Making no waves

The New York Times posted exams that Obama assigned to his students when he taught at the University of Chicago's Law School. Akhil Amar, a Yale law professor, notes:

First, As a constitutional law professor, I came away impressed — dazzled, really — by the analytic intelligence and sophistication of these questions and answers. A really good exam — an exam that tests and stretches the student, while simultaneously providing the professor with a handy and fair index to rank the class — is its own special art form. Composing such an exam is like crafting a sonnet or a crossword puzzle. We don’t have Obama’s answer key every year; but the questions themselves are in many instances beautifully constructed to enable students to explore the seams and plumb the depths of the Supreme Court’s case law. I am tempted to use variations of several of these questions myself in some future exam. (I won’t say which, lest I tip my students off.) When I read Jodi Kantor’s piece, I was very interested to hear that the University of Chicago Law School was willing to offer Obama tenure. In these materials I see why [emphasis mine].

That last sentence is interesting. The Law School offered Obama tenure even though he did not publish any papers! Why would one of the leading law schools in the world would offer tenure to someone with no scholarly publications? I suppose, as Amar notes, his exams were enough proof that he could. But I'm more interested in why he didn't.

John Eastman, a law professor and former Supreme Court clerk notes in the same blog post:
Perhaps then-Professor Obama’s observation of the way other legal scholars such as Robert Bork and Lani Gunier had had their work distorted for partisan political purposes counseled him against publication of his scholarly views. Too bad for us, and for the legal academy more generally. The chilling effect on true and important scholarship that has resulted from the last few decades of obnoxious confirmation fights is quite evident in Senator Obama’s prior silence.
That to me, is the really chilling part of this story. That the way to advance in America today is to avoid articulating strong positions. Even John Roberts, the current Supreme Court justice, seems to have followed that strategy.

1 comment:

  1. I am almost through with David Mendell's biography of Obama, and he offers two explanations for Obama's lack of publishing and his turning down a tenured position.

    The first explanation is the one you mentioned - not wanting to leave a paper trail. I guess that's either a shrewd political move or a devious calculation, depending on your view of Obama.

    The second, and to me, more compelling, reason Mendell offers is based on comments from other faculty members and students at U of C. They say that Obama really just wanted to teach. He never participated in the informal faculty roundtable discussions that were an essential part of climbing the academic ladder, because he simply wasn't interested in an academic career. He considered himself a public servant (or politician - again, depending on your opinion of him).

    Remember he was serving as a state Senator during part of this time, as well as gathering material for his second book. Between that and teaching, how much time could he have had to do original research and publish academically?

    Having myself been the victim of faculty members who were too engrossed in their research to bother with the classes they were supposed to be teaching, I find Obama's attitude refreshing.