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Obama as Constitutional Law Professor:

Before becoming a senator and then running for president, Barack Obama spent several years as a part-time lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School. I haven't read anything about what he was like as a professor. A uniter (open-minded, encouraging critical questions) or a divider (not)? Overtly ideological or dispassionate and neutral? Well-prepared or lackadaisical? Any hints about his constitutional philosophy? Inquiring minds want to know! Surely this blog has some readers who took Obama's class (or perhaps were classmates of those who did and thus at least know of his reputation), and can enlighten us.

Ilya Somin:
For what it's worth, I have a politically centrist friend who took Obama's class and liked both the class and Obama personally. I don't know what if anything the class revealed about Obama's view of the constitution.
5.3.2008 5:58pm
OrinKerr:
Above the Law had this thread on the same topic back in February.
5.3.2008 6:13pm
MR (mail) (www):
I didn't post at ATL so I'll post here. I had Obama for Con Law III(Equal Protection). It wasn't one of my best course grades, so I'm happy to hear any report that he doesn't know con law. ;) I did enjoy the class a lot, though.

He was a prepared, engaged teacher who led very good discussions. He was neutral and I would not have been able to guess his personal viewpoints from the way he taught class.
5.3.2008 7:07pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
Too bad they didn't have RateMyProfessor.com back then.

I'll bet he would have gotten a chili pepper.
5.3.2008 7:23pm
Ben P (mail):
As an aside, it seems to be interesting how Chicago splits up their Con-Law Courses. Here we have two courses, a mandatory second year course that covers federalism issues and equal protections, and an elective course that covers the first amendment.

I can't speak to Obama, but I do know people who were taught by the Clintons (as well as professors that worked with them) when they taught at The University of Arkansas Law School in the 70's.

Bill Clinton rather infamously "lost" an entire classes finals at one point, allegedly resulting in everyone in the class being given a B- for the semester.
5.3.2008 7:26pm
Jason F:
U of C divides Con Law into four classes, all elective: Con Law I through III and Crim Pro. Crim Pro, of course, covers things like the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. In a nutshell, Con Law I covers the original Constitution; Con Law II covers the First Amendment, and Con Law III covers the 14th Amendment. That's my recollection, anyway -- it's been about a decade for me.

Note that U of C is on a quarter system (3 quarters per academic year, with the fourth quarter being summer), so classes are only about a dozen weeks long.

I had always heard great things about Obama as a professor, but when it came time to take Con Law III, I had to chose between taking the class with him and taking it wit David Strauss, another great U of C professor. With no disrespect whatsoever toward Professor Strauss, who was a great teacher, I really wish I had picked Obama instead of Strauss.
5.3.2008 7:36pm
Norman Pfyster:
I had Obama for Equal Protection. Granting that that area of con law tends to his politics, he was a very good teacher: knowledgeable and well-prepared, fairly even-handed in treating alternative arguments and willing to push students to think beyond the easy path (even if the easy path was in fact black letter law). It wasn't hard to figure out his politics, but it was never terribly intrusive.
5.3.2008 7:56pm
Waldensian (mail):
I took one of his classes, and I'm a bad person. Sadly, Obama still hasn't gone far enough in renouncing me and my views.
5.3.2008 8:46pm
Al Goreski:
"...I do know people who were taught by the Clintons ...when they taught at The University of Arkansas Law School in the 70's. Bill Clinton rather infamously "lost" an entire classes finals at one point, allegedly resulting in everyone in the class being given a B- for the semester."

The Clintons seem to have developed a talent for misplacing documents associated with the law. The only thing more ironic would be if the Bubba was teaching a class about maintaining legal records, and other possible evidence...
5.3.2008 8:59pm
Hoosier:
Out of curiousity, how much would an adjunct law professor at a place like Chicago get paid? I always assumed that the per-course rate for law was significantly better than that in arts and letters at the same intitution. But you law-school types will never tell us.
5.3.2008 9:00pm
Hoosier:
***I took one of his classes, and I'm a bad person. Sadly, Obama still hasn't gone far enough in renouncing me and my views.

Um, what?
5.3.2008 9:01pm
Hoosier:
Waldensian--The joke just hit me. Never mind.

