The Professor And ThePresident: Former U. Chicago Colleagues, Students Talk About Obama

This story was written by Michael Lipkin, Chicago Maroon
Though he may not have mentioned it on the stump all that often, few Universityof Chicago students forget that President-elect Barack Obama was once a senior lecturer at the Law School. From 1992, before he held elected office, to 2004, when he became Illinoiss junior senator, Obama taught constitutional law south of the Midway, focusing on issues of race. The Maroon caught up with some of Obamas former colleagues and students to reflect on his recent victory.

Douglas Baird,Professor at the Law School and Dean from 1994 to 1999

Chicago Maroon: Has it sunk in yet that you were the boss of the president of the United States?

Douglas Baird: Its absolutely not sunk in yet. Its really quite amazing. This is someone who 10 years ago, if you wanted to meet him, all you had to do was go to the Field House and he was playing a basketball game. All you had to do was go to the gym. Right now, Im one of his 100,000 closest friends. Hes gone a long way. What we can do is have some small vicarious thrill thinking we might have pushed him a bit. He could have started at any law school in the country and done fine. Those qualities that were inherent were what drew him to us.

CM: What exactly did draw him to you?

DB: The thing that got my attention was when Michael McConnell, a former professor who was appointed to 10th Circuit, and one of the schools most conservative thinkers, said, Im writing an article for the Harvard Law Review and its being edited by this impeccable editor. The reason we went after him was the say-so of one of my colleagues, who in true University fashion, was detached from political agendas.

CM: How has the Law School responded to the victory?

DB: People feel really elated, though his policy views are not in sync with many people in the faculty. Everyone has hometown pride. We live in a country with secret ballots, and people in Chicago dont carry their politics on their sleeves, but I think everyone was proud of his accomplishments.

Daniel Sokol (JD 01),Professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, former Obama student

CM: How does it feel to have been on a first-name basis with the next President of the United States?

Daniel Sokol: Given the number of classes hes taught, its not as rare as Id hoped it would have been. This is spectacular. Its an absolutely wonderful feeling. When my kids are old enough, I can tell them I was there.

CM: You werent always a professor. What got you started in academia?

DS: I thought I wanted to make money, so academia was the last thing on my mind. In private practice, I only thought as hard as the client paid me to. I might come up against some really interesting issues, but if they werent interested, then it wasnt for me to explore. In academia, Im only done examining a problem when I feel that Im done with it, which is something Obama was very good at.

CM: What other skills did he have, coming from the Law School?

DS: You learn to deal with difficult people.

CM: Were there any difficult people in your class?

DS: It was the University of Chicagoof course there were difficult people. But he wasnt for show; he legitimately cared. We were his other constituents. He gave us as much attention as we wanted, which in a sense we craved. After all, who didnt want to spend time with Barack Obama?

Richard Epstein, Professor at the Law School

CM: While Senator Obama was a senior lecturer at the law school, and not a full professor, he is still the first president since Woodrow Wilson, who was a professor and eventually president of Princeton, to have a long-standing affiliation wih a university. How important is that academic experience?

Richard Epstein: Wilson was an extremely important intellectual figure before he became governor of NJ. Obama was a part-time teacher; he was not a professor in terms of having an academic output. He was a tremendously gifted teacher, but he was a man who was not a full-time academic. In the end he became too successful to teach hereI wonder why.

Wilson had some good practical skills, but the problem with Wilson was with the administration. He re-segregated public service; he was a large and powerful progressive. He was able to drive all corporations out of NJ by imposing a tremendous tax on them. He wasnt a successful politician because he didnt understand they way that people respond to initiatives. He thought you could just tax them and that they would stay. Instead, they went across to DE, which has repercussions to this very day.

I hope Obama doesnt make the same mistakes. He thinks you can impose taxes and achieve redistribution of wealth, and doesnt look at alternative strategies people might employ. Theres a great deal of similarity.

Obama comes from academic experience on one issue, which is the race question, on which hes very astute. But thats 10th on the list of issues he needs to deal with. With all of those issues, the more you know about them, the less confident you are.

Saul Levmore,Dean of the Law School since 2001

CM: Whats it like to have employed the next president?

Saul Levmore: It makes it much easier to introduce me. I was in China this week and they introduced me as President Obamas boss. It feels nice. This is how it must be in a small country, where everybody knows everybody. It has a homey democratic feeling to it. It doesnt feel remote, the usual way politics feels with someone off on another planet.

