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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Obama's never been a "professor of law" nor any full-time or tenure-track legal educator

How big a deal is it that in speeches and in campaign literature, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) has identified himself from time to time as a "law professor" or even a "professor of law"?

It's not as big a deal as the Clinton campaign has made it. But it's a bigger deal than some poorly informed or outright dishonest Obama apologists have been trying to make it appear.


Here's the back-story:

During the past week, the Clinton campaign issued a press release in which it cited an April 2007 blog post from the National Journal's Hotline Blog and an August 2004 Chicago Sun-Times column by Lynn Sweet as proof that "Sen. Obama consistently and falsely claims that he was a law professor." According to the Clinton press release (bracketed portion by the Clinton campaign),

The Sun-Times reported that, "Several direct-mail pieces issued for Obama's primary [Senate] campaign said he was a law professor at the University of Chicago. He is not. He is a senior lecturer (now on leave) at the school. In academia, there is a vast difference between the two titles. Details matter." In academia, there's a significant difference: professors have tenure while lecturers do not.

TNR's Noam Scheiber writes that he doesn't "see the scandal" in Obama describing himself as a "professor."  But many — especially in the academic world — certainly would.

Indeed, it's amazing to me that with as many academics as abound in Democratic Party politics and punditry, neither campaign can get seem to get this stuff straight! The last sentence in the block quote just above did indeed appear in Sweet's column, but it's badly wrong, too: Whether in law schools or other college and university departments, there are zillions of "assistant professors" who don't have tenure, but they're typically on a tenure track in which they might eventually get tenure. When and if those assistant professors of law (or whatever) get tenure, they typically will become "associate professors of law," from which they might or might not progress to more senior tenured positions — e.g., "full" professors (typically designated just as "professor of law"), or perhaps full professors holding an endowed professorship or chair.

Obama has never, ever had any position in which the word "professor" was part of his job title — neither as an assistant professor, associate professor, nor full professor; and neither as a resident or a visiting professor; and neither as a clinical professor, adjunct professor, or mainstream academic professor.

Here's a carefully written, mostly accurate, but still misleading and pro-Obama-spun press release that the University of Chicago Law School has posted this week in response to the controversy:

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.

Mike Allen at Politico insists that this press release declares Obama's "claims [to be] semantically sound" and "vindicates" him.

But that's also a significant over-reading, at least in my opinion. Color me intensely skeptical, for example, as to whether, and by whom, "Senior Lecturers" are "considered to be members of the Law School faculty and are regarded as professors"; that careful qualifier, "although not full-time or tenure-track," is HUGELY significant in terms of how legal academics actually regard each others' status.

Maybe senior lecturers at Chicago get to sit in on faculty meetings; maybe they get to use the executive washrooms and lounges. But they assuredly don't get to cast votes, however, on grants of tenure or the like. The press release's careful wording strikes me as very analogous to saying, "In the military, non-commissioned officers are considered officers," or to saying, "In medicine, licensed residents are considered doctors." Both of those statements may be technically true. But they're certainly far from complete, and they certainly could obscure the real relationships between, say, sergeants and lieutenants, or between residents and attending physicians. Whether you're a grunt in the trenches, a patient on an operating room table, or a law graduate and wanna-be academic trying to decide whose butts to kiss first, you certainly do want to understand the details of this hierarchy.

Indeed, I am quite certain that a quick way to get oneself off a tenure track would be to even slightly or innocently misrepresent one's tenure or tenure-track status in any important context or setting. The "clinical instructor" or even "adjunct professor" who describes himself or herself simply as a "professor of law" (or even "law professor") on a formal résumé that finds its way back to the tenured faculty members is likely to instantly destroy his or her reputation for academic integrity and honesty, very likely ensuring that he or she never will be on a tenure track at that institution!

In fact, I very much wonder whether this undated press release would draw agreement from a majority of the tenured faculty members at Chicago. And I very much doubt that a comparable statement, made without reference to any current political wunderkinder, would draw agreement from most other law school faculties. Indeed, there's a slight, but significant, internal inconsistency in the press release: Despite the careful distinctions it goes on to draw for "Senior Lecturers," it nevertheless states flatly and boldly (and I suspect wrongly) at its beginning that "From 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama served as a [lower-case "p"] professor in the Law School"; but Obama only became a Senior Lecturer in 1996. Do most of the tenured faculty members at Chicago agree that all of their mere lecturers are entitled to represent themselves to the public as being "professors of law" or "law professors"? Where's a quote from the Dean? Where's a cross-reference to a pre-existing faculty rule or policy?