(I thought this was some reference to his teaching that I wasn't getting.)
5.3.2008 9:03pm
David Lyons (mail):
Did Obama publish any actual scholarship while employed by the law school?
5.3.2008 9:18pm
Donna B. (mail) (www):
Did Obama even publish a note in the Harvard Law Review?
5.3.2008 9:24pm
Ben P (mail):

The Clintons seem to have developed a talent for misplacing documents associated with the law. The only thing more ironic would be if the Bubba was teaching a class about maintaining legal records, and other possible evidence...


As I recall he taught Admiralty, International Trade Law and something else, and she taught Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure and the "prisons project."
5.3.2008 9:25pm
Waldensian (mail):

Waldensian--The joke just hit me. Never mind.

It's not your fault. It's a fairly weak joke. :)
5.3.2008 10:16pm
anonymousacademic (mail):
If his position was "lecturer" then he did not merit the title of "professor" and he should know better than to say he was a professor. Robert Reich got called on this misrepresentation.
5.3.2008 10:16pm
DG:
On a per hour basis, adjunct teaching pays poorly for professionals (lawyers, physicians, engineers, accountants), in comparison to their day job. It gets much more worthwhile after you've been teaching the same course for a couple semesters and you don't really need a lot of prep. Still, straight outside-of-job consulting would pay two or three times as much. You do it because its fun, its career enhancing, or you are an egomaniac of some kind. In my case, all three nicely coincided.
5.3.2008 10:16pm
Sigh:
Actually anonymousacademic, he was a "professor" and was offered a tenure-track position, which he declined.
5.3.2008 10:40pm
John McCall (mail):
If his position was "lecturer" then he did not merit the title of "professor" and he should know better than to say he was a professor.

That's not quite right. Professor does serve as a term of academic rank, yes, but it also serves as the generic term for a (head) instructor at the university level. I've had several professors who weren't tenure-track faculty; one didn't even have a PhD and thus wasn't qualified for a tenure-track position. Nonetheless it would have been unimaginable rude (and petulant) to refer to them as "Lecturer" or "Instructor", even though those were, technically, their official positions at the school.
5.3.2008 10:42pm
stunned:
@Waldensian: don't sell yourself short; I thought it was pretty funny.
5.3.2008 10:52pm
David Lyons (mail):

Actually anonymousacademic, he was a "professor" and was offered a tenure-track position, which he declined.


Oh please: given the law school's mad desire to be associated with a possible president it would be more than plausible that the administration would rise to the "defense" of Senator Obama, even at the risk of obfuscation. Really, what, if anything, does the following quote from the statement you cite even mean:

"Senior Lecturers are considered to be members of the Law School faculty and are regarded as professors,"

Regarded by whom? If by the faculty, why doesn't the faculty label them as actual, you know, professors? The University goes to great lengths to create gradations of status, both subtle and gross, between everyone here. It's only because the law school's interests and Obama's line up in this election that the law school has suddenly declared that a distinction it maintains isn't really a difference.
5.3.2008 10:56pm
Joey22 (mail):
So, Senator Obama calls himself a professor, for which he is chided, and then the University of Chicago issues a statement clarifying that, indeed, he was a professor. But we're supposed to reject that because the University of Chicago has an interest in lying, and we should not allow their grandstanding to dilute the inanity of academic titles careful system of prestige which universities maintain?

I think we can just call the winner of our "most curmudgeonly critique of another human being" contest.
5.3.2008 11:31pm
Waldensian (mail):

@Waldensian: don't sell yourself short; I thought it was pretty funny.

Many thanks, but for crying out loud KEEP IT DOWN. DB loves to delete my posts.
5.3.2008 11:36pm
JB:
Joey22,
No fair calling the contest without announcing it beforehand. I had some snark to post about John McCain in the thread below, but never got around to it.
5.3.2008 11:51pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Most people outside of academia have little understanding of the meaning of academic titles and consider anyone who teaches in a university to be a "professor". As a result, it is common practice, and entirely appropriate, for a university instructor to say, to a lay person, that he or she is a "professor". Obama could only be faulted for saying that he was a "professor" if he held some title other than "(Full) Professor" if it was clear that the question was about his academic rank, which seems not to have been the case.
5.4.2008 12:09am
LM (mail):
Waldensian,

I hope I'm not enabling a pathetic fish for compliments, but I liked it too.

