First, a follow-up to my comment yesterday evening about the annoyance of Obama being called “professor” although he was merely an adjunct instructor meeting no scholarly expectations. I see that some of the law-prof commentators gathered by the Times comment on this, and largely consider it no big deal (although John Eastman does note how unusual it was for Obama to attain “senior lecturer” status). I also see that on the cover pages of Obama’s final exams, posted by the Times, he styled himself “Professor Obama.” So it appears that this was normal practice at Chicago’s law school. I suppose title inflation has set in there, which is interesting, given that elsewhere at Chicago, or so I’ve always heard, the norm has long been title deflation, with students addressing their teachers without titles like “Doctor” or “Professor” (however appropriate to one’s degree or rank) and going instead with “Mr.” or a feminine equivalent.
Once I began to look at those final exams, it also seemed to me that they were not terribly difficult, especially given Chicago’s stellar reputation. Plenty of time, open materials, and the questions generally invited students to craft arguments that advanced conventional thinking a few millimeters beyond the latest precedents–as in, can we fit one more angel on the head of this pin? Only one question, the last one on Obama’s 1999 final, invited students to think critically about the conventional constitutional wisdom itself.
And one of Obama’s questions may reflect the tutelage of Professor Tribe’s “zany” thinking on the equal protection clause (as discussed this morning by Ed Whelan). In 2003, Obama asked his students to answer whether an equal protection challenge could be brought against an initiative that required a state to be color-blind in public education, hiring, and contracts. I began to wonder whether this was a trick question. There are lively debates about whether the equal protection clause requires a state to be color-blind. But I haven’t encountered any serious arguments anywhere that the clause might forbid a state to be color-blind. Or maybe I just don’t get out enough and run with the big dogs of constitutional theory.