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Jill Biden strives to keep roles as first lady and educator separate

The White House has shared few details about first lady Jill Biden’s return to teaching, even though it’s the first time in history a first lady has held a full-time job outside the East Wing.

But getting Dr. Biden back to her students required months of negotiation, concerns about how to list her in the schedule and a close reading of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause among other things, according to hundreds of planning and administrative documents obtained by CBS News through a public records request to Northern Virginia Community College.

First Lady Jill Biden speaks with students in Becky Taylor’s classroom as she visits the Christa McAuliffe School in Concord, New Hampshire, on March 17, 2021.

SUSAN WALSH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The emails reflect an attempt by the first lady to keep a low profile even as she is now far more recognized than when she taught during her time as second lady. Special considerations — like whether her name would appear on schedules for students enrolling in Dr. Biden’s English classes — were discussed for weeks.

“I think she was going to be listed as ‘TBA,'” the NOVA Community College president told her administrative colleagues in an email at the end of November. But a month later, the dean told the first lady he was “worried” she would not get the class schedule she would like because of the “TBA” professor listing. “I would like to put ‘Biden’ rather than ‘TBA’…is that all right with you?” he asked.

But days before classes were to begin in January, the issue of which name would appear was apparently unresolved. The campus provost told her colleagues the “name is the hold up” in order to “pin down plans for Jill’s schedule.” Potentially complicating the decision was Biden’s use at the college of her middle name, Tracy, sometimes in lieu of her last name, because her account information had to match in the remote teaching system.

Ultimately, the public schedule listed morning classes with “Jill T. Biden.”

Biden immediately sought to wall off her other high-profile job at the White House from her work at the community college once her husband was in office.

“I am an English teacher at NOVA — not First Lady,” she wrote to colleagues in an email the week after President Biden’s inauguration, to head off a potential mention of her White House role in a campus flyer. “I am trying to keep my roles separate as I did as Second Lady. I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I want students to see me as their English teacher. I am not mentioning it in my classes AT ALL. Thanks for honoring my teacher identity. Jill”

This semester she is teaching three introductory English courses, two of which are “hybrid” courses with live-streamed instruction and independent online classwork, according to a copy of her schedule, which is available in public records.

The separation of roles appears to not only be important to Dr. Biden for personal and professional reasons, but potentially for legal and ethical considerations.

Two weeks after Mr. Biden was declared the election winner in November, the college’s dean notified fellow administrators that Dr. Biden’s staff “…was meeting with attorneys to make sure there were no legal barriers to her teaching.” 

Dr. Jill Biden addressing NOVA Community College’s graduates at commencement ceremony in May 2016.

NOVA Community College Facebook page

The issue apparently being examined by Dr. Biden’s lawyers was the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which stipulates appropriate compensation for the president and makes clear the president “…shall not receive…any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.”

“The clause is specific to the President and not the First Lady…But since NOVA is a state school and Jill and Joe file [taxes] jointly, the ‘any of them’ clause, meaning a state, is the issue,” the dean explained in an email about his discussions with Dr. Biden’s staff. 

The emails do not mention that former President Trump was sued over the Emoluments Clause because of his ongoing financial interest and ownership in his hotels and restaurants during his presidency, including the Trump International Hotel located near the White House. In January, the Supreme Court dismissed the case.

“[Dr. Biden’s senior adviser]…said it was not a question of if she would teach but how,” the dean wrote, “It may be that her salary will have to be donated to the Foundation or an endowed chair would need to be set up so that her salary would come from a non-state source.” 

It is unclear from the public records obtained by CBS News what Dr. Biden’s lawyers ultimately determined regarding the Constitution and her potential public salary, but the first lady’s office confirmed to CBS News that “[p]rior to moving to the White House, Dr. Biden and her team worked with NVCC to ensure that all appropriate steps were taken to facilitate her continued teaching.” 

In late November, after top college administrators were informed of the potential constitutional conundrum, NOVA President Anne Kress and the human resources department discussed paying Dr. Biden’s salary with “non-state funding” from the NOVA Foundation, the university’s 501(c) 3 non-profit fundraising arm, which discloses on its website that it regularly funds faculty positions. 

The college’s president floated the idea of using a foundation grant to fund this semester’s portion of the first lady’s annual $81,904 salary, according to her public faculty employment contract signed on July 13. 

“Before I approach the Foundation, would this be an appropriate use of the proceeds from the Brazil grant?” Kress inquired with two human resource directors in an email on November 30.

They deemed it to be “appropriate.” 

“I’d say let’s use this funding rather than individual donations to the Foundation,” Kress replied without detailing any reasoning. 

NOVA confirmed to CBS News beginning this semester Dr. Biden’s salary was funded through its foundation. A spokesperson said the funds “are not attributable to any specific donor” and