Say it again.
5.4.2008 12:54am
Lawrence W-H:
I heard that he offered a class (election law, maybe?) that was taught early Monday mornings and late Friday afternoons due to his schedule in the Illinois Senate. Apparently, the class filled up. As a current law student, I feel confident saying that filling up classes at these times reflects an extraordinarily good reputation. There's no way I would take an optional class that a) ruined any chance at a three- or four-day weekend and b) made me get up early Monday morning and stay late on Friday unless I knew it was going to be good.
5.4.2008 1:15am
tvk:
Obama was and still is a "Senior Lecturer" along with Richard Posner, Frank Easterbrook, Diane Wood, and Dennis Hutchinson. I dare anyone to call Posner or Easterbrook "not a professor" to their faces. Other adjunct faculty do not have the "Senior" part of the title.
5.4.2008 2:00am
Hoosier:
"Professor"? Americans have never made the distinction that Europeans have on this one. Generally, we treat everyone who regulalry teaches college classes as "a professor." There are inevitably p***ks on campus who are VERY concerend about the gradations. But they really should get bit.

The distinction would also be upheld in academic publishing. Had Obama written a book on con law, an academic publisher might say he "teaches law" at Chicago. But not that "he is a professor of law" at Chicago.

Big deal.
5.4.2008 2:41am
Daryl Herbert (www):
@tvk, those are real professors who downgraded their academic status in order to make more time for their prestigious legal careers.

There is no comparison to Obama, who hasn't published any scholarship, ever, and never had tenure, and was never offered tenure, and never held a job title with the word "professor" in it. That's the weakest defense of resume padding, ever.
5.4.2008 2:59am
Daryl Herbert (www):
Hoosier, I believe the distinction, in practice, is that academics bitterly cling to their gradations, whereas students just call everyone "professor."

It would be too awkward for students to keep track of titles, sometimes use the wrong title, or to refer to their teachers as "Lecturer Smith" or "Distinguished Professor Johnson."

But academics, among themselves, expect each other to get their titles right. Further, everyone expects academics to be honest and accurate on their resumes, or when they formally introduce themselves.
5.4.2008 3:07am
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):

I heard that he offered a class (election law, maybe?) that was taught early Monday mornings and late Friday afternoons due to his schedule in the Illinois Senate. Apparently, the class filled up. As a current law student, I feel confident saying that filling up classes at these times reflects an extraordinarily good reputation.


Not really, the course you're referring to is "Voting Rights &The Democratic Process" which fulfills the Substantial Writing Requirement that students need to graduate and from what I've read on other sites from students who took the course, there were only about 15 spots in the class. My experience with seminar classes is that they tend to fill up rather quickly, particularly with 3L's who need it to graduate.
5.4.2008 3:12am
Jason F:
Thorley -- there are plenty of ways to fulfill the substantial writing requirement without cutting into Wine Mess, and there are plenty of seminars that don't fill up.
5.4.2008 4:00am
LM (mail):
Daryl Herbert,

But academics, among themselves, expect each other to get their titles right.

Ahh, but he hasn't used it as a title. He's used it as a generic job description. He's informally said that he was a law professor. At least as far as I'm aware, he's never given his job title as "Professor of Law."

If I were considering him for a job, and he put "Professor of Law" on his resume, he'd be gone. But if he told me, "I was a community organizer, a law professor and a U.S. Senator," I'd have no problem with it, so long as his resume said, "Senior Lecturer."

Law professor as generic description -- perfectly accurate. "Professor of Law" as job title -- resume fraud. There's the difference.
5.4.2008 4:15am
UofC1L:
The few anecdotal stories I have heard have all been positive, even from a couple people on the right side of the political spectrum.

Also, Obama apparently had amazing teaching evaluations. I remember the Sun-times said he had the second highest rating for that period of time (behind David Strauss). Not sure what measure they were using though (as most people here know, those course evaluations have a lot of questions in them).

I'm pretty sure all of Obama's old course evaluations would be available to current students in our library, but I'm probably too lazy to check. I did, however, enjoy seeing that Obama's old exams and a couple of his exam memos are still available to students on the library's website.

