During the 2008 presidential campaign, I got emotionally caught up in the controversy regarding whether or not Sen. Barack Obama was ever a law school professor at the University of Chicago. In truth, he had only served as a Senior Lecturer, a non-tenure track job that did not demand any publication record. 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 real University of Chicago Law School professors.
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, at least – sounds like a plausible reaction from a real, tenured college professor, someone who probably went into this line of work back when it was a mark of high intelligence and gifted insight, and not simply the expression of affirmative action window-dressing or compliance with politically correct liberal dogma. According to the report in Ross’s blog, http://directorblue.blogspot.com/2010/03/to-be-lawyer-or-not-to-be.html, his correspondent 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.
The next passage, however, really caught my attention. Off and on, I’ve been an adjunct professor myself. In general, I thought that the schools would be honored to have someone with my business sense and experience on their roster. It didn’t hurt my business either to show ties to an academic institution. Nevertheless, they would be ticked off when I skipped out on staff meetings. As the anonymous source indicates, this practice is quite disturbing to the “real” law school professors:
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. 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).
I know that this is a typical issue because I thought it was unfair for me to attend faculty meetings as an adjunct when I was earning a fraction of what the real professors were earning. Even worse, as a consultant, I lost time I could bill my clients attending these dull and generally useless meetings. The real professors, however, saw their time in faculty meetings as a welcome break in their routine and an opportunity to pick some fellowship and a free lunch charged to the department. Nevertheless, as much as I understand that Obama was too important to attend faculty meetings, I also think his claim that he was a law school professor is likely to offend those of us who truly compete for that honor through research, publication, and lonely scholarship. His comments remind me of all the people who seem to think that just because they finished their course work and earned their M.A. degree that they are the equivalent of earning a Ph.D. Those of us who have gone on and earned our Ph.D.’s, however, the completion of coursework seems to be a minor accomplishment compared to conducting your own original research and grappling, on a day-to-day basis, with the truth and the awesome creativity of producing new, reliable, and insightful knowledge.
The Doug Ross blog post is a telling reminder that President Obama was never a professor. He was never even close to being a professor. In the real world, professors publish articles, compete for tenure, conduct original research, win grants, and speak at national and international conferences. In their view, the time they spend teaching classes, creating exams and grading papers – the majority of Obama’s work as a Senior Lecturer – has virtually no value. Obama, sadly, sought the prestige of being a real law school professor…but never learned what it really took to compete among the most exclusive academic elite.