Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Professor Obama

There's been some understandable surprise in the blogosphere at the account in today's NYT of Barack Obama's career at the University of Chicago Law School, which reports that after his loss to Bobby Rush in the 2000 Congressional primary, the Law School was prepared to offer him a tenured professorship despite his lack of scholarly publications. Assuming that the Times has this right, it's at least quite startling. (The position Obama ended up accepting, Senior Lecturer, was one shared by full-time federal judges Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook who also teach and research at the Law School; it's a different kind of position, and one that's appropriate to offer to a practitioner interested in teaching.)

One thing to note, though, is that earlier, as Jason Zengerle reported,
[Then-Appointments Chair Douglas] Baird approached Obama about a teaching job at Chicago during his third and final year as a student at Harvard. "You look at his background--Harvard Law Review president, magna cum laude, and he's African American," Baird says. "This is a no-brainer hiring decision at the entry level of any law school in the country." But Obama wasn't interested. Obama did, however, mention that he was writing a book on voting rights, so Baird arranged for him to become a Law and Government Fellow at the school--a position that provided Obama with an office and a modest stipend he could use in the course of his writing. When Obama came to Baird in the middle of his fellowship to report that his book on voting rights had morphed into the memoir that would become Dreams From My Father, Baird told him not to worry.

In other words, the Law School had in some sense already endorsed Dreams of My Father as a substitute for a scholarly book on voting rights. It may be that that assessment carried over to the willingness to consider a tenured position later on. It was a book the school had supported the writing of in the first place, which would make it odd for the school to later take the position that Obama had no publications.

This is probably a bit beside the point; the underlying rationale was surely something more like "you do whatever it takes to get this brilliant charismatic clearly-destined-for-greatness guy on your faculty for the rest of his life." But I do think that the institutional endorsement of the book is relevant.

[Disclaimer: Despite my own time at the Law School and the fact that I know lots of the people quoted, I have no inside knowledge about any of this.]

Update: Not terribly surprisingly, it appears that the NYT got this wrong.