Former Univ. of Chicago law school interim dean: Obama was never offered tenure

Charles C. Johnson | Contributor

A longtime professor and one-time interim dean of the University of Chicago Law School told The Daily Caller that Barack Obama was never offered tenure, despite the assertions of a New York Times reporter who covers the president and the first family.

“Other faculty members dreamed of tenured positions; [Obama] turned them down,” wrote Times White House Correspondent Jodi Kantor, author of “The Obamas,” in a July 30, 2008 profile of the president’s twelve years as a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School.

And yet, according to longtime University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein, Obama was never actually offered a tenured faculty position.

“I have no idea where Jodi got her story” about the tenure offer, said Epstein, adding that he immediately wrote Kantor to tell her she was wrong. Epstein was, then, a member of the faculty, not the school’s dean

“Tenure offers require votes from faculties approved by the provost, and need a scholarly output. He was approached with the possibility of an entry level position without tenure, but it never got to the faculty for want of interest on his side,” Epstein confirmed via email.

Epstein was the law school’s interim dean during 2001. His account contradicts a claim Kantor has repeatedly made, that a tenure offer came from Dean Daniel Fischel.

“Mr. Obama turned the offer down,” Kantor wrote in 2008. She expanded on that claim later that day, writing for a Times blog. “When the law school tried to hire Mr. Obama after his failed 2000 congressional race, it was for a tenured job.” Kantor wrote. “In our interview, I asked [Fischel] if he meant ‘tenure-track,’ and he said no.”

Fischel could not be reached for comment, but Kantor softened her position when asked via Twitter about Obama’s alleged tenure offer.

“[T]he general idea was that tenure would go through,” Kantor replied. “That said, I don’t know the fine print on the offer.”

That paints a very different picture from the one Kantor presented in 2008.

Soon after Obama lost his 2000 congressional race, Kantor wrote, “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.”

Epstein told TheDC that no such opportunity was ever extended to Barack Obama. Fischel, he added, would never have been authorized to make an offer so generous.

“I wish I still had my email to Jodi,” he lamented, “because I wrote Jodi Kantor in no uncertain terms that the matter had never come to the faculty, and that under no circumstances would an offer to Obama be tenured. Indeed I was completely taken aback by the story.”

Epstein drew a clear line of distinction between full tenure and “tenure track” positions — which offered no guarantees but could result in tenure at some future date.

“There was support for a tenure track offer,” he explained, “but the issue did not remain live for long as Obama decided against it. The thought that the law school could have made a tenure offer to a person with no academic writing was out of the question, as far as I was concerned, and I took a lot of heat from people who kept saying that Chicago had abandoned its scholarly standards by contemplating that offer.”

“I have no idea what Fischel said to Obama, but what little discussion [there was] on the faculty side did not deal with tenure.”

Epstein also said Obama wasn’t primarily a constitutional law professor, but added that he had nothing to say that would reflect poorly on the president.

Obama was interested in “public interest law” and courses on race, he said, and was trying to “keep his head down” after a national controversy erupted over another member of the law school’s faculty because of her interest in racial issues.

President Bill Clinton nominated fellow professor Lani Guinier in 1993 for the post of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. He later withdrew her name from consideration after critics charged her scholarship was replete with endorsements of strict racial quotas in college admissions and local elections.

Epstein, Kantor wrote, said Obama was “unwilling to put his name to anything that could haunt him politically, as Ms. Guinier’s writings had hurt her. ‘He figured out, you lay low,’ Mr. Epstein said.”

But Obama was not deterred, she wrote, and “taught Guinier’s proposals for structuring elections differently to increase minority representation.”

Obama was a lecturer and then a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School beginning in 1992, and ending in 2004 when he ran for the U.S. Senate.

“When we hired Obama, we didn’t think we’d be hiring a future president of the United States,” Epstein recalled during a separate phone interview. Obama was given a “senior lecturer” position, Epstein said, but “[we] were trying to do right by Mr. Obama.”

Obama taught one two-hour seminar each semester and had no scholarly publications, Epstein said, noting what he called a lack of interest on the future president’s part. He saw Obama as having one eye fixed on academia and the other on politics.

Professor John Yoo of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, who was a visiting professor on the University of Chicago campus in the fall of 2003 while Obama was employed there, never recalls seeing Obama, though his office was across the hall.

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This article was corrected to reflect that Obama did teach a course on constitutional law while a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, but that he wasn’t primarily a constitutional law instructor. His most often-taught course, the university informed The Daily Caller, was “Current Issues in Racism and the Law.” TheDC regrets the error.

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