U. Chicago recalls ‘rising star’

CHICAGO — When he was a professor of law at the University of Chicago, president-elect Barack Obama’s favorite classroom was Room V, the Harry A. Bigelow lecture hall. It is an airy and windowed space, one of the largest at the school, according to a University of Chicago facilities administrator who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

On Tuesday night, Obama’s future was writ large in Chicago’s Grant Park. But the ghosts of his past linger here at the University of Chicago, where students and faculty buzzed with anticipation on the morning of Election Day.

Current law students are too young to remember the Illinois senator’s 12-year stint in academia as a scholar of constitutional law, but professors and law school staff recall the now-president-elect as a bright, rising star on the faculty.

“The classroom was filled with energy,” said Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan, who worked with Obama on the faculty at Chicago in the mid-’90s. “I think that he definitely presented the material in the way that the students there found challenging.”

The young lecturer taught a popular constitutional law course and classes on race relations and affirmative action. The material was controversial, Chicago professor and former Saybrugian Douglas Baird ’75 said, and Obama demonstrated an ability to disagree with students respectfully.

But despite his popularity as a law professor, Obama’s political ambitions always lay beneath the surface of his academic career, professors said. Between 1996 and 2004, Obama served as senior lecturer at the school. A statement on the school’s Web site reads simply, “Several times during his 12 years as a professor at the Law School, Obama was invited to join the faculty in a full-time tenure-track position, but he declined.”

That is not to say Obama was simply treading water. In December 2007, he told the Chicago Sun-Times that he “loved” teaching, and has found certain lessons from the classroom applicable to the campaign trail.

“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,” he said at the time.

Obama left his weeks at the school open for politics, the facilities administrator said, by teaching on Monday mornings and Friday evenings.

“He had interests in public affairs, and I think … there is every reason to believe he was going to continue to pursue public service,” Kahan said. “I think it’s well known that the Law School would have been delighted had he been a law professor rather than a politician.”

Of course, the ascent of one of its own to the nation’s highest office is not exactly a disappointment for the University of Chicago. A Yale graduate has held the White House since George H.W. Bush ’48 became President in 1989. Obama will be the first Chicago faculty member to sit in the Oval Office.

And, as Baird put it: “It’s about time.”

Indeed, the honor of Obama’s ascent has not been lost on students and faculty at Chicago.

“There’s definitely a sense of pride,” said second-year law student Catherine Kiwala.

Likewise, it is no surprise that Obama’s support here is pervasive. Obama T-shirts and pins filled the courtyards of the university’s Gothic central campus. Red, white and blue balloon clusters dotted the law school’s lounge Tuesday, where students and faculty prepared to host an election-night viewing party. During the day, some students skipped class to drive to the neighboring battleground state of Indiana to canvas for the Democratic nominee, said first-year law student Chauntell Bobo.

“Just about everybody supports him,” law professor Julie Roin said. “We all hope that he’ll do a great job — not just because he’s from the University of Chicago.”

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