UChicago Law Students Gave Obama Big Thumbs-up

Law students gave Obama big thumbs-up
Abdon M. Pallasch
Chicago Sun-Times
December 18, 2007

White House hopeful Barack Obama could have given it all up for the gentler life of a law professor.

A Sun-Times review of student evaluations from Obama's 10 years of teaching part-time at the University of Chicago Law School shows that students almost always rated Obama as one of their top instructors -- except for one quarter in 1997.

"Those are tremendous ratings, especially for someone who had a day job," Professor Cass Sunstein said. "We wanted him to join the faculty full-time at various different junctures. That's not a trivial fact. . . . If we want to hire someone, the faculty has to think they're tremendous. But he liked political life."

While a state senator, Obama held classes early on Monday and late on Friday during legislative sessions, running right through the school's popular Friday evening wine-and-cheese hour. Obama was so popular, students signed up for his class anyway.

"We'd be in class and get messages that he would come in 45 minutes late and everyone would wait for him," said former student Andrew Janis, now a New York lawyer.

"I loved teaching," Obama told the Sun-Times. "But when the opportunity came [to run for U.S. Senate] I took it. I think some of the public speaking skills I developed in the classroom -- stay on your toes; don't make my answers too long -- I'm using on the campaign trail."

Professor David Strauss, the only teacher with higher ratings than Obama in his last year at the school, said, "The students thought he was great. He thought about things in unconventional ways."

Professors at the law school -- which is ranked among the country's best -- employ the "Socratic" teaching method of Professor Kingsfield from "The Paper Chase," cold-calling students to catch them off guard. Obama ditched that approach for a more informal conversation with students.

"Some professors are just kind of going through the motions with you," Janis said. "He actually seemed to take everyone's point of view seriously."

Obama's final exams drew from topical controversies such as cloning and single-sex public schools.

The student evaluations of Obama that remain at the school library (some are missing) are overwhelmingly positive. A reporter was unable to find the four students who said they would not recommend Obama's class to another student.

Some Obama critics say because he had the title of "senior lecturer" he should not call himself "professor." U. of C. professors said Obama -- who practiced civil rights law for a time and stopped teaching in 2003 -- could have joined their ranks whenever he wanted.

"He was not an ivory tower academic," said former student Kenworthey Bilz, who had him for the low-ranked 1997 Constitutional Law class. "The class was not his first love. He was basically in the trenches. These were real problems to him. That kind of on-the-street realism was really refreshing."