Was Obama a Law Professor?

Slate's blog on legal issues.
March 26 2008 10:51 PM

Was Obama a Law Professor?

Both the Clinton campaign and our comrades at Trailhead are complaining that Barack Obama was, in fact, never a law professor.

Well was he?  Sorry Trailhead, but it's not so clear-cut. To see why requires a quick visit through the mists and mysteries of academic culture.

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Obama was a "senior lecturer" at Chicago.  When I was a lowly "visiting professor" at the University of Chicago, there were a number of " senior lecturers ." Most were former professors who had other, usually very fancy jobs, and therefore taught less. The list included my old boss Judge Richard Posner , along with Judges Frank Easterbrook and Diane Wood, and I believe Dennis Hutchison. As the list suggests, being a senior lecturer isn't exactly like being the janitor. In fact, its sort of surprising that Chicago gave Obama that title.

To confuse matters further, the title "lecturer" is almost certainly borrowed from the English title, which refers to what Americans would call an "associate" or "assistant professor."  In that sense, the term "lecturer" can be sometimes be something of a synonym for "professor." One lectures, the other professes.

But what about the difference in rank or standing? There is a difference. At most schools, the term for the job Obama had is called "adjunct professor," or sometimes "visiting assistant professor" or "clinical professor." In one sense people with these jobs are law professors—in the sense that they profess the law. It is also true that students in the class call them "professor." Doubtless Obama's students called him "Professor Obama."

But on the other hand, an adjunct is not a full-time professor, though he or she might have been so once. Nor has the adjunct or visiting assistant professor or clinical professor gone through the exact same filters required to be a "tenure-track" professor. Yet they do go through some important filters.  You can't make a ham sandwich into a law professor.

So where does this lead us?  To my mind, it makes for a tempest in a teapot, for two reasons.

First, while academics do care an awful lot about these things, the details may matter much more to insiders than outsiders.  At the hospital, there are clerks, interns, residents, and actual attending doctors, but for simplicity's sake we call them all "doctor," even if they are doctors of various qualification. Similarly, I'm certainly not a blogger by occupation, but during this post I am.  If Obama had said he was a tenured professor, that would be an outright lie. But if a clinical or adjunct claims to be a law professor, fair enough.

Second and more crucially, context makes a difference.  When Obama was in the classroom, he was a law professor. But if he says, I spent these years as a law professor—that's not true. So its fair to say that while he was in the midst of teaching, Obama was a professor, even if he wasn't actually a professor by occupation.

By this standard, Obama's Web site puts it correctly: "he returned to Chicago to practice as a civil rights lawyer and teach constitutional law. And in the speeches, he ought say,

"I taught constitutional law, which means unlike the current president I actually respect the Constitution...."

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