PS: The person who broke down UChicago's ConLaw courses was a bit off (unless it was different back then). We actually have four ConLaw courses that I know of:

Constitutional Law I: Governmental Structure
Constitutional Law II: Freedom of Speech
Constitutional Law III: Equal Protection and Substantive Due Process
Constitutional Law IV: Speech and Religion

These are just the "basic courses", there are obviously other ConLaw or ConLaw-related courses.
5.4.2008 4:45am
BGates:
Ha! Waldensian's funny. Because people keep blaming Obama for these trivial associations, like some guy whose church he attended for decades and supported with tens of thousands of dollars, or some guy who enabled the purchase of his house. Who among us has never started a political career at the home of an unrepentant terrorist?
5.4.2008 4:54am
Waldensian (mail):

Ha! Waldensian's funny.

My pathetic fishing for compliments is going great!! :)
5.4.2008 9:18am
Jerry F:
There was a post on Powerline some time ago on how Obama was perhaps the only President of the Harvard Law Review in history who never published a case comment or a Note (never published anything in HLR). As reported in both Powerline and the National Review, the Harvard Law Review had fewer citations during Obama's year as President than during almost any other year, which suggests that Obama used his position to publish far-left articles.
5.4.2008 11:15am
Angus:

As reported in both Powerline and the National Review, the Harvard Law Review had fewer citations during Obama's year as President than during almost any other year, which suggests that Obama used his position to publish far-left articles.
Maybe you missed the earlier discussion on this. Since articles are chosen for publication several months before each issue appears, that is more a comment on the previous year's editor.
5.4.2008 11:28am
MS (mail):
Jerry F,


Far-left articles get cited quite often, see, e.g., the pages of tripe written by Richard Delgado, unsurprisingly given the political makeup of most law schools. To me, a low cite count suggests only that HLR was selecting unpopular articles -- unpopular ideas, unknown professors, obscure topics.

Now, if President Obama had presided over a tanking economy and a failed war, that would say something about the man.
5.4.2008 11:53am
Roger Sweeny (mail):
MS,

What do you have against Bill Clinton? Recessions are inevitable and the 2000-2001 one wasn't severe. And true, Kosovo is a mess--but it's probably better than it would have been if Milosevic had been allowed to keep it.
5.4.2008 12:02pm
Skyler (mail) (www):
I think it strange that people want to attack or defend his teaching at school as a reflection of political support.

I've had many law professors that were excellent but I would never vote for them for any office at all. The two are unrelated except to the limited extent that it shows he has or doesn't have some basic skills as a speaker and teaching.

No one doubts his speaking abilities.

I will also vouch for Waldensian's post as being very clever.
5.4.2008 1:08pm
Ben P (mail):

I think it strange that people want to attack or defend his teaching at school as a reflection of political support.

I've had many law professors that were excellent but I would never vote for them for any office at all. The two are unrelated except to the limited extent that it shows he has or doesn't have some basic skills as a speaker and teaching.

No one doubts his speaking abilities.


Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't.

One of the things I find most interesting about Obama's candidacy is his seeming open mindedness toward ideas and his ability to recognize that reasonable people might differ about public policy issues.

I think you see this quality (having it or lacking it) very clearly in law professors. Some professors cannot stomach any challenge to their ideas and are contemptuous of students who ask the wrong sort of questions.

Others are much more open minded about ideas, and are willing to engage that discussion, at least to the extent it doesn't get too far off topic from the class.

I would certainly not vote for the former, but I would consider voting for the latter.

Had students from Obama's classes reported that he clearly voiced his opinions about constitutional/political issues in class and been clearly dismissive of any students who raised alternative viewpoints, that would have seriously hurt his image in my eyes.

I never have and never will be a single issue voter, I'd even consider voting for a candidate that I disagree with on a majority of issues if I trust their ability to evaluate evidence and make good decisions.

