The Great Brain

by Ron Coleman | August 3, 2008 1:40 pm

Jim Lindgren at Volokh[1] (via Insty[2]) is talking about what Barack Obama’s teaching job at the University of Chicago was and was not. The question on the table seems to be whether, when or if he was offered tenure, and under what conditions. The obvious point:

I have now talked to four members of the University of Chicago law faculty, including at least one of Obama’s campaign donors, and all four of them say that they do not remember voting Barack Obama a tenured or tenure-track offer. …

All thought that a tenure-track offer might well have been approved if it had been brought to the faculty. All expressed doubt whether the faculty would have made a tenured offer; one professor stated emphatically that it never would have happened, which of course is just one person’s opinion. According to those I spoke with, a tenured offer would have been problematic because — despite his intelligence, teaching ability, and success in law school — Barack Obama may not have had any scholarly publications (at least they were not aware of any).

Expressed “doubt”? What on earth is the question? This is the University of Chicago — full tenure for someone with no publications? Selections from the comments:

I would be interested to find out when was the last time that UC made an offer-with-tenure to a candidate who did not already have tenure at another institution.

It’s not unheard of for a dean to make promises to a candidate or potential candidate that he can’t deliver on. But how unusual is it for a dean at this sort of school to promise an offer that includes tenure to a potential candidate with no scholarly publications?

As an academic . . . I regard it as exceptionally unusual for someone without a single publication ten years after completing his degree would be offered a tenured position at a place like Chicago.

I was a UC undergrad, I am married to a UC PhD, and I have been a faculty wife at several institutions, none of which come close to UC levels of intellectual self-importance. Unless UC is a radically different place than when I was there a quarter century ago, a job-with-tenure (as opposed to tenure-track) for someone without any academic publications to his name is simply unthinkable.

Interestingly, in the comments David Bernstein dissents, and insists it would not have been unusual for the editor of the Harvard Law Review to be offered tenure even at U. of C. in 1991, even absent any evidence of what is called scholarship. I find that impossible to believe, though. There is some red-herring discussion about whether he was perhaps the author of an unsigned HLR student Note… which hardly makes a difference in terms of what we’re talking about here.

The point, I think, is that the Obama myth, despite the efforts of some of us to address it on precisely this point[3], is so inflated that people would actually believe that he would be the subject of a level of unprecedented legitimization of his status as an intellectual based on … nothing. Nothing.

Originally posted on Likelihood of Success[4], Ron Coleman’s pretty good blog. He also blogs about developments in the law concerning trademark, copyright, new media and free speech on an entirely other pretty good blog, LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION:®[5].

  1. Jim Lindgren at Volokh:
  2. Insty:
  3. the efforts of some of us to address it on precisely this point:
  4. Likelihood of Success:

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The great brain

by Ron Coleman | June 8, 2008 12:07 am

My friend Pamela Geller offers, in somewhat more polemic language than I would use, a nonetheless compelling antidote to the largely unexamined conception — to some extent uncritically passed along by me[1] — that Barack Obama has serious intellectual achievements of which he can rightly boast.[2]

Personification of Wisdom, Newark historic courthouseI very much appreciate the point. It’s one I began to ponder at about the same time her post went up, just by coincidence. I recalled that, like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama was a law professor at one point, and that Clinton, too, was frequently cited by supporters as a genius, a genuine intellectual — “brilliant,” as they say.

My thinking regarding both of them was the same: Intellectuals may achieve many things, but if they are truly intellectuals there is inevitably some novel or at least rigorous contribution to some art, science, philosophy or other body of thought-powered endeavor, such as law, by which that intellection may be proved and measured.

And in the case of both men (the comparison [3]keeps coming up), there is neither. There is no book or book chapter, no judicial opinion in a case where one of them acted as counsel, no published article in a scholarly or professional work. There is not even a genuinely original great work of oratory or say, a riveting course-pack[4].

Intellectuals are as intellectuals do. Bill and Barack utilized their credentials, as they had every right to and as almost everyone else does, as stepping stones toward the realization of their grand ambitions. But neither of them can in any way be credited as having demonstrated a genius for anything other than achievement of that ambition. And this is not the same, we should recall, as a genius for leadership or government, with which we might credit a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. Neither man can be credited with being the moving or creative force behind the building of any great institution, public or private; of a noteworthy government program, initiative or policy; or a political movement that transcended the political institutions of their time and place.

There is no reason that a President must be any of these things. But we should be clear-eyed about what those who seek to be President do and do not offer[5]. No one ever burdened John McCain with the title of “brilliant,” “genius” or “intellectual,” and he therefore need not defend himself on those scores. There is, however, a consistent bias among liberals to believe that because, as they cannot but see it, their causes are the ones most creditable to reason and intellect, that their candidates — even the most obviously dull Ivy League graduates[6] — are the “thinking person’s” choice. Of course, by contrast their adversaries are chimps, dullards, genial national hosts. This contrast — Democrats smart, Republicans dumb — is consistently echoed by a press corps which, outside mainly the New York Times, wouldn’t by dint of its own intellectual or academic achievements know a genuinely original or scholarlyPersonification of Power, Newark historic courthouse insight if you whispered it right into their earpieces.

So be it. It is worthwhile to read Pam’s piece, however screechy it is (is this not her charm?), to get another side of the Obama-as-brilliant meme. Little by little the reality of the very humanness of this young, undeniably bright politician is replacing the messianic fervor and massive mythologizing of only a few months ago. He may yet be President, after all. And if he ever is, frankly, reducing him to human scale is probably doing him a favor.

Originally posted at Likelihood of Success[7].

  1. uncritically passed along by me:
  2. Barack Obama has serious intellectual achievements of which he can rightly boast.:
  3. comparison :
  4. course-pack:
  5. do not offer:
  6. obviously dull Ivy League graduates:
  7. Likelihood of Success:

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