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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 04/ 1/2008

Professor Obama?

By Michael Dobbs

Teaching at University of Chicago Law School.

"Sen. Obama has often referred to himself as 'a constitutional law professor' out on the campaign trail. He never held any such title. And I think anyone, if you ask anyone in academia the distinction between a professor who has tenure and an instructor that does'll get quite an emotional response."

--Clinton spokesman Phil Singer.

The Clinton campaign has been making a lot of the fact that some of Barack Obama's campaign literature describes the Land-of-Lincolner as a former "law professor" at the University of Chicago when in fact he was a senior lecturer. This brings to mind Henry Kissinger's famous crack about academic politics being "so vicious because the stakes are so small." It is true, as the Clinton spokesman says, that academics are very protective of their titles. But was Obama out of line when he called himself a "law professor"?

The Facts

There is a big distinction in academia between tenured professors and untenured professors. The former are somewhat akin to Supreme Court justices. They can hang onto their positions until they are well past their dotage, and can be dismissed only for "gross moral turpitude." According to the University of Chicago Law School, Obama did not have tenure. His formal title was "Senior Lecturer."

At the same time, however, it is routine in academia to refer to anyone with a modicum of experience who teaches students as a "professor" with a small p. The University of Chicago says that Obama "served as a professor in the Law School."

A few years ago, I spent a semester teaching journalism and politics at Princeton. My appointment was just a temporary one but the students all called me "professor," which was great for my ego as my highest academic distinction up until that point was "Bachelor of Arts." I have rechecked with the university website: Even Princeton referred to me as a "professor of journalism."

Thankfully, American universities are a little less hung up about such matters than their counterparts abroad. In Germany, it is a crime for PhDs from American universities to use the "doctor" honorific. See this amusing article that appeared recently in the Post.

The Pinocchio Test

The Clinton campaign is making a mountain out of a molehill on this one. This is somewhat akin to the earlier discovery, trumpeted by the Clinton folks in a December 2007 news release, that Obama had written an essay in third grade titled "I want to be president". In fact, it is perfectly normal academic usage for senior law lecturers (and even moonlighting hacks) to refer to themselves as "professor." A Pinocchio for Herr Doktor Professor Singer.

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UPDATE: TUESDAY 11 A.M. I have received the following e-mail from Singer:

Are we really making a mountain out of a mole hill? If so, why did Obama change his website to reflect his actual title? In 2004, Obama changed website bio to reflect that he was a 'lecturer' rather than 'professor.' [Chicago Daily Herald 4/12/04]

Answer that one, Senior Lecturer Obama! Professors, tenured or untenured, are also invited to weigh in.

By Michael Dobbs  | April 1, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  1 Pinocchio, Barack Obama, Candidate Record, Candidate Watch  
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