I don't doubt the press release's assertion that Obama had been repeatedly offered a full-time tenure-track position, almost certainly as an assistant professor. That's roughly analogous to being offered a job as an associate at a law firm, or a resident at a teaching hospital, and it's mostly significant for what it portends about future career prospects after many years of further hard work. But Obama didn't do, or commit to do, that hard work; he chose instead to keep "politician" as his main day job for the last several years.

The law school's website also reproduces a December 2007 Chicago Sun-Times article which suggests that as a classroom teacher, Obama was popular with his students. I don't doubt that — even if, perhaps, his classes didn't hold hands and sway rhythmically while chanting "Yes, we can!" Again, that's nice. But being liked doesn't entitle one to represent oneself as a "professor" when one's not.

It's also mildly significant in my view that Obama picked con-law as the subject on which he'd lecture. Con-law is sexy and fun, and it sounds great for purposes of becoming a politician. Certainly there are con-law profs who study it deeply and diligently. But con-law is also prone to being slippery and vague; if you're a bluffer, it's the kind of topic you'd pick to try to bluff on. I would frankly be far more impressed if Obama had lectured in a field that absolutely required deeper and more diligent, continuing study — say, tax or corporate governance or even torts. I therefore think Obama's subject to a legitimate charge of being an academic dilettante. There's not nearly as much evidence that Obama has ever been a serious legal scholar as there is to demonstrate that he has ever been a serious professional legislator, and his record as a legislator, either state or federal, is still ridiculously thin for a presidential candidate.

Even Lynn Sweet's latest critical blog post, written in response to the Chicago press release, misses the point. She writes:

The University of Chicago did Obama no favor by saying he was a law professor when he wasn’t. This parsing is not necessary. There is nothing degrading about being a senior lecturer and bringing to students the experience of a professional in the field.

Except that Obama couldn't be "bringing to students the experience of a professional in the field." Even in his very limited tenure as a practicing lawyer, there's no hint that his practice involved subtle, ethereal questions of constitutional law of the sort he likely taught about at Chicago. If he's ever tried and won a court case, constitutional or otherwise, I haven't seen any evidence of that. If he's ever argued an appeal, constitutional law or otherwise, I haven't seen any evidence of that either. As a lawyer, he seems mostly to have still been a "community organizer," which I interpret as being a proto-politician who likely writes lots of demand letters, who maybe files complaints and occasional lawsuits that he inevitably settles, and who spends at least as much time talking to power brokers and the press as to judges and juries.


The reason big academic institutions have all these titles is that that's how they keep score internally. The exact titles certainly do matter to them, and to those who are trying to figure out those institutions. And it's one thing for Scheiber or Allen to spin all this to make Obama's misappropriation of a title seem insignificant. But it's ridiculous — to and past the point of dishonesty — to try to compare or equate Obama's academic titles or service to those of serious legal academicians.

The most egregious example I've seen so far is from self-described University of Chicago PhD candidate (not law student) Chris McIntosh, posting at Talking Points Memo. McIntosh's post is entitled: Barack *is* a Law Professor: Clinton Smears Continue Unfounded. The factual part of that title is literally untrue, for whatever connections Obama did have with the faculty no longer exist. (McIntosh may not understand what the meaning of "is" is.) But McIntosh goes on to argue that Senior Lecturers teach "just as authoritatively as any other member of the faculty." Well, yes, the grades they hand out count the same way in students' GPAs as the grades handed out by full professors. But does anyone seriously think all, or most, or even very many "Senior Lecturers" are genuinely as "authoritative" as senior professors with endowed chairs in a particular subject? When I was in law school, I was intensely and continuously aware of which of my professors were mere tenure candidates and which, by contrast, were already tenured professors, especially if they were eminent national scholars who typically had quite literally "written the book" on the topics they taught.

McIntosh is also badly wrong when he states that the University of Chicago Law School has no "assistant professors." Here are three, just for example. The Chicago faculty does seem to have a shortage of "associate professors of law" right now (maybe they're out visiting other faculties?), and not very many plain old "professors of law" without endowments either (which speaks well of their fund-raising prowess). But I have no doubt that Chicago keeps score in pretty much the traditional ways common to the rest of American law schools; those titles count, and they're not casually handed out. McIntosh's grand finale, though, is actually a grand whopper:

There's one last irksome detail. Richard A. Posner? Legal icon, you might have heard of him? The one with about ten (no exaggeration) honorary doctorates? He still does not possess the professor title.

