaps especially so to me, since the ability to keep a low profile and hide my views to advance my career has never been among my talents.)
Pejman Yousefzadeh draws our attention to this, a passage that struck me as well:
“I don’t think anything that went on in these chambers affected him,” said Richard Epstein, a libertarian colleague who says he longed for Mr. Obama to venture beyond his ideological and topical comfort zones. “His entire life, as best I can tell, is one in which he’s always been a thoughtful listener and questioner, but he’s never stepped up to the plate and taken full swings.”
The statement is an odd one about a man who’s about to take his party’s presidential nomination and would seem the favorite to win that office in his mid-40s. But, yes, he’s a man who got what he needed out of each stop in his career without fully giving of himself.
Pejman cites it, though, as a rebuttal to Cass Sunstein’s suggestion that Obama’s time at Chicago should comfort conservatives, since surely free market economics must have rubbed off. Instead, “The University of Chicago is an entry on his resume. It has had no impact whatsoever on his thinking.” That’s overstating it a bit — Kantor makes it clear that Obama was using the classroom as a means of honing his ideas and delivery — but fundamentally true. Obama has known who he is and what he thinks for a long time and everything since has been about getting to where he wants to be.
UPDATE (Alex Knapp) I admit that I am extraordinarily amused by the right-wing kerfuffle over this article. If you had told me, just one year ago, that you would hear conservatives complaining that a left-wing college professor was not imposing his ideology on his students, I would have gladly bet good money against that proposition. This is why I love election years. They’re the years where black is white and up is down.
Don’t have much to add other than
It’s weird how this is being framed as something negative about Obama.
I think this is one of those things where if you don’t like Obama, you see it as him being calculating, and if you like Obama, you see it as him being driven.
It is commonly said that Obama has never held the title of “Professor” …..True or false??
The fact that Obama didn’t dramatically change his views and lock in with his sagacious conservative elders at U of C is proof that he is a spineless liberal with no ability to see the world as it is supposed to be.
His failure to defer to Richard Epstien is disgusting and indicative of his essential political stance: one of inherent anti-Americanism.
Technically true but generally used in a misleading way. See my March post “Obama Not Law Professor, Just Taught at Law School” for an extensive discussion.
I find Obama to be one scary MoFo.
Charismatic young man with no real history and a following that is in large part cult of personality?
I’ve seen this movie and I don’t like the second half.
This drives me nuts… as has been alluded to here.
Despite the MSM and the University of Chicago inflating his status and prestige by deliberately and misleadingly calling him a Law Professor, he was a only part-time lecturer on the faculty.
Here’s the slippery, truth-lite statement on the UoC website…
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.
This is baloney.
Academic hierarchy at American faculties:
* University Professor or Institute Professor (not all universities)
* Distinguished Professor (usually a “Named Chair”)
* Professor (“Named Chair”)
* Professor (“Full Professor”)
* Associate Professor
* Assistant Professor
* Instructor (sometimes “Lecturer”)
The ranks of Lecturer and Senior Lecturer are used at some American universities to denote permanent teaching positions with few or no research responsibilities. At other American universities, the rank of Lecturer is equivalent to that of Instructor.
Obama began as little more than a Teacher’s Assistant, but was titled as Lecturer because he had already obtained his advanced degree (JD) instead of still working towards his advanced degree as TA’s normally do.
Obama was never an actual Professor because he was neither tenured nor bestowed high rank or recognition by the department/school.
The stunning bit of original reporting in this story, if true, is that Chicago Law School offered Obama instant “tenure upon hiring” if he’d agree to become a full-time faculty member.
Lower-ranked law schools aren’t as choosy about extending tenure, and even high-ranked schools in Chicago’s league might offer tenure to someone who had other extraordinary legal credentials outside academia — as, say, a longtime prosecutor or judge. But tenure, at a school like Chicago, for someone who’s never even clerked for a judge, nor done anything notable as a practicing lawyer, and who’s never published even a single piece of scholarship, either as a student or a part-time lecturer?
The Chicago Law School press release retroactively purporting to authorize Obama to call himself a “professor” (small-p) says Obama was repeatedly offered, and declined, a “tenure-track position,” and I’ve seen Obama’s then-colleague, friend, and current advisor Prof. Cass Sunstein quoted to that same effect. “Tenure-track,” of course, typically means a fair shot at tenure, but no guarantees or promises, and even the fair shot would almost always be premised upon publishing something to prove one’s academic chops.
So: Is the NYT wrong (despite their reporter’s very specific recounting of the terms of the offer)? Were the otherwise Obama-friendly (even -fawning) press release and Prof. Sunstein being coy, in concealing the “insta-tenure” offer? Were, perhaps, there dissenting votes, or some potential voting blocs who weren’t even consulted, about the “insta-tenure offer” at the time?
