Mr. Obama... was well liked at the law school, yet he was always slightly apart from it, leaving some colleagues feeling a little cheated that he did not fully engage....What are we seeing here? A shy man? A cipher? A man with a hidden agenda?
“I don’t think anything that went on in these chambers affected him,” said Richard Epstein, a libertarian colleague who says he longed for Mr. Obama to venture beyond his ideological and topical comfort zones. “His entire life, as best I can tell, is one in which he’s always been a thoughtful listener and questioner, but he’s never stepped up to the plate and taken full swings.”
Mr. Obama had other business on his mind, embarking on five political races during his 12 years at the school. Teaching gave him satisfaction, along with a perch and a paycheck, but he was impatient with academic debates....This seems very practical. A good hypothesis is: Obama is a politician, through and through.
Mr. Obama arrived at the law school in 1991 thanks to Michael W. McConnell, a conservative scholar who is now a federal appellate judge. As president of The Harvard Law Review, Mr. Obama had impressed Mr. McConnell with editing suggestions on an article; on little more than that, the law school gave him a fellowship, which amounted to an office and a computer, which he used to write his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.”On little more than that... Come on. That was an easy decision. And we needn't be coy about what the "little more" was:
The school had almost no black faculty members, a special embarrassment given its location on the South Side....Clearly, the law school's interests were served as Obama used it to build his political career.
His most original course, a historical and political seminar as much as a legal one, was on racism and law....
“Are there legal remedies that alleviate not just existing racism, but racism from the past?” Adam Gross, now a public interest lawyer in Chicago, wrote in his class notes in April 1994.It's really rather funny to quote this long-ago law student for a point that is one of most common questions in the law of race discrimination. This is another example of presenting the ordinary as amazing.
For all the weighty material, Mr. Obama had a disarming touch. He did not belittle students; instead he drew them out, restating and polishing halting answers, students recall.This describes nearly all law professors I've known (through a period that began in 1978).
In one class on race, he imitated the way clueless white people talked. “Why are your friends at the housing projects shooting each other?” he asked in a mock-innocent voice.Well, this is a bit interesting. He had a "clueless white" person voice that he used it class for laughs?
As his reputation for frank, exciting discussion spread, enrollment in his classes swelled. Most scores on his teaching evaluations were positive to superlative. Some students started referring to themselves as his groupies. (Mr. Obama, in turn, could play the star. In what even some fans saw as self-absorption, Mr. Obama’s hypothetical cases occasionally featured himself. “Take Barack Obama, there’s a good-looking guy,” he would introduce a twisty legal case.)I'm sure he was a popular teacher, but there are many popular law professors, and the locution "groupie" is not as uncommon as Kantor's prose leads you to think.
Liberals flocked to his classes...Ahem! This is the conventional left critique of liberalism! It is a call to a stronger form of political consciousness.
But the liberal students did not necessarily find reassurance....
For one thing, Mr. Obama’s courses chronicled the failure of liberal policies and court-led efforts at social change...
... He was wary of noble theories, students say; instead, they call Mr. Obama a contextualist, willing to look past legal niceties to get results.This was not at all special. This was absolutely standard lefty lawprof talk at the time.
For another, Mr. Obama liked to provoke. He wanted his charges to try arguing that life was better under segregation, that black people were better athletes than white ones.Offending liberal instincts was what lefty lawproffing was all about in those days. Anyone who reads this article and imagines that Obama has some conservative leanings is not getting the context.
“I remember thinking, ‘You’re offending my liberal instincts,’ ” Mary Ellen Callahan, now a privacy lawyer in Washington, recalled.
While students appreciated Mr. Obama’s evenhandedness, colleagues sometimes wanted him to take a stand. When two fellow faculty members asked him to support a controversial antigang measure, allowing the Chicago police to disperse and eventually arrest loiterers who had no clear reason to gather, Mr. Obama discussed the issue with unusual thoughtfulness, they say, but gave little sign of who should prevail — the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the measure, or the community groups that supported it out of concern about crime.I would assume that colleagues strongly approved of "evenhandedness" in the classroom — which is the conventional pose, even among lawprofs who are politically engaged outside of class. The key piece of information here is that Obama either sought to avoid making a record of what he thought or he actually lacked opinions.
“He just observed it with a kind of interest,” said Daniel Kahan, now a professor at Yale.
After his loss in the 2000 Congressional primary race to former Black Panther Bobby L. Rush, "colleagues noticed that he seemed exhausted and was smoking more than usual," and they offered him a tenured faculty position (with a job for his wife). Think about that! He never produced a word of legal scholarship, after all those years teaching, and now they would simply give him tenure — at the University of Chicago Law School, a top 5 school, where the faculty is known for voluminous scholarly publishing. The case for tenure in law school depends predominantly on scholarship. You don't get tenure for being a very popular teacher. The failure to publish anything should be fatal to the tenure case of a lawprof who was hired with a belief in his promise as a scholar, but here tenure is bundled into the original offer to someone who had demonstrated that he lacked that promise. So this is interesting. The University of Chicago Law School has some explaining to do.
It's also interesting that Obama turned down the sumptuous offer. He chose to run for the U.S. Senate. But is this hard to fathom? I don't think so. I think he'd figured something out. He had made himself into something and he knew what it was. He couldn't win the district that embraced a former Black Panther. That meant something bad, but also something really good. He was a black politician who could break out the old limitations. Running for the Senate seat was the most rational thing for him to do at that point. The run for President came soon after. He knew what he was and what he might do. And that — not anything he did as a lawprof — was amazing.