He's a Senior Lecturer. Still. I highly doubt anyone could credibly argue that he's not a law professor.

But of course, Posner had been granted tenure as an associate professor at Stanford Law School way back in 1968, and before becoming a United States Circuit Judge in 1981, he was the Lee and Brena Freeman Professor of Law at Chicago — not just a full-time faculty member, not just a tenured associate professor, not just a full professor, but a full professor with an endowed professorship. He's now "only" a Senior Lecturer because he's still a sitting circuit judge in his "day job"; voting on which visiting assistant professors and lecturers Chicago should accept next semester is presumably less important to him than voting on the cases before the Seventh Circuit.


Look, Obama has taught a few con-law classes at a very good law school. The students apparently liked him; he kept it up for several years. Nobody doubts that he's a smart guy, and he probably had the chops to have made a career as a legal academic, but he didn't go that route, and he won't, and it's entirely misleading to refer to him as a "law professor" when in fact all he ever was, was a part-time law teacher.

InstaPundit (a/k/a the very-much tenured Beauchamp Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law Glenn Harlan Reynolds at the University of Tennessee College of Law) writes: "I don't think that this dispute will swing many votes even within the legal academy," and that's probably true. I don't think this particular serial exaggeration on Obama's part is as troublesome as John Kerry's serial exaggeration of his combat record, but neither does it reflect well on the guy. He's not a completely empty suit, but neither are his credentials nearly as deep as he makes out.

For me, that simply reconfirms an assessment I came to long ago: Barack Obama is not someone I can trust.


UPDATE (Mon Mar 31 @ 8:58pm): The very-much tenured Robert W. & Irma Arthur-Bascom Professor of Law Ann Althouse was struck by the same mistake in the Clinton press release that I was (assistant professors are not tenured). Her conclusion (italics hers):

I think one ought to be careful about this. If your title was "lecturer" and you're applying for a job, you shouldn't say "I was a law professor." Even though it can be defended as not a lie, you're exaggerating and not being strictly scrupulous about the facts. And Clinton's press release didn't say this was a lie. It put it on a list of 10 "embellishments and misstatements." It's fair to say it's an embellishment.

To that, I simply add the obvious: Obama is applying for a job, albeit not for a position as a professor, but for one that requires more faith and trust in his integrity than any other job in the world. Even when Obama was only applying to the voters of Illinois for the job of junior U.S. senator from their state, he had no excuse for failing to get this exactly right on an absolutely consistent basis.

Posted by Beldar at 11:57 PM in 2008 Election, Law (2008), Obama, Politics (2008) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Obama's never been a "professor of law" nor any full-time or tenure-track legal educator and sent a trackback ping are listed here:


(1) Daryl Herbert made the following comment | Mar 30, 2008 1:19:34 AM | Permalink

Senator Barack Obama, distinguished professor of law.

He's distinguishable from his fellow law professors of law because he never published a single law review article.

(2) Beldar made the following comment | Mar 30, 2008 1:31:43 AM | Permalink

If he wrote even a student note on the Harvard Law Review, I haven't ever seen it referenced. And he was apparently involved in another, less pretigious campus review at Havard as a 1L, but I'm not aware of him publishing there either. That's always struck me as odd. Back in my day at Texas, the editors of the law review were generally chosen from among the second-year students who'd written and published the very best student notes. Apparently that wasn't the case at Harvard, or at least not for Obama.

(3) Art Deco made the following comment | Mar 30, 2008 2:36:40 PM | Permalink

I cannot say about Current Law Index or the Index to Legal Periodicals, but it appears that Lexis/Nexis Academic indexes law review issues only selectively, excluding the sort of editorial matter to which you refer. I used to work with a fellow who was once the principal student Editor of the Buffalo Law Review. Lexis/Nexis Academic does provide references to articles in the Buffalo Law Review from his time there, but enter his name as an author and you get a complete dry hole. Do these Notes usually carry a by-line?

(4) Bench made the following comment | Mar 30, 2008 11:04:18 PM | Permalink

"Certainly there are con-law profs who study it deeply and diligently. But con-law is also prone to being slippery and vague; if you're a bluffer, it's the kind of topic you'd pick to try to bluff on."