CM: The Law School is known for having a relatively conservative faculty compared to other law schools. Do you think Obama, a liberal Democrat, being associated with the school will draw more liberals?

SL: You think Obamas liberal. I have no idea. I dont think I like the stereotyping in the first place. But you never know. I think having strong academic programs matters more than if the president taught there for 12 years. Thats not to say were not proud of the association. And if it gets us a greater yield, then fine, but I dont think students self-select based on politics.

CM: What skills does Obama have being a former professor that might help him?

SL: Law professors especiallymaybe in the old days it was something else, maybe they memorized Blackstone or somethingbut theyre problem solvers. So its not surprising that therere lots of lawyers and professors involved in government and the administration. That part is no problem. You probably expect an ex-law professor to be really good at evaluating the advice he gets. That would be a real step up compared to what weve expected.

Geoffrey Stone,Professor at the Law School, Dean until 1993

CM: While Senator Obama was a senior lecturer at the law school, and not a full professor, he is still the first president since Woodrow Wilson, who was a professor and eventually president of Princeton, to have a long-standing affiliation with a university. How important is that academic experience?

Geoffrey Stone: There is a sort of caricature of the kind of absent-minded professor, where someone could be so academic and abstract, but thats not the experience Barack had, since he was not a full-time academicbut in meaningful ways his experience helped to reinforce and hone some skills and attributes that we see in him today and are in part a product of the experience he had with the University. Genuine intellectual curiosity, openness to listeningto all sides to an issue. The culture here is very strong and fairly definable, and my sense is Barack brought those characteristics to bear in his teaching.

CM: How does it feel to have been one of the people to hire the man that has become president?

GS: Delighted that we had the sense to see in him a talent that was insightful. Very proud that we learned about Barack and we saw in him the potential to make a real contribution. We didnt think hed become President of the United States, but we saw a talent and we wanted to nurture it. It was an investment in somebody because we believed in his capacity. I think its to our credit that we saw in Barack the kind of curiosity and ability that led us to make him the first law and government fellow.

Dennis Hutchinson,Professor in the College and Senior Lecturer in the Law School

CM: In terms of the skills of being an academic, what does the countrys choice of Senator Obama signify?

Dennis Hutchinson: The election signifies two things to me, one about Barack and one about us. About Barack, it signifies that the qualities that he manifested as a lecturer at law in the University for so many yearsI mean more than a decadeare ones that I expect to see when hes President. And thats a sober methodical deliberation, careful weighing of ideas, consequences, and options, a lack of haste in making decisions, and a firmness about those decisions without being intransigent. So, these are qualities of mind that we think we esteem here, I think we do esteem here, and that he esteemed here.

In terms of what it signifies about us, heres where I think theres room for dispute. Many of my colleagues, north of the Midway to be sure, say that were in business to discover and develop knowledge for its own sake, and we need no further justification for what we do. And thats fine. But I also think its true, certainly valuable, that someone like Barack who manifests the quality of mind Ive been talking about, who is and has been deeply involved in public life, can articulate back and forth between these two worlds in an effective way. I think thats good for him, I think thats good for us, because it acts as a ground for us, and it may even act as an inspiration for students who attend this institution and are eagerly looking for ways to apply the techniques and disciplines they learn here in a selfless way.

CM: Whats been the mood at the Law School this week?

DH: Let me put it this way: For the last several days, there has been a discernible buzz of energy within the building, and I think an excitement or interest among the students thats contagious.

In terms of my colleagues, to each his own. This is not a group of people that is particularly demonstrative about their private lives and their private convictions. I gave the Aims of Education address a long time ago and I contrasted the University of Chicago, with where I had taught before, and I said, I have never been greeted here by a student, or a colleague, with the equivalent of the question I often heard there, How bout those Redskins?

CM: What impact do you think his becoming president will have on the Law School?

DH: Do you mean, To what extent will basking in the reflected glory of his selection reach down to our benefit? I dont think it will make much difference. But if it wouldnt sound hopelessly parochial, Id say, you always hate to lose a colleague like that.

Salil Mehra (JD 95),Law Professor at Temple University, former Obama student

CM: Whats it like to have been taught by the president-elect?

Salil Mehra: Its been surreal for the greater part of the year. Remember, this was a small class. There were only nine of us. It was a long time ago and we were all a lot younger.

Having seen him on TV it was always a little bit surreal, not the least of which because you dont see people youve known become president. Its not surprising to me that someone who was really smart and hardworking would become president of the United States, but for it to be one particular individual that youve known, thats surrealImagine in 10 or 15 years, seeing one of your professors address the nation on prime time TV.

