As professor, Obama enthralled students and puzzled the faculty.
The young law professor stood apart in too many ways to count. At a school where economic analysis was all the rage, he taught rights, race and gender. Other faculty members dreamed of tenured positions; he turned them down. While most colleagues published by the pound, he never completed a single work of legal scholarship. At a formal institution, Barack Obama was a loose presence, joking with students about their romantic prospects, using first names, referring to case law one moment and “The Godfather” the next. He was also an enigmatic one, often leaving fellow faculty members guessing about his precise views.
Mr. Obama, the junior Senator from Illinois and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, spent 12 years at the University of Chicago Law School. Most aspiring politicians do not dwell in the halls of academia, and few promising young legal thinkers toil in State legislatures. Mr. Obama planted a foot in each, splitting his weeks between an elite law school and the far less rarefied atmosphere of the Illinois Senate.
Before he outraised every other presidential primary candidate in American history, Mr. Obama marched students through the thickets of campaign finance law. Before he helped redraw the map of his own state Senate district, making it whiter and wealthier, he taught districting as a racially fraught study in how power is secured. And before he posed what may be the ultimate test of racial equality — whether Americans will elect a black President — he led students through African-Americans’ long fight for equal status.
Standing in his favourite classroom in the austere main building, sharp-witted students looming above him, Mr. Obama refined his public speaking style, his debating abilities, his beliefs. “He tested his ideas in classrooms,” said Dennis Hutchinson, a colleague. Every seminar hour brought a new round of, “Is affirmative action justified? Under what circumstances?”
Focussed on political career
But Mr. Obama’s years at the law school are also another chapter — see U.S. Senate, c. 2006 — in which he seemed as intently focussed on his own political rise as on the institution itself. Mr. Obama, who declined to be interviewed for this article, 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.
“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.
He 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 pay cheque but he was impatient with academic debates over “whether to drop a footnote or not drop a footnote,” said Abner J. Mikva, a mentor whose own career has spanned Congress, the federal bench and the same law school.
Douglas Baird, another colleague, remembers once asking Mr. Obama to assess potential candidates for Governor. “First of all, I’m not running for Governor,” Mr. Obama told him. “But if I did, I would expect you to support me.” He was a third-year State Senator at the time.
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 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.
At the school, Mr. Obama taught three courses, ascending to senior lecturer, a title otherwise carried only by a few federal judges. His most traditional course was in the due process and equal protection areas of constitutional law. His voting rights class traced the evolution of election law, from the disenfranchisement of blacks to contemporary debates over districting and campaign finance.
His most original course, a historical and political seminar as much as a legal one, was on racism and law. Mr. Obama improvised his own textbook, including classic cases like Brown v. Board of Education, and essays by Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, as well as conservative thinkers like Robert H. Bork. Mr. Obama was especially eager for his charges to understand the horrors of the past, students say.
For all the weighty material, Mr. Obama had a disarming touch. He did not belittle students; instead he drew them out, restating and polishing their halting answers, students recall.
As his reputation for frank, exciting discussion spread, enrolment in his classes swelled. Most scores on his teaching evaluations were positive to superlative. Some students started referring to themselves as his groupies. Liberals flocked to his classes, seeking refuge. After all, the professor was a progressive politician who backed child care subsidies and laws against racial profiling, and in a 1996 interview with the school newspaper, sounded sceptical of President Bill Clinton’s efforts to reach across the aisle. “On the national level, bipartisanship usually means Democrats ignore the needs of the poor and abandon the idea that government can play a role in issues of poverty, race discrimination, sex discrimination or environmental protection,” Mr. Obama said.
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. 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.
In his voting rights course, Mr. Obama taught Lani Guinier’s proposals for structuring elections differently to increase minority representation. Opponents attacked those suggestions when Guinier was nominated as assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1993, costing her the post. “I think he thought they were good and worth trying,” said David Franklin, who now teaches law at DePaul University in Chicago. But whether out of professorial reserve or budding political caution, Mr. Obama would not say so directly.
While students appreciated Mr. Obama’s even-handedness, colleagues sometimes wanted him to take a stand. When two fellow faculty members asked him to support a controversial anti-gang 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.
Nor could his views be gleaned from scholarship; Mr. Obama has never published any. He was too busy, and also, Mr. Epstein believes, he was unwilling to put his name to anything that could haunt him politically, as Guinier’s writings had hurt her.
The Chicago law faculty is full of intellectually fiery friendships that burn across ideological lines. Three times a week, professors do combat over lunch at a special round table in the university’s faculty club, and they share their research in workshop discussions. Mr. Obama rarely attended, even when he was in town.
Leaving the classroom
As Mr. Obama built his political career, his so-called groupies became an early core of supporters, handing out leaflets and hosting fundraisers in their modest apartments. “Maybe we charged an audacious $20 a head?” said Jesse Ruiz, now a corporate lawyer in Chicago. Mr. Obama was sheepish asking for even that much, Ruiz recalls. With no staff, Mr. Obama would come by the day after a fundraiser to stuff the proceeds into a backpack. He never mentioned his humiliating, hopeless campaign against Rush in class (he lost by a 2-to-1 margin), though colleagues noticed that he seemed exhausted and was smoking more than usual.
Soon after, 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. Your political career is dead, Daniel Fischel, then the dean, said he told Obama, gently. Mr. Obama turned the offer down. Two years later, he decided to run for the Senate. He cancelled his course load and has not taught since.
Now, watching the news, it is dawning on Mr. Obama’s former students that he was mining material for his political future even as he taught them. Byron Rodriguez, a real estate lawyer in San Francisco, recalls his professor’s admiration for the soaring but plainspoken speeches of Frederick Douglass.
“No one speaks this way anymore,” Mr. Obama told his class, wondering aloud what had happened to the art of political oratory. In particular, Mr. Obama admired Mr. Douglass’ use of a collective voice that embraced black and white concerns, one that Mr. Obama has now adopted himself.
But as a professor, students say, Mr. Obama was in the business of complication, showing that even the best-reasoned rules have unintended consequences, that competing legal interests cannot always be resolved, that a rule that promotes justice in one case can be unfair in the next. So even some former students who are thrilled at Mr. Obama’s success wince when they hear him speaking like the politician he has so fully become.
“When you hear him talking about issues, it’s at a level so much simpler than the one he’s capable of,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “He was a lot more fun to listen to back then
6 months ago