During the 2008 presidential campaign, I got caught up in the controversy regarding whether or not Senator Barack Obama was really a law school professor. Obama referred to himself as a “law professor,” but – in truth – he had only served as a Senior Lecturer. (This was a non-tenure track position that did not require achievements in research or publication.) To the general public, this probably looked like a minor case of a politician fudging his resume. As a published, award-winning political scientist, however, I thought Obama’s claims demeaned the once – somewhat honorable – image of genuine law school professors at the University of Chicago.
Doug Ross floated a blog post reputing to be the comments of a highly ranked University of Chicago law school professor which – in my mind – rings true as a plausible reaction from a tenured law school professor, someone who probably went into this line of work back when it was a sign of extraordinary intelligence, and not simply the expression of affirmative action window-dressing or compliance with politically correct dogma. According to the report in Ross’s blog, his source shared that:
- I spent some time with the highest tenured faculty member at Chicago Law a few months back, and he did not have many nice things to say about “Barry.” Obama applied for a position as an adjunct and wasn’t even considered. A few weeks later the law school got a phone call from the Board of Trustees telling them to find him an office, put him on the payroll, and give him a class to teach. The Board told him he didn’t have to be a member of the faculty, but they needed to give him a temporary position. He was never a professor and was hardly an adjunct.
Off and on, I have been an adjunct professor myself. I soon learned that my colleagues would be ticked off when I skipped out on staff meetings. As the anonymous source indicates, Obama had a similar experience:
- The other professors hated him because he was lazy, unqualified, never attended any of the faculty meetings, and it was clear that the position was nothing more than a political stepping stool.
Personally, I thought it was unfair for me to attend faculty meetings as an adjunct when I was earning a fraction of the earnings of the real professors. Even worse, as a consultant, I lost time I could bill my clients when I was attending these fun, but unproductive meetings.
As much as I understand that Obama might be disinterested in attending faculty meetings, I also think his claim that he was a law school professor is likely to offend those of us who have competed for that honor through research, publication, and lonely scholarship. As Ross’s source relates:
- According to my professor friend, he had the lowest intellectual capacity in the building. He also doubted whether he was legitimately an editor on the Harvard Law Review, because if he was, he would be the first and only editor of an Ivy League law review to never be published while in school (publication is or was a requirement).
Obama’s fib that he was a law school professor reminds me of all the people who seem to think that just because they earned their M.A. that they have achieved the equivalent of a Ph.D. To those of us who have gone on and earned our Ph.D.’s, however, the completion of an M.A. seems to be a minor accomplishment compared to the intellectual challenge of conducting original research and grappling, on a day-to-day basis, with the exhilarating (sometimes heart-breaking) process of creating new knowledge.
The Doug Ross blog post is a telling reminder Obama was never a professor. He was never even close to being a professor. Professors publish articles, compete for tenure, conduct research, win grants, and speak at national and international conferences. They attend faculty meetings where their expertise and skills are challenged in lively debate. In this world, the time professors spend teaching classes, creating exams and grading papers – the majority of Obama’s work as a Senior Lecturer – has only limited significance and prestige.
Obama’s insistence that he was a law school professor shows that he sought the status of being a law school professor…yet never proved he had what it took to compete among the academic elite.