Prof. Barack Obama Needs a New Job, So We Sent Around His Academic Résumé

January 20, 2017

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama discusses the Supreme Court and the American judicial system during an appearance last year at the U. of Chicago Law School, where he once taught. Could a return to academe be part of his post-White House plans?
It’s official: The former law professor Barack H. Obama is back on the job market.

It can be tough out there for an academic who’s been out of the game for so long, and Mr. Obama probably hasn’t updated his curriculum vitae in a while. So we did it for him.

You’re welcome, Obama.

We’ve noticed the former senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School padding his academic résumé in the waning days of his presidency. Mr. Obama went on a bit of a spree in the final weeks, publishing articles in Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and his old grad-school haunt, the Harvard Law Review.

Mr. Obama is no fool. He remembers that publication is the coin of the realm. Since he didn’t put his name to any scholarly articles during his earlier academic career — minding his political ambitions, he played his cards close to the vest back then — he needed to make up for lost time.

But we didn’t just update Mr. Obama’s résumé for him. (You can read the full document below or download it here.) We also sent it around to a handful of law professors who have served on appointment committees, and asked them to provide feedback. Set aside the specific benefits of having a former president on the faculty, we said, and focus on the his merits as a once and future academic. (We also asked the reviewers to have some fun with it.)

Daniel C. Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School, said Mr. Obama’s light publication record might cause a hiring committee to balk at welcoming him as a peer.

"Were we to consider him as [a candidate making a lateral move] for a regular academic position, his candidacy would rise or fall on his written work alone," wrote Mr. Richman. "And some would worry that the work, ranging across diverse fields like clean energy, health care, and criminal justice, lacks a clear scholarly agenda."

Mr. Richman also wondered if Mr. Obama’s inclination to reach out to the broader public might also work against him.

“Some would worry that the work, ranging across diverse fields like clean energy, health care, and criminal justice, lacks a clear scholarly agenda.”
"Because some of my colleagues think that public intellectuals are ‘high variance,’" he said, "I would also expect arguments that someone awarded both a Grammy and a Nobel Peace Prize might be too externally focused."

Good news, though! Columbia does appoint "professors from practice," whose legal expertise is based primarily on field experience. Mr. Richman said Mr. Obama would make a terrific candidate for such a post.

The usual concern about professors from practice, he said, is that their teaching and writing might amount to "war stories" rather than theoretical discussion. But since Mr. Obama’s "war stories" would concern actual wars, and their legal bases, the former commander in chief probably would get a pass.

A Teacher, Not a Scholar?

Stephen R. McAllister, a professor and former dean at the University of Kansas School of Law, said Mr. Obama’s almost-nonexistent record of legal writing would raise concerns about his academic chops. "A sample exam and syllabus from years ago," he wrote, "provide no comfort that he is committed to producing top-quality legal scholarship."

Also, Mr. Obama is 55 years old. Even if he’s capable of top-flight work, a hiring committee might wonder if he’s hungry enough to do it.

“We have always been wary of candidates who apply for a position either mid- or late-career, because we worry they are simply seeking to 'retire' to academia.”
"We have always been wary of candidates who apply for a position either mid- or late-career," said Mr. McAllister, "because we worry they are simply seeking to ‘retire’ to academia, and are not motivated to be as active in all aspects of a faculty member’s responsibilities, most especially in producing scholarship."

Scholarship was never Mr. Obama’s forté. In fact, he didn’t really start publishing journal articles until he became president. As a young lecturer at Chicago Law, he won over his colleagues and students with his skill in the classroom. Mr. Obama was known as a deft teacher: sharp, charismatic, and even-handed. More than once the law school tried to lure him with a tenure-track appointment, which would have meant more scholarly writing. But Mr. Obama declined.

His reputation as a good teacher would be "a definite plus," said Mr. Richman. But for typical candidates, a hiring committee would look at publications first. (The emphasis might be slightly different, he noted, for a "professor from practice" candidate.)

Mr. Obama now has been out of academe for as long as he was in it. If he wanted to become a full professor, he might have to pick up where he left off more than a decade ago, said Robert Weisberg, a professor at Stanford Law School.

“He probably has to start at the pre-tenure stage as assistant or associate professor, which is a little awkward for a 55-year-old.”
"He probably has to start at the pre-tenure stage as assistant or associate professor," wrote Mr. Weisberg, "which is a little awkward for a 55-year-old."

As for Mr. Obama’s future as an instructor, "I don’t see him teaching constitutional law, or at least writing in it, even though it’s his supposed specialty," he said.

Why not? The former president’s real-life governing experience might make him overqualified for the task.

"He thinks the Constitution is about things like voting rights and fighting discrimination," said Mr. Weisberg, tongue firmly in cheek, "whereas everyone knows that these days constitutional-law scholarship is either about theories of judicial review (better yet, meta-theories about theories of judicial review) or about fine linguistic parsing of the purported nuances of Supreme Court opinions."

For our reviewers, the notion of ignoring Mr. Obama’s fame did not bode well for the departing president’s prospects in academic law. There are a lot of impressive résumés floating around D.C., and Mr. Obama’s executive stature may be his highest card.

"People who worked in the Obama administration and want to write about presidential power, health care, or criminal-justice reform are a dime a dozen," wrote Scott Hershovitz, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "There are at least four of them on our faculty already. What makes this guy stand out?"


Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.