However, it's that same trait of not being open to the consideration of other ideas that, in my opinion, has been one of the worst aspects of the Bush Presidency, and is one of the things I'd fear most in a Clinton presidency. I'm not terribly sure about McCain yet. My initial impression of him was good because he was willing to cross party lines on occasion, but other stories have indicated that he's not so much open to other ideas as he has very clear ideas in his head that transcend party loyalties.
5.4.2008 2:14pm
grasmere10 (mail):
Regarding how those who teach at U of C law school "regard themselves": it may be true that elsewhere "academics bitterly cling to their gradations, whereas students just call everyone "professor."" But it is a point of particular pride and tradition at Chicago that no one is addressed as "Professor" or "Doctor," but merely as "Mister" or "Msssszz" no matter what his professorial rank, except for those with MDs.
5.4.2008 2:22pm
Tony Tutins (mail):


Next time some one asks me for an example of a non sequitur, I'm gonna point this one out.
5.4.2008 2:34pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
Whoops. Try again


As reported in both Powerline and the National Review, the Harvard Law Review had fewer citations during Obama's year as President than during almost any other year, which suggests that Obama used his position to publish far-left articles.

Next time some one asks me for an example of a non sequitur, I'm gonna point this one out.
5.4.2008 2:40pm
anon252 (mail):
One of the things I find most interesting about Obama's candidacy is his seeming open mindedness toward ideas and his ability to recognize that reasonable people might differ about public policy issues.
That's a pretty low bar, no?
5.4.2008 2:43pm
LM (mail):
Tony Tutins,

Not at all. It puts us on notice that if we elect this guy we'll have only ourselves to blame for a U.S. President with a less impressive academic resume than all the previous U.S. Presidents who were magna cum laude presidents of the Harvard Law Review.
5.4.2008 3:02pm
Byron Rodriguez (mail):
I had him for both "Racism and the Law" and "Voting Rights." Voting rights was the election law class that was early monday morning and Fridays at happy hour. It's true that it filled up and pretty much everyone attended. He's great in the classroom, a quick wit, and pretty balanced. My politics were farther left at the time and I remember often wishing he'd come out a different way when he was in agreement with the more conservative students in the class. Talking to friends across the political spectrum since he started running, pretty much everyone recalls him being very fair to all sides. I don't agree with his spending preferences, but I think he has a robust understanding of law &econ thinking and will concede cost/benefit analysis.

I remember someone in class once asked who was his favorite circuit judge to argue in front of. He said Posner, because Posner was smart enough to know when you were right.

The point about whether he was a professor is nonsense. I was one of many minority students pushing for greater diversity among the faculty. At the time, the deans were explicit about him being offered a full faculty position. As someone else noted, Posner and Easterbrook are both "Senior Lecturers" and, regardless of your political beliefs, should be regarded as academic titans. Barack had other goals, and back then was interested in national politics.

Final notes, regardless of your stripes in class, he was a wonderful mentor, and continued to correspond with a number of my classmates after we graduated. He's one of the most charming people I've ever met, he'll listen to and engage with everyone's ideas (he's exactly the opposite of a Catherine McKinnon) and when you're around him you can't help but like him.
5.4.2008 3:44pm
Ben P (mail):

That's a pretty low bar, no?


Maybe, but it's also not a yes or no question.

When I see Hillary Clinton say something to the effect of "Now it's time to go do things that Democrats want" and hear anecdotes of people within the Bush administration saying things like "We don't need 65 votes, we need 51," I certainly don't see that ideal.

So, if it is a low bar, it's still not being met.
5.4.2008 3:52pm
merevaudevillian:
Obama's 2004 Senate Web site characterized it as a "senior lecturer":

Currently a senior lecturer specializing in constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, Obama has served on the boards of some of Chicago's leading foundations and chaired the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a $50 million philanthropic effort to reform the public schools.


He now characterizes it as, "Soon after, he returned to Chicago to practice as a civil rights lawyer and teach constitutional law." Although those Web sites are one thing, I think there's been a lot of ink spilled over how he's referred to his position in speech rather than in print.
5.4.2008 4:46pm
Tulkinghorn:
Who among us has never started a political career at the home of an unrepentant terrorist?

I will see your Obama in Ayers' living room and raise you a Reagan in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
5.4.2008 5:26pm
PC:
Not at all. It puts us on notice that if we elect this guy we'll have only ourselves to blame for a U.S. President with a less impressive academic resume than all the previous U.S. Presidents who were magna cum laude presidents of the Harvard Law Review.