If the NYT reporter’s claim is true, it would significantly lower my respect for Chicago Law School as an academic institution. No academic institution of its stature wants to be perceived as having round heels.
(Love the post title, btw, James.)
The only thing that is baloney is your understanding of the English language.
Neither Hussein, the New York Times, nor the University of Chicago has ever contended that he held the title of “Professor.” He was, however, a professor–which simply means (according to Merriam Webster) “one who professes,” or ” a teacher at a university, college, or sometimes secondary school.”
Its foreigners like you, Jack, who have little facility with the English language, that debase civic discourse in the country.
Usted necesita de limitar sus comentarios a las trivialidades de su patria, amigo.
What a dimwit. Grow up. Oh… and you might care not to advertise your racism so — uh, publicly. Well you can, but please don’t lecture others on “civic discourse.”
Or I might have to retort that you write like a supercilious prick. And I wouldn’t want to do that.
In addition, you might like to act the pedant, but it doesn’t cut it with me.
My OED states in its first definition: professor noun 1. a university academic of the highest rank; the holder of a university chair.
Throughout the media, and in common discourse, the description “professor” is a term that carries prestige. It means something.
It is a rank that President Dewey Obama has neither earned, nor has the title been bestowed upon him.
And you can bluster until you are blue state in the face, but it won’t change that reality.
I believe that student writing at the Harvard Law Review is unsigned, so I’m not sure whether we would know if Obama was published as a student. Perhaps he attended Harvard just for such anonymity!
God forbid that a black man have the nerve to be ambitious.
We’re back to the “was he a real professor” thing again? Come on folks…it’s not that hard to find answers on Ted Stevens’ intertubes.
You must be new here, Jack Bauer.
Y’all might want to head over to the Volokh Conspiracy to see Randy Barnett’s take on Obama’s teaching materials, then follow the link he provides to see the analyses of Professors Pam Karlan (Stanford), Akhil Amar (Yale), John Eastman (Chapman).
“God forbid that a black man have the nerve to be ambitious.”
Because the last non-ambitious man we elected President was whom? Eisenhower? Grant? None of the above?
Good, Anjin. You tried to make race an issue. Why? Obama’s race is of very little importance. His stand on matters of import, however, are. Obama has made a clear effort to not leave a trail to be followed back to anything he may think. Any hint of association that could hinder his ambition is quickly tossed aside. This guy is so full of himself he stinks. He is a lowly cowards who will not debate a tired old man in John McCain. Why? Because he cannot have his numerous advisor’s to help him and no teleprompter to read the answers from. Anjin, the emperor has no cloths. His agenda is that of a Marxist. If you just listen to him carefully, you can hear Jeremiah Wright talking. Listen to Ludicrus’ new Obama rap song. Obama doesn’t say its bad, one of his minions does. Obama never actually disses a black.
Mr. Shaw, from Jeffrey Ressner’s and Ben Smith’s recent article on Politico.com:
There’s ambition and then there’s a near obsessive care with regards to leaving the slightest clue behind.
The latter seems a little worrisome when the person is most likely about to be handed the nuclear football. And much as I hate to say it, Zelsdorf is right- injecting race into this is churlish.
What Bizarro Universe have we entered, in which the New York Times actually does original in-depth reporting that’s not altogether flattering to the nominee of the Democratic Party, then posts source materials online for its readers to examine, and then actually responds promptly to a reader’s very pertinent substantive question with an equally substantive answer that (gasp) actually reveals the reporter’s source?
Adds another NYT special contributor to this exchange, Randy Barnett, this time in response to my question left in the comments of his own blog:
My guess is that his decision to decline it had more to do with the dean telling him his “political career was finished.” But I think it’s reasonably clear that (a) Dean Fischel was sufficiently smitten by the Chosen One to extend him a tenure offer without prior authorization from his faculty, and (b) that’s an extraordinary departure from normal academic practices at law schools of Chicago’s reputation and stature.
Finally, Yale Prof. Akhil Reed Amar who gushes that Obama’s exam questions reveal him to possess a combination of the best qualities of Shakespeare, Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln volunteers that he was “very interested to hear that the University of Chicago Law School was willing to offer Obama tenure,” but he sees Obama’s exam questions and mock answers as sufficient justification for that. Well, sure, I think Chicago Law would offer Lincoln tenure if they could reincarnate him. I guess. If Jesus weren’t available.
Anjin, I have a question for you. How much gas can we save by keeping our tires properly inflated? This is not a trick question and while it is off topic. Seems your hero gave a speech today saying by keeping our tires on our cars inflated to the proper air pressure we could save as much gasoline as all the drilling they are talking about doing. I am all for it as the estimated amount of oil in the Green River oil shale in Colorado is 800 billion to 1 trillion barrels of oil. Now I understand proper air pressure in tires might increase fuel mileage by about 3%. How do this numbers, Anjin, come together?
