Obama was an adjunct

The press repeatedly refers to Obama as a ‘law professor’. I can see why: it plays into the public image of him as an educated (or over-educated, depending on your politics) and articulate (or inarticulate) thinker. But for those of us savvy to the world of academic hierarchy, this doesn’t quite ring true. Let’s face it: Obama was an adjunct.

According to the University of Chicago Law School Obama spent four years as a lecturer — “which signals adjunct status” according to the website — at the Law School. For eight years after that he was a ‘senior lecturer’. Chicago says that “senior lecturers…. are regarded as professors” but are “not full-time or tenure track”. If the university says he was considered a professor, then I suppose that journalists may technically be correct when they describe him that way. But I think if you ask the average academic what call someone who teaches part time and is not on the tenure track, their answer would not be “professor”.

Obama gets more cred then most adjuncts because professional schools have a different kind of faculty than academic schools, and because Chicago’s Senior Lecturers are all wealthy and powerful enough to not need the money that comes from teaching — indeed, the criteria that Chicago uses to award senior lectureships is that the recipients are eminent.

The tragedy of calling Obama a ‘professor’ while others are ‘adjuncts’ is that it is often the ‘adjuncts’ who are the heart and soul of academic departments — teaching the bread and butter courses that form the bedrock of a discipline’s curriculum. Obama, on the other hand, had the luxury of splitting his time between a political career, a private law practice, and a life as a published author. The people with the low-prestige titles are actually the ones with a deeper involvement with the day to day running of the institution. This is particularly the case at places which, unlike the University of Chicago, have larger undergraduate programs than they do graduate schools.

In calling Obama an adjunct, I’m not trying to insult him (that would just be a roundabout way of saying adjuncts status is shameful, which it is not) or suggest that he is duplicitous (since the law school itself has a press release on this topic). What I am saying is that in an era of casualization of the academic workforce, we need to make the public aware of the details of academic hierarchy, and the political economy that accompanies it. So the next time someone dismissively calls Obama an uptight ‘law professor’ let them know that he, like so many others, was off the tenure track and teaching part time. And remind them that for most people in that position, it is not an easy one to be in.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

7 thoughts on “Obama was an adjunct

  1. I didn’t know this about Obama. But yes, the state of affairs for many adjuncts and lecturers is shameful… It’s funny, because the professor who advised my thesis was actually a senior lecturer, and widely regarded among the students for being not only a great teacher, but also relatable and willing to talk to students.

  2. I do get what you are saying, but I don’t see the advantage in labeling Obama an adjunct. Perhaps I’m missing your point. As you point out, he was only technically an adjunct in that he was teaching part-time. However, the adjunct experience that needs to be highlighted is that of precariousness, lack of privilege, financial hardship, overwork… Obama may have been an adjunct in the strictest sense of the term, but in all the ways that matter, he may as well have been a well-paid professor. Indeed, if Chicago says he was regarded as a professor, well, then, that’s a very different situation than the one most adjunct/contingent faculty face. Moreover, do you not think that labeling him an adjunct may do more harm than good, in that it reinforces a frustrating image of adjuncts as full-time successful non-academic professionals and part-time academic dilettantes? You know, tell someone Obama was an adjunct, not a professor, and they think, “well, that can’t be a very bad thing, then. What’s all the fuss about?”

  3. Often times its the full professors who are the most willing to drift away from an institution, using it to further their own lab or project, rather than using their time and energy to build the institution up.

  4. Rex: Thanks for this post on Obama at the UC Law School. It highlights a point I have made several times, at least once in these forums, that stark figures such as “70% of faculty are adjuncts” are not helpful, and need to be parsed very carefully. At the law school and medical school end of the spectrum, “adjunct” faculty are often highly paid professionals who volunteer their time to teach and mentor. At the other end of the spectrum, we know of community colleges in which there is only a single tenured faculty member in a department, and all other faculty are underpaid adjuncts. And my impression is that the University of Phoenix has thousands of faculty, all adjuncts basically, pretty much anyone who wants to offer a course for a few extra dollars.

    As you note, broad categories such as adjunct and contingent tend to obscure the real difficulties that over-worked and under-paid professionals suffer. Professional schools have always relied on ‘volunteer’ adjunct faculty (I remember that, 40 years ago, the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago advertised itself as the only medical school in the U.S. with a 100% full-time faculty — the exception that proves the rule in this case), but the new corporate models of educational management that regard faculty as costs to be controlled need to be exposed for the exploitative principles on which they are based.

  5. Of course, Obama got a better paying, full-time job outside of academia. Those who are unhappy as adjuncts should consider following this path as well. If they love teaching, then they still might be able to continue teaching part-time as well.

  6. Well, Obama’s main source of income is as an author. We can’t all write best sellers. Although I suppose his ability to do so is proof of the importance of a liberal arts education like the one he got at Oxy.

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