This was exactly my experience. The two professors at my law school who were the fullest of manure were the two who taught ConLaw. First semester of it, we spent more time talking about the professor's pet interests, the German concepts of Gemeinshaft and Gesellshaft (or whatever), than we did actually learning Constitutional Law. Second semester, the other professor would rail against Scalia and Thomas, but, strangely, never actually citing to a case or opinion. It's the ultimate bullsh*tter's subject. Anybody with strong opinions could fake his way through teaching a ConLaw semester.

(5) DWPittelli made the following comment | Mar 31, 2008 9:42:24 AM | Permalink

It would indeed be incorrect to write:
"Obama was a Professor."

It would not be incorrect to write or to say:
"Obama was a professor,"

although that is of course an ambiguous statement which might be interpreted as the former statement.

professor: "a teacher at a university, college, or sometimes secondary school" (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, definition 2b)

(6) Beldar made the following comment | Mar 31, 2008 10:01:42 AM | Permalink

Mr. Pittelli: With due respect, I don't agree at all that reference to a particular (and most generous/vague) one of several competing dictionary definitions is appropriate here.

Obama claims to have been a part of the law school faculty; the usage in that particular context is what's important, and it's certainly fair to hold him to that more narrow definition. Nor do I think the upper/lower case distinction saves him. Someone without much involvement in, or understanding of, the American college and post-graduate educational systems might insist that anyone who has anything to do with teaching can claim to be a professor. But Obama is not such a person; he's an insider, and I guarantee you that he damn well knows these distictions — among other things, having made selections for Harvard Law Review articles whose publication (or not) affected hundreds of tenure decisions.

(7) DWPittelli made the following comment | Mar 31, 2008 10:08:02 AM | Permalink

Of course, in the context of people talking in a university setting, about a given (small "p") professor, when asking "is he a Professor?" or saying "he's a Professor," of course the word is understood to have the specific (large "P") meaning Beldar gives it.

But in the context of a political race, the fact that you have taught law courses and are a small "p" professor would seem at least as germane as whether you had a specific title.

Now, why anyone would consider either to be a significant qualification for the Presidency, I can't say, especially if the candidate is not running on a platform of specific constitutional interpretations or philosophy.

(8) DWPittelli made the following comment | Mar 31, 2008 10:16:28 AM | Permalink

I haven't seen the original junk mail pieces. But it would seem to me that for a general audience, "professor" does indeed mean someone who has taught in a university, without consideration of "adjunct" "associate" "senior lecturer" etc., the meaning of most of which terms most voters could not define or even rank.

(9) DWPittelli made the following comment | Mar 31, 2008 10:24:55 AM | Permalink

Obama's offending quote "I was a constitutional law professor, which means unlike the current president I actually respect the Constitution," certainly does not rely on his having been a tenured or full professor, or require such status to not be misleading (beyond being on its face a nonsequitor, but of the standard ideological type which literally all politicians engage in).

(10) DWPittelli made the following comment | Mar 31, 2008 10:42:46 AM | Permalink

To be true, a statement does not have to be true under all dictionary definitions of a word, it merely has to be true under one definition. So the statement is true.

To be honest, or not misleading, the statement must be true under the definition the audience is most likely to presume. The fact that the speaker, Obama, has an academic legal background, does not mean the expected audience is likely to use the definition that we might expect if the audience consisted of other lawyers or professors.

The audience, or the speaker's perception of the audience, is key when we have multiple possible definitions. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" was misleading even though Bill Clinton knew a definition of sexual relations under which it was true, because he of course expected his audience to be mislead because they would have a broader definition. I have seen no reason to believe that Obama was trying to mislead any audience.

(11) Leif made the following comment | Mar 31, 2008 2:37:12 PM | Permalink

When I was at the University of Chicago, we had only three Senior Lecturers--Posner, Easterbrook, and Wood--all of whom had been tenured professors before being appointed to the Seventh Circuit. I suspect that Obama made the leap to "Senior Lecturer" only because he was elected to the Senate, not because he had some sudden, astonishing academic insight that vaulted him into the ranks of legal intellectuals like--for instance--Posner, Easterbrook, or Wood. He was grouped with all the other adjuncts--Lecturers--when I was there.

(12) The Raving Atheist made the following comment | Mar 31, 2008 2:52:23 PM | Permalink

"professor: 1. One that professes, avows, or declares" (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

Obama is a lecturer who professes to be a professor, and hence, by so doing, is a professor.

(13) Beldar made the following comment | Mar 31, 2008 9:19:30 PM | Permalink

Several excellent comments, for which I thank you all!