John Boyer, Dean of the College

CM: While Senator Obama was a senior lecturer at the law school, and not a full professor, he is still the first president since Woodrow Wilson, who was a professor and eventually president of Princeton, to have a long-standing affiliation with a university. How important is that academic experience?

John Boyer: It seems to me that one could say that Obama shares two broad areas of talent and capacity with Wilson. Wilson is most famous for his internationalism, sometimes called Wilsonianismsupporting democracy abroad, rule of international law. And so, Wilson was a very much of an idealistic president. I think Obama comes from the same cloth. Not the same kind of idealism, but he thinks in terms of large ideals.

The second, which Wilson didnt have enough of, is the pragmatism of a community organizer. I think thats one of the most remarkable things about the campaignits going to be the subject of doctoral thesesthousands and thousands of people playing the role of community organizers. Its a tough pragmatism: Set aside ideology and broker compromise. Its a side of him Im not sure Wilson had, or had enough of.

If you argue that Obama is an academic, it does seem he brings the skills of a scholar. Qualities like an independence of mind, not being baffled or conned by one-sided arguments, being dispassionate, willingness to take risks based upon your findings, courage in the face of intellectual uncertaintylooking for the best kinds of answers to tough questions, scholarly objectivity. One of the ironies of Obamas election is that it confirms the value of liberal educationexactly the kind of qualities we instill in our students. In that sense he is an academic.

CM: How strong is Obamas association with the University, and what does it mean for the school now that hes President?

JB: First and foremost, Obama is a Chicagoan; hes a Hyde Parker. Hes going to come back and live in Illinois again, so the identification is a natural one. Its bound to help the University in terms of name recognitionnot that we need name recognition. Its going to keep us in the papers and news for the next four years.

Obamas success, the man and the moment came together. He owes a lot to Chicago politics. He earned his spurs in this city. I say this with admiration: Hes a true Chicago politician. It will be interesting to see how it works with the pragmatismmost presidents have a picture in their mind of the world theyd like to get us to. Wilson had that, too.

Jesse Ruiz (JD 95),Chairman of the State Board of Education, former Obama student

CM: How has it felt to have been the former student of the next president?

Jesse Ruiz: Its a bit surreal. There are future presidents all over the country, and you can never predict who will be the next president, but its nice to know one existed at the University of Chicago, and some probably still exist there.

CM: When did the feeling kick in?

JR: I used to go to lunch with him every summer since I graduated. Of course, when he became senator, those kinda stopped. His demands became way beyond Chicago. I knew that his trajectory was way, way high.

We had lunch right after I took the bar in August 1995, when his first book came out. I dutifully bought a copy and wound down from studying, and jokingy told him to inscribe the book. I said, Hey, you might be famous one day.

CM: What does it mean to have a law professor as president?

JR: Thank God he was a constitutional law professor. Thank goodness he thought about the law, our constitution, and its evolution over time from when the founding fathers put it together.

CM: Which of his qualities do you think will be most important as president?

JR: Here he was, one of the only black professors at the University of Chicago Law School, we sort of came in thinking, Oh, we know where hes coming from, but he surprised us. He didnt direct the discussion any particular way. He made us look at all sides of the issues and examine our starting principles, which is something you have to do as the leader of a country.

Austan Goolsbee, Professor at the GSB and top economic advisor to Obama

CM: How does it feel to have been a part of this campaign?

Austan Goolsbee: I was in Grant Park the other night, and I was standing about 20 feet to his left, crushed by people on all sides, waving a flag. And I looked at the JumboTron as it was panning over the crown. I was thinking, Wow, if I was in my house, I would say this is really cool. And I was in that crowd. It was an amazing, amazing night. It felt good for the University.

CM: Are you surprised that he won?

AG: Most people whove known him, particularly if they knew him before he was really famous, theyre not really surprised, in some strange way. They would not say hes changed at all, despite now being the most famous guy in the world.

Its not that you knew that he would be the president of the United States, but that he was a guy of rare talent, something quite different. But I think the only reason its sunk in for me because Ive been working on the campaign for two years.

CM: What does his association with the University for the school mean going forward?

AG: Once you get out of economics, youre way out of my pay grade. I think it reflects well on the University to see one of our own clearly embodying some of the things that we always teach our students are important: not being afraid to debate or listen to alternative points of view. Hes always been like that.Even the die-hard anti-Obama people have to have a twinge of pride.
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