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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Barack Obama at the University of Chicago

The New York Times had an in-depth look at Barack Obama when he was teaching law at the University of Chicago. Most of it is what you might expect if you tried to picture Obama as a teacher. He was reportedly very popular and led probing discussions looking at all sides of an issue.

A few points of the story stood out. One was that he seemed disengaged from the rest of the university. He was at this incredibly high-powered location to engage in discussions of wide-ranging issues, but he wasn't interested in joining those debates.
“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 Chicago law faculty is full of intellectually fiery friendships that burn across ideological lines. Three times a week, professors do combat over lunch at a special round table in the university’s faculty club, and they share and defend their research in workshop discussions. Mr. Obama rarely attended, even when he was in town.

“I’m not sure he was close to anyone,” Mr. Hutchinson said, except for a few liberal constitutional law professors, like Cass Sunstein, now an occasional adviser to his campaign. Mr. Obama was working two other jobs, after all, in the State Senate and at a civil rights law firm.

Several colleagues say Mr. Obama was surely influenced by the ideas swirling around the law school campus: the prevailing market-friendliness, or economic analysis of the impact of laws. But none could say how. “I’m not sure we changed him,” Mr. Baird said.

Because he never fully engaged, Mr. Obama “doesn’t have the slightest sense of where folks like me are coming from,” Mr. Epstein said. “He was a successful teacher and an absentee tenant on the other issues.”
Besides being busy, there is another reason why he might not have wanted to enter into discussions with other faculty. He was a politician and didn't want to say or write anything that would come back to haunt him, perhaps in a piece like this one.
While students appreciated Mr. Obama’s evenhandedness, colleagues sometimes wanted him to take a stand. When two fellow faculty members asked him to support a controversial antigang measure, allowing the 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.
His former students talk about how good he was at drawing them out in discussions and that he was even-handed in leading class discussions. But there is one telling anecdote.
For all the weighty material, Mr. Obama had a disarming touch. He did not belittle students; instead he drew them out, restating and polishing halting answers, students recall. In one class on race, he imitated the way clueless white people talked. “Why are your friends at the housing projects shooting each other?” he asked in a mock-innocent voice.
So even then he was making fun of "clueless white people." Nice. Maybe those are the same people who he thinks are bitter and clingy.

What really jumped out at me was the mere fact that he had this nice job at the University that paid him a fellowship to write his first book.
Mr. Obama arrived at the law school in 1991 thanks to Michael W. McConnell, a conservative scholar who is now a federal appellate judge. 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, which amounted to an office and a computer, which he used to write his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.”
And then, most amazing, the article states that the University of Chicago offered him a tenured position.
Soon after, the faculty saw an opening and made him its best offer yet: Tenure upon hiring. A handsome salary, more than the $60,000 he was making in the State Senate or the $60,000 he earned teaching part time. A job for Michelle Obama directing the legal clinic.
Wow! A tenured job offer plus a job for his wife for a guy who hadn't written a single law article. That's just astounding at any law school, much less one of the top and most rigorous schools in the nation. As the wife of a professor, that just jumped out at me. It turns out it struck several law professors that way. See Ann Althouse and David Berstein. Well, it's clear why he would get this offer. No wonder he supports affirmative action.
The school had almost no black faculty members, a special embarrassment given its location on the South Side. Its sleek halls bordered a neighborhood crumbling with poverty and neglect. In his 2000 Congressional primary race, Representative Bobby L. Rush, a former Black Panther running for re-election, used Mr. Obama’s ties to the school to label him an egghead and an elitist.
And how convenient, they could use him to teach their class on racism and the law. We all know that know white professor, no matter how popular a teacher he was, would get such a job offer along with a job for his wife.

Jim Lindgren thought this detail was a bit fishy and so asked some of his acquaintances who were on the University of Chicago faculty at the time if, as is standard procedure, they had voted a tenured offer to Obama.
I have now talked to four members of the University of Chicago law faculty, including at least one of Obama’s campaign donors, and all four of them say that they do not remember voting Barack Obama a tenured or tenure-track offer. When I asked whether they remembered the Faculty Appointments Committee in the 2000-2002 era sending out an appointments file recommending a tenured or tenure-track appointment, all said No. Nor do these members of the faculty remember their being part of any discussion whether to grant tenure to Obama. As some of them explained procedures at Chicago, the dean does not have the power to make an actual offer of tenure without a faculty vote.

All thought that a tenure-track offer might well have been approved if it had been brought to the faculty. All expressed doubt whether the faculty would have made a tenured offer; one professor stated emphatically that it never would have happened, which of course is just one person’s opinion. According to those I spoke with, a tenured offer would have been problematic because — despite his intelligence, teaching ability, and success in law school — Barack Obama may not have had any scholarly publications (at least they were not aware of any).
In an online discussion of the story, the author, Jodi Kantor, reiterated that the school did make a tenured offer, not just a tenure-track offer, to Obama and adds that the faculty would have voted on the offer.
When the law school tried to hire Mr. Obama after his failed 2000 congressional race, it was for a tenured job, according to Daniel Fischel, the dean at the time. In our interview, I asked him if he meant “tenure-track,” and he said no. “He would be hired as a tenured professor,” he explained. The faculty would vote, but Mr. Obama already had their support, he added.
Offer first and then the faculty votes? That's an inversion of the normal procedure. Perhaps the faculty would have voted to approve the appointment given their need to hire a black faculty member, but the dean is just guessing that he would have had their support given Lindgren's finding that the faculty had not yet been approached about the idea.

The New York Times also posted several of Obama's syllabi and test questions. They then asked four law professors from all points in the ideological spectrum their opinions of the materials. For a lay person such as myself, this was all very interesting and I appreciated the Times from giving this added depth to their story. All four professors are very complimentary about the breadth of his list of readings and discussion topics. And they liked his exam questions.

One comment from Randy Barnett amused, yet saddened me.
The materials assigned were balanced, including several readings by Frederick Douglass, who many modern race theorists have come to disparage as insufficiently radical (as Obama would know),
What a miserable point we have reached where it would be notable that an instructor in a race class assigned something by Frederick Douglass! That tells us a lot about what is going on in other classes around the nation. It's good that Obama didn't ascribe to such radical biases, but what is truly shameful is that there are theorists out there who think that they have a moral perch from which to criticize one of the greatest advocates in our nation's history for the rights of blacks.

And Yale professor Akhil Reed Amar practically drools in his appreciation of Obama's brilliance. Having read the exam questions, Amar thinks it was perfectly understandable that, despite never having published one single scholarly work, the University of Chicago would make him a tenured offer. From his exams alone! Talk about lowering the bar. But wait, Amar doesn't stop there. He then goes on to see great similarities between Obama and, wait for it, Abraham Lincoln. Obama's deep understanding of the Constitution and the moral element just happen to remind Amar of one of the greatest men in our nation's history. Just from looking at his exam questions and answers! Talk about lowering the bar!

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