The latest tactic out of the Clinton camp has got me laughing (not out loud – it’s more of an internal snicker). They’re questioning whether Obama has the right to say he’s been a “professor” at the University of Chicago. As summarized by Salon’s War Room, here’s the accusation on Clinton campaign’s website:
“Sen. Obama consistently and falsely claims that he was a law professor.” The item referenced a Chicago Sun-Times article that stated, “‘Several direct-mail pieces issued for Obama’s primary [Senate] campaign said he was a law professor at the University of Chicago. He is not. He is a senior lecturer (now on leave) at the school. In academia, there is a vast difference between the two titles. Details matter.’ In academia, there’s a significant difference: professors have tenure while lecturers do not.”
This is true up to a point. Beyond the assistant professor rank, professors have tenure. As a rule, professors are at least tenure-eligible, though my university also has a special category of non-tenure-line professors. University administrators like that, because they can be fired capriciously.
Personally, I can’t call myself a professor, because I’m a lowly instructor. This is a theoretically less secure spot than the non-tenurable professors, as I’m hired only on a quarterly basis, but practically speaking, I’m more secure since I’m the cheapest labor they’ve got. I’m a captive “trailing spouse” – an awful term that always evokes snail trails for me – but I keep adjuncting for the love of it, even though Wal-Mart, our only other large local employer, might well give me better benefits. Seriously. That’s assuming that Wal-Mart would even hire me, a dubious proposition since they’d smell subversion as soon as I walked in the door. Anyway, the administration really loves people like me, and they’d probably be happy if we had 95% of all teaching staff in my category, with the other 5% reserved as actual professorships for Famous People who teach only a reduced load anyway.
But that’s the true and ugly story of how the more academic branches of academia function. As War Room points out, in professional schools such as law and medicine, the titles get blurry and don’t map onto the rest of the professoriate.
It’s not too suprising, then, that the University of Chicago has issued a statement in full support of Obama calling himself a professor:
From 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama served as a professor in the Law School. He was a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996. He was a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004, during which time he taught three courses per year. Senior Lecturers are considered to be members of the Law School faculty and are regarded as professors, although not full-time or tenure-track. The title of Senior Lecturer is distinct from the title of Lecturer, which signifies adjunct status. Like Obama, each of the Law School’s Senior Lecturers have high-demand careers in politics or public service, which prevent full-time teaching. Several times during his 12 years as a professor in the Law School, Obama was invited to join the faculty in a full-time tenure-track position, but he declined.
(I’m not sure how permanent this link will be; sorry if it’s not stable. For more detail on this, see also FactCheck.)
Pretty clear, huh?
So Clinton and her cronies are playing a game that I recall from my time hanging around German universities, where everyone is closely scrutinized to make sure they haven’t appropriated a title they don’t deserve. I remember early on during my research in Berlin, I referred to the director of an archive as “Herr Doktor So-und-so,” and his secretary – who was scandalized! – told me I’d better refer to him as “Herr Doktor Doktor So-und-so” because he had two doctorates. And as horrified as she was, I was grateful for the correction; the guy made me nervous as it was, with his waxed mustache and his grandson-of-Bismarck demeanor.
So that’s why I had to snicker at the absurdity of Clinton’s tactic. It reminds me of some of the pettiest jockeying for respect in academia. You wouldn’t think it could have legs in politics.
And yet, it’s not funny in the least if you recall how the Republicans and the media pigeonholed Al Gore as a serial exaggerator. The title of Clinton’s press release? “Just Embellished Words: Senator Obama’s Record of Exaggerations & Misstatements.” Eek. Wanna bet on whether the press is smart enough to sniff out the real exaggerators and mis-staters in this kerfuffle?
LOLcat by me, featuring my own dearly departed Grey Kitty, at I Can Has Cheezburger?