Problem with that is there is no existing cost effective process for getting the oil out of oil shale. People touting shale are wanting to bet everything on a technology that is utterly unproven on any real scale.
Beldar, I stand corrected. I also note that Orin Kerr has commented that HLR students take credit for their “uncredited” writing on their resumes.
I find this odd. And I don’t think it can be explained by any desire to “hide” his true thoughts. It’s not like he had to write a comment on whether the equal protection clause guarantees a right to commit incest. I gather he either was not a good legal writer, did not like legal writing or did not value it (as in his projected career path would not be improved by writing one, so why bother).
Posner teaches a class, I believe called “Law and Drama,” which meets about once a month through the year and culminates in students meeting at his house to act out a play.
This is not a knock on Posner or Obama, but is meant to illustrate categorical differences between them.
Tlaloc, that is not what oil companies say. I believe they get oil from shale or oil sand in Canada. Only the nay sayers claim we do not have the technology. Give they access and they will deliver. Do you honestly think we can grow our way out? What happens if a blight attacks the fuel crop? Tractors don’t run on electricity, 18 wheelers cannot run on alcohol, airplanes cannot run on hydrogen or natural gas.
You have any evidence that the faculty was upset by the offer? Just asking.
And it’s not like they have a few financial incentives to
lieexaggerate or anything…
Can you find me a single operating plant that produces any significant volume of oil from oil shale? I’m not talking a proof of concept lab setup that is grossly cost inefficient, I mean a real world industrial mass production application of this technology.
I don’t believe you can, because it doesn’t seem to exist, but feel free to prove me wrong.
I think biofuels are generally a bad idea. More to the point any energy source we choose will be a problem because our model to date has been to use as much as possible as fast as possible. Since every energy source has drawbaks that kind of thinking means you inevitably reach a point where that drawback becomes critical.
What we need is a change in energy usage patterns. I can pretty much guarantee you that we could knock 20% off of our current energy usage in ten years if we really wanted to. And that’s just eliminating waste, not even getting into real changes in lifestyle (which we should also do).
Tlaloc, there is no access to oil shale so why would they develop the means to produce oil from it? Unless you really think the CEOs of the oil companies are as stupid as the democratic congressional leadership? You are right, we could reduce 20% of our usage in ten years. Starve every other person to death. Than would bring the population down to 150 Million. Stalin did it, why not Obama? We could save an huge amount of energy if we could just harness the hot air coming from Pelosi and Reid.
The whining by the right about Democrats being responsible for all energy problems is getting a bit old.
Bush the elder banned drilling in the early 90’s. GW could have lifted that ban at any time during his presidency with the stroke of a pen, but he waited nearly 8 years to do so. He also blocked drilling in FL to help his brother politically.
The GOP controlled congress for 12 years, but did not lift the congressional ban.
In 2000, Bush/Cheney assured us they had an energy plan. In this instance, they told the truth. Oil companies are making mind boggling profits. The plan worked.
Note that passage by John Eastman quoted by Beldar:
“The course materials and examination questions prepared by then-Professor Obama demonstrate a deep and nuanced command of the law, but for that to have resulted in an offer to the tenured or even tenure-track faculty, the normal course (indeed, nearly the only course) is for that command of legal subjects to have first manifested itself into published articles.”
Scandalous! Scandalous! Why the hell didn’t they show more respect for a REAL intelllectual, such as John McCain?
WTF? Nobody’s suggesting that McCain was more deserving of tenure than Obama, merely that it’s unheard of to offer tenure to someone who has never been on the tenure track, has no published scholarship, and no record of distinguished public service at a high level.
What I was pointing out, James, is that — since Eastman himself said that Obama obviously possessed “a deep and nuanced command of the law” — it’s more than a little ridiculous for Beldar to try to blow up the fact that he hadn’t published articles into a major academic and intellectual scandal. It is, however, what one expects of Beldar.
I suppose I had better also point out (since on this site it may actually get overlooked) that I was also referring to the fact that Beldar was obviously cranking up to try and use this, with a straight face, as evidence that Obama is actually less intelligent than Mr. Sixth From The Bottom Of His Class. (We are, after all, talking about a thread commentor who, a few days ago, told me with an equally straight face that he regarded the “Soccer Mom” Sarah Palin as more intelligent on energy policy than those awful “Ivy League intellectuals” who work as the analysts in Bush’s Energy Department.)
A “deep and nuanced command of the law” is the minimum expectation for hiring as an assistant professor at a third rate law school. Or, hell, graduation from a decent one. It assuredly is not, in and of itself, reason for automatic tenure at a first rate school.