One follow-up though, in particular, to Mr. Pittelli's quote of Obama's recent description in a speech of himself as having been a "constitutional law professor": Obama could have made the same point, without exaggerating his credentials, by saying "constitutional law instructor."

And, of course, the slam-dunk reply to his political comment is: Yes, you once had a part-time job instructing a bunch of twenty-something lawyer wannabes about constitutional law, whereas George W. Bush is the person whom over 65 million American voters reelected (via the electoral college) to actually hold and execute the duties of the office created by Article II of the Constitution. So let's see: Who's got more constitutional authority? The guy behind the lectern in a second floor seminar room at Chicago Law School? Or the guy behind the lectern in the Capitol Building delivering the State of the Union address?

(14) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Apr 1, 2008 2:54:23 AM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: You've been reading your Andrew Jackson, I see. You know: the lines he supposedly said after the Supreme Court decide Worcester v. Georgia in 1832, a decision he hated:

"John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."

Who has more constitutional authority? The Prez? Or the Chief Justice? How's a layman supposed to tell?

I always thought the one with the most constitutional authority was the one who was right. You know: "One man plus the truth makes a majority," (also attributed to Jackson, who is certainly famous for not saying a lot of things.) The way you present it in your 9:19 comment makes "authority" seem synonymous with "power." Certainly out in Yorba Linda California, the shade of Richard Nixon, a lawyer and a good one, is nodding agreement with you that when the President does it it is not illegal, and therefore the Prez should have the most constitutional authority.

Obama is merely doing what dam near every human on the face of the earth has done: exaggerating his credentials to help get a job. Unworthy? Sure. But there are differences in degree. To the bulk of nonlawyers, of whom I am one, this seems small stuff. The notion that titles confer wisdom and superior knowledge is silly. Larry Tribe has enough gold braid and fruit salad on his shoulders to make Blackstone's knees shake. But who gives a dam for any of his written or spoken opinions? He's just a con man out hustling. His antics in the HELLER gun case now up before the Supreme Court are instructive. In the years before HELLER, he snored away whenever the Second Amendment was mentioned, at best giving it the ritual kick in the teeth the left always does to the Second. But then when it started to flower, he elbowed for a spot at the Counsel's table. He was rejected, not least because he isn't trusted on the Second. Now he postures in the WALL STREET JOURNAL saying his policy preferences are against the Second, but his legal analysis indicates that the Second really does matter. How can the rest of us keep from laughing at such antics? More, how can they keep from laughing at the rest of the Tribe, in the faculty lounges of law schools everywhere? No, the fuss the legal academy is making about this merely reinforces the common view that law is seen as a game by its scholars, not to be taken seriously except when trying to bamboozle someone. Nor does it do anything for the academy's image as place for serious thinkers, as opposed to fanatics obsessed with status.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(15) Leif made the following comment | Apr 1, 2008 11:44:28 AM | Permalink

Beldar: The seminar rooms are actually in the basement.

Really, that just makes your point sound better.

(16) Blue made the following comment | Apr 1, 2008 3:43:40 PM | Permalink

I am not an Obama fan--won't vote for him under any circumstances. But I give him a pass here. I've been a TA teaching recitation sections and a adjunct professor of record and in those environments I've always considered "professor" to be a neutral and reasonable term of respect for an instructor in college. Certainly better than "Doctor," since folks like me who are ABD have to correct that one immediately!

That said, I don't run around calling myself "professor." I generally refer to that experience as "teaching a few college classes." So in that way, Obama went further than I would have...but I can excuse a little harmless puffery in a political candidate.

(17) DWPittelli made the following comment | Apr 1, 2008 7:43:12 PM | Permalink

But "Instructor" wasn't his title either.

And if you want to get all technical with it as a defined word, the broader definition of the word "instructor" is less accurate than that of "professor" because "a person who instructs; a teacher" has no connotation of teaching at the college or university level.

And at the more specific definition, "instructor" is just as inaccurate as that of "professor" because it is a "college teacher ranking below an assistant professor" and not anyone teaching graduate students.

(18) Barney Frank made the following comment | Apr 2, 2008 4:56:14 PM | Permalink

Obama is merely doing what dam near every human on the face of the earth has done: exaggerating his credentials to help get a job.

He's not just trying to 'get a job'. It's of little potential consequence if a guy pads a resume to become dogcatcher.
However when you're running for prez and your real world experience consists of 'community organizing' whatever that might actually be, and voting 'present' when tough issues come up no doubt a little padding is in order.

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