Was Barack Obama ever “a constitutional law professor”?

Matt Damon is only the latest among many current or former supporters of President Obama who has referred to him as “a constitutional law professor.” But is that accurate? As a law professor myself, at least marginally tuned in to the gradations and sensitivities regarding academic titles, I’ve wondered how the President’s teaching experience at the University of Chicago Law School should most accurately be described.

Who is a law professor? Certainly faculty members with tenure, and those on “tenure track” working towards tenure, are among those formally designated with the ranks of assistant, associate, or full professor. But they are not the only designated professors at a law school. Non-tenure track teachers can also be designated as professors, as are visiting professors on temporary assignment. Depending on faculty rules, such full-time professors usually receive voting rights at faculty meetings where law school policies are debated and set.

And professors may not be the only persons who vote at faculty meetings. Full-time instructors and full-time administrators who also teach may also have voting rights at faculty meetings, even if not formally designated as professors.

Law schools are not exempt from the current trend in academia of relying increasingly on part-time instructors to both bring their particular real-world experiences to the classroom, and to afford the administrators flexibility in adapting the curriculum to changing interests and needs. Such part-time instructors are commonly referred to as “lecturers” or “adjuncts”, but sometimes receive the title of “adjunct professor”. Part-time instructors usually do not vote at (or even attend) law school faculty meetings.

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The University of Chicago Law School’s official, carefully worded press release on Barack Obama says this: “From 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama served as a professor in the Law School. He was a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996. He was a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004, during which time he taught three courses per year. Senior Lecturers are considered to be members of the Law School faculty and are regarded as professors, although not full-time or tenure-track. The title of Senior Lecturer is distinct from the title of Lecturer, which signifies adjunct status. Like Obama, each of the Law School’s Senior Lecturers has high-demand careers in politics or public service, which prevent full-time teaching. Several times during his 12 years as a professor in the Law School, Obama was invited to join the faculty in a full-time tenure-track position, but he declined.”

The statements that “Senior Lecturers are….regarded as professors” and that “Senior Lecturer is distinct from the title of Lecturer” together imply that Lecturers are not regarded as professors or as members of the Law School faculty. And yet the press release says that President Obama was a professor at the law school for both his four years as a Lecturer and his eight subsequent years as a Senior Lecturer. The meaning of the terms “regarded as” and “considered to be” are not explained.

That said, in the absence of any dissenting voices emanating from the University of Chicago Law School, there seems no reason to question the Law School’s statement that Barack Obama was a professor at the law school. Every academic institution can designate who is and is not a professor at that institution. No rule says they can’t do so retroactively, after the fact, much as many law schools retroactively converted previously earned LL.B. (Bachelor of Law) degrees into J.D. (Doctor of Law) degrees.

And law professors don’t have formal subspecialties. So any law professor who ever taught constitutional law can properly be called “a constitutional law professor.”

There’s also no reason to question the statement that “Obama was invited to join the faculty in a full-time tenure-track position, but he declined.” Any law school in the United States would have happily offered a former president of the Harvard Law Review a full-time tenure-track position. While tenure-track positions at American law schools have become harder to get in recent years, they are still more common than former presidents of the Harvard Law Review seeking teaching positions.

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