The University of Chicago Law Faculty Never Voted a Tenure Offer to Barack Obama.--

[UPDATE, 3:40pm Thursday:

I have now spoken or corresponded with 7 members of the University of Chicago law faculty, including several of the most powerful members of the faculty in the 1998-2003 period. For each year in that period, I believe that I have spoken to at least one from the following group of people who would know if Barack Obama had been vetted for an appointment with immediate tenure: appointments chair, appointments committee member, or dean. I have been purposely inclusive in this list to avoid identifying my sources.

None of the 7 Chicago law faculty I interviewed or corresponded with were consulted about an Obama tenured offer, none of them remember any discussion of hiring Obama with immediate tenure, and some of them couldn't believe that anyone would even attempt such a move, since it would have been a "nonstarter." If Obama had been vetted by the faculty before he was approached about an offer with immediate tenure, every member of the apppointments committee that year would be likely to remember it. I suspect that the group least likely to believe the story that the Chicago faculty was consulted and favored a tenured offer to Barack Obama is the University of Chicago Law School faculty.

I should say that two very prominent members of the faculty emailed me to express their doubt that a tenured offer had ever been vetted with the faculty. Both are campaign donors to Obama. My own supposition is that they supported my reporting because they did not want the academic public to get the wrong idea about Chicago's tenure standards. One prominent faculty member wrote me that he had not been consulted by Dan Fischel about a tenured offer for Obama, "nor does [Dan] recall the whole thing with any certainty."

Dan was a law school classmate of mine and a great dean at Chicago, and he is one of the most brilliant and influential law and economics scholars ever. I think his memory just failed him this time (as it sometimes does for many of us).

Many non-academic readers of this blog may not have understood why this was such an implausible story in the first place. In any event, now I've talked to enough Chicago faculty that this story can be safely put to bed.]


In an otherwise superb story in the New York Times on Barack Obama's experience as a law teacher at the University of Chicago, Jodi Kantor reports that "the faculty . . . made him its best offer yet: Tenure upon hiring":

Soon after [he lost his Congressional race in 2000], 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.

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).

A dean's negotiating a tentative deal before bringing it to the faculty for consideration would not have been unusual. In any event, none of the four Chicago law faculty I interviewed believes that the law faculty voted to make Barack Obama a tenured offer or that the dean was ever authorized by the faculty to do so.

I was also told that Jodi Kantor of the Times has been informed of the probable error. Without more reporting, however, it's unclear how the error arose (and thus, if I were Kantor, I'd want to nail this down before correcting online). [Kantor confirms that the faculty never voted Obama tenure and clarifies what her sources told her in an update below.] Among the many possibilities are that the dean of the law school made Obama a tenured or an untenured offer, contingent on the faculty's agreement, and either a reporter misunderstood or one of the principals misremembered.

One additional issue that has been raised in comments on the Volokh Conspiracy is whether Barack Obama published an unsigned student note or comment when he was on the Harvard Law Review. Although I was unable to get a definitive answer, one faculty member told me that he had asked another faculty member close to Obama whether Obama had published such a note or comment; the faculty member close to Obama replied that he was not aware of any.

UPDATE: Jodi Kantor has already clarified the story she was told here (scroll down to 3:48pm):

Several readers have asked questions about Mr. Obama's status at the school. Let me clarify: he started teaching as a lecturer, meaning as a member of the adjunct faculty. But in 1996, he was promoted to senior lecturer, which in Chicago's parlance, made him a professor.

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.

This confirms my claim that "The University of Chicago Law Faculty Never Voted a Tenure Offer to Barack Obama." And, as I sort of expected, Kantor's account, though not quite correct, was based on something she had been told.

What does not square with what I was told by all four faculty members I interviewed, some of them very much "inside the loop," is Dan Fischel's statement that "Mr. Obama already had their [the faculty's] support . . . ." Dan may well have run it by some faculty members, but significant members of the faculty had never heard of the idea, let alone expressed their support for it.