Friday, November 23, 2012

Pretending to Be a Professor

A number of significant political leaders in the history of the United States have been academics: President Garfield was a professor, as were Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, to name just a few. But others have found ways to attach themselves to universities or colleges without actually pursuing scholarship; among these would be Barack Obama.

Douglas Baird, who has held the posts of both Dean and Professor at the University of Chicago's Law School, can reasonably be understood as a an academic, having passed up opportunities to make more money in private-sector law practices, or wield more power in government posts. Historian Edward Klein reports Baird's first encounter with Barack Obama:

"I made a cold call to the Harvard Law Review and spoke to Barack," recalled Baird, who is no longer the dean of the Chicago Law School but is still a member of its faculty. "I asked him, 'Do you have an interest in teaching law?' and he said, 'No. My plan is to write a book on voting rights.' And I said, 'Why don't you write that book here at the University of Chicago. I can give you an office and a word processor and make you a Visiting Law and Government Fellow.'

Merely because he was the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, he was offered a cushy position at the University of Chicago (were unions involved, the term would be 'feather-bedding'). To compound the superficiality, he was not the first person of color to be president of the Harvard Law Review; Edward Klein that this

distinction belongs to Raj Marphatia, who was born and raised in Bombay (now known as Mumbai), India, and who had become the Review's president four years earlier. But while Marphatia's presidency went largely unnoticed, Obama's attracted a great deal of attention.

The distinction between Marphatia and Obama merits consideration: while Marphatia faced at least some obstacles, and so his narrative contains at least some element of overcoming, Obama was essentially transported into the Harvard Law Review. To be sure, Marphatia was not a barefoot and starving villager in India, but nonetheless, his appearance at the Review in the 1980's was still something of an overcoming. By contrast, Obama had already been identified as a telegenic young man who might be groomed into a political figure; his handlers and funders had begun directing his path. They had grander visions for the young Barack than he could have had for himself - given his damaged psyche and an identity as a child abandoned by a variety of father-figures.

Aside from Obama's personal formation, however, Douglas Baird might have thought that someone who'd taken the job of president of the Harvard Law Review had some interest in legal scholarship. But Obama, despite holding a job as head of an academic publication, had no desire to do research or teach. He did, however, take the job at the University of Chicago:

"He accepted," Baird continued, "and several months after he arrived, he came to my office and said, 'Boss' - he called me boss - 'that book I told you about - well, it's taken a slightly different direction. It's my autobiography.' I was astonished. He was all of thirty years old and he was writing his autobiography!"

Even if we imagine for a moment that a twenty-nine year old had both cause and substance to write his memoirs - a huge assumption - the fact soon become very clear that Obama had no interest in being part of the university. On the contrary, he had an interest in projecting the image that he was part of the university:

For the next twelve years, Obama taught at the Law School - first as a Lecturer, then as a Senior Lecturer. He earned about $60,000 a year and was given an office, a secretary, and health benefits. He was, by all accounts, a ghostly presence on the faculty - rarely seen and virtually never heard from.

Obama was happy to absorb a salary and benefits from the university, and happy to wear the title 'lecturer' - but not to engage in the life of a scholar.

"You just never saw him at a lunch or at a workshop," said Richard Epstein, who was made interim dean of the Law School in 2001, while Obama was still there. "I did not see any signs of intellectual curiosity or power. He did not have a way of listening to you that drew you in. But it was rarely the case that you could figure out what he thought. An inaccurate story was published that claimed Obama was given a tenured offer to join the faculty. But it never came to the faculty for approval. How could make a tenured offer to a man who had never written a scholarly article?"

To be a faculty member of a major university and never write a scholarly article - to never be published in peer-reviewed professional journal - is either career suicide, or it is an indication that one has no interest in an academic career. The latter is clearly the case with Obama. But despite his lack of interest in an academic career, he - or his handlers - wanted him to have the trappings of an academic career. To have the University of Chicago on his resume, and to have the ability to mimic the professorial tone, would be assets in a political campaign. To which extent Obama wanted the University of Chicago on his resume, and to which extent he was talked into it against his will, we may never know.

"At the time," Epstein continued, "Obama saw himself as a serious intellectual, which he definitely was not. His course was very popular and he was an engaging teacher, but not one with a serious academic set of interests. The members of the faculty reserved a round table for ten in the Quadrangle Club, where we had lunch and engaged in an intense intellectual exchange. We had a no-sports and no-politics rule and a single-topic rule. Everybody bashed everybody. You put yourself once more into the breach and prepared to have the guillotine come down on your head."

Part of the academic life is debate. Scholars love debate. Intellectual disagreement does not entail personal animosity. Often harsh intellectual combatants enjoy personal friendships. Obama, however, was not interested in ideas. Richard Epstein recalls:

"But Barack Obama never attended these lunches. I firmly believe that his systematic withdrawal from engagement with other members of the faculty stemmed from his not wanted to put himself at intellectual risk. He was always a political actor with many irons in the fire."

Obama's engagement with the University of Chicago Law School was purely mercenary. Following the ideas of his mentors, Saul Alinsky and Frank Marshall Davis, Obama - or his handlers - decided that wearing the university label would be helpful to his eventual campaign. Devoting any effort to university work would be a waste of time, and committing any ideas to paper would leave evidence that could later resurface to be used against him.

Douglas Baird concurs that Obama was AWOL as a faculty member:

"I should also say that, like Richard, I'd have liked it if Barack had been more involved," Baird said. "But that wasn't what he was about."

To be sure, Obama was somewhat popular as an instructor - students were thankful to have a lecturer who was fun, who easily gave good grades, and who didn't take the whole thing too seriously. Having an occasional interesting classroom discussion does not equal serious legal scholarship; students may find the class enjoyable, and learn to mimic the instructor's convictions, but they have not been challenged to engage in higher-level critical thinking. On the contrary, they have learned, like their instructor, to imitate the verbiage of those who think critically.

"Of course, I grant you that it's one thing to be a charismatic figure and walk into a room and excite students, and quite another thing to be a leader - to hire people, motivate people, and manage decision-making. That's not something Barack experienced or learned at the Chicago Law School. I know people in the White House, and I don't get a sense from my conversations with them that there's anything in Barack's experience as a law professor that prepared him for the leadership part of the presidential job."

In sum, although Obama has been ceaselessly marketed as an 'intellectual' by his campaign staffs, he made no measurable impact on the academic community among either students or fellow faculty members.