So, let’s see: Beldar is saying that Dean Fischel was lying when he said that “the faculty would vote” on whether Obama would be allowed to be admitted as a tenured professor but that he knew Obama “already had their support”? Or else Obama’s performance as a teacher had been impressive enough (and the article suggests it was very impressive indeed) that they decided to circumvent the usual rules and give him tenure? Maybe because — as Beldar suggests, again with a straight face — a majority of them regarded him as another Jesus? Who’da thought the faculty of the U. of Chicago Law School (including all those famous tough conservative guys) were so religious, or so tolerant of a lying liberal dean? (“The Chicago faculty is more rightward-leaning than that of other top law schools…”[Obama taught] alongside some of the most formidable conservative minds in the country”…”Mr. Obama arrived at the law school in 1991 thanks to Michael W. McConnell, a conservative scholar who is now a federal appellate judge [and whom, you’ll recall, was on Bush’s list of finalists for the US Supreme Court]. As president of The Harvard Law Review, Mr. Obama had impressed Mr. McConnell with editing suggestions on an article; on little more than that, the law school gave him a fellowship…”
As for his supposedly disastrous “lack of publications”, well: “His voting rights class traced the evolution of election law, from the disenfranchisement of blacks to contemporary debates over districting and campaign finance. Mr. Obama was so interested in the subject that he helped Richard Pildes, a professor at New York University, develop a leading casebook in the field….At the school, Mr. Obama taught three courses, ascending to senior lecturer, a title otherwise carried only by a few federal judges…His most original course, a historical and political seminar as much as a legal one, was on racism and law. Mr. Obama improvised his own textbook, including classic cases like Brown v. Board of Education, and essays by Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Dubois, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, as well as conservative thinkers like Robert H. Bork…As his reputation for frank, exciting discussion spread, enrollment in his classes swelled. Most scores on his teaching evaluations were positive to superlative…[A]s a professor, students say, Mr. Obama was in the business of complication, showing that even the best-reasoned rules have unintended consequences, that competing legal interests cannot always be resolved, that a rule that promotes justice in one case can be unfair in the next.”
As I say: scandalous! And even more scandalous that all those very prominent conservative legal scholars at the School (including such eminent pinko sympathizers as Posner, Epstein, McConnell and Easterbrook) didn’t raise hell about his proposed tenure! And most scandalous of all, of course, is that we’re now seeing evidence that he (shudder) is starting to agree publicly that his initial campaign statements on some subjects were overly simplistic! (Which, as Richard Nixon among others has pointed out, is the only possible way to get as far as the nomination in our rather bizarre political system.)
This is simply what professors do. I was doing that as an assistant professor at Troy State. Hell, I was doing it as a graduate teaching assistant at Alabama. The essence of higher education — the reason those in charge of classes are called “professors” rather than merely “teachers” — is that they are crafting an original presentation for students based on their own research, interests, and insights.
Nobody, by the way, is arguing that Obama was incapable of being a first rate scholar. Rather, the point of the piece was that he was mostly interested in his political future and did whatever he had to do in order to preserve his options.
In many ways, that’s praiseworthy. Or, at least, demonstrative of remarkable self-discipline. But, generally speaking, it’s not the path to tenure at an elite law school.
“The essence of higher education — the reason those in charge of classes are called ‘professors’ rather than merely ‘teachers’ — is that they are crafting an original presentation for students based on their own research, interests, and insights.”
As the article that I just finished quoting said, “crafting original presentations based on their own research, interests, and insights” was exactly what he did in order to provide major assistance to Pildes and McConnell. Which, I presume, is why he ended up as that “senior lecturer, a title otherwise carried only by a few federal judges” — and probably why the faculty (including its conservative members) was willing to bend the rules somewhat to make him a professor. I fully agree that YOU are not throwing a fit about this issue — but Beldar (predictably) is, and he was my target.
Postscript on that McConnell business from the June 24 “Politico”:
“After winning a spot on the [Harvard Law Review], Obama beat out 18 other contenders to become the first African-American president in the then-103-year history of the Review, and his duties included leading discussions and debates to determine what to print from the mountain of submissions from judges, scholars and authors from across the country, supervising the thorough editing of each issue’s contents and giving every article what’s known as a ‘P-read’ once it was finally considered ready for publication.
“Once a piece is set, the [Review’s] president also sends a letter or fax and makes a follow-up phone call to each author. Federal Judge Michael W. McConnell, who was nominated by President Bush and has frequently been mentioned as one of Bush’s potential Supreme Court nominees, recalls receiving one such letter and call in early 1990 for his article ‘The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion.’
McConnell told Politico, ‘A frequent problem with student editors is that they try to turn an article into something they want it to be. It was striking that Obama didn’t do that. He tried to make it better from my point of view.’ McConnell was impressed enough to urge the University of Chicago Law School to seek Obama out as an academic prospect.”
Which, as I say, is further evidence that the U. of Chicago decided to give Obama an additional leg up because even their more conservative members recognized that they had something intellectually unusual there.