Heh. Indeed.
5.4.2008 5:33pm
Anonymous Hoosier:
Tulkinghorn:

Not a raise at all. No one disputes that Ayers is an unrepentant terrorist who wishes he'd set more bombs. Ayers certainly doesn't. Even the columnists at the NY Times disagree about Reagan at Philadelphia, as demonstrated by the flurry of columns arguing over the question last fall.
5.4.2008 10:27pm
Hoosier:
Anonymous Hoosier: I like the name. And, yes, if one actually reads the Reagan talk--which was not even in Philadelphia, by the way--it comes across quite differently.

But, then, that would undercut the impact of the attack on Reagan. Which, rather than he truth, is the point.
5.4.2008 10:37pm
Tony Tutins (mail):

Obama's 2004 Senate Web site characterized it as a "senior lecturer":

Actually Obama was a "Senior Lecturer," not a "senior lecturer." He was in the elite company of Posner, Easterbrook, et al, not the ordinary lecturers who might be some semi-notable law firm partner or the like.

Sometimes the import of an academic title needs a sentence or two of explanation. Who here remembers why Lord Rayleigh was the Senior Wrangler?
5.4.2008 11:06pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
Byron Rodriguez
I had him for both "Racism and the Law" and "Voting Rights."

Byron, can you tell us more about the Racism and the Law class? That's the sort of useful inside information that goes beyond sound bites.
5.5.2008 12:17pm
eddiehaskel (mail):
Glad to see that beauty contests are not unknown in the ivory tower of law blogs.

And are some people so obsessed with the Clintons, that in a question about Obama, the first words uttered are "When the Clintons. . ."

Does Professor Bernstein really care what kind of teacher Obama was?

If he was universally considered brilliant, would you vote for him?

And if he was curmudgeonly a "maverick" would you find yet another reason to accuse him of being an unpatriotic, islamisist radical?
5.5.2008 1:20pm
josh:
I didnt take Obama's class because he was serving in the IL Leg at the time and thus insisted on holding lectures at 8 am Monday and 3 pm Friday. Heck w that. I take Mary Ann Case's class on the same subject instead and got my best grade at U of C (love that Equal Prot Clause).

From conservative friends of mine who took Obama's class, I hear it was great, and even though they disagree with his policies, they're proud to have a future president on their transcript.

BTW, where's Gaius Marius to call him Barack HUSSEIN Obama???
5.5.2008 2:01pm
Thales (mail) (www):
"There was a post on Powerline some time ago on how Obama was perhaps the only President of the Harvard Law Review in history who never published a case comment or a Note (never published anything in HLR). As reported in both Powerline and the National Review, the Harvard Law Review had fewer citations during Obama's year as President than during almost any other year, which suggests that Obama used his position to publish far-left articles."

It's quite a bit of a stretch to reach that conclusion and not the most reliable sources . . . Also, what do you mean by "far-left"?
5.5.2008 2:09pm
LM (mail):
eddiehaskel,

Give DB credit. Whatever he may have hoped or expected the answers to be, he just asked the question. And the comments here from ex-Obama students support the already weighty anecdotal evidence that Obama is, as advertised, someone who gives respectful airing to all views.
5.5.2008 6:01pm
b-rob (mail):
I also had Obama for "Racism and the Law" back in the 92-93 year. Remember Norplant? It was a "revolutionary" system of female birth control where little latex permiable stick were inserted under the skin. Around that time, the Louisiana Legislature, including David Duke, was considering a new law that would require women receiving welfare to have Norplant implanted as a pre-condition to receiving benefits. I wrote my paper on the "unconstitutional conditions" doctrine as it applied to coercive birth control. How did this relate to "racism" and the law? Because when you trace the history of governmental involvement in forced sterilization, eugenics (Buck v. Bell's "four generations of imbeciles"), etc. (including the castrated chicken thief), you see a very class specific and racially oriented program of (indeed, fascination with) governmental control over poor peoples' and Black peoples' reproduction. Can't remember my score, but I did graduate.

As a side note, the product liability practioners among us will probably agree that it was a good think the David Duke legislation failed. Given the problems with Norplant, the state might STILL be in litigation!
5.7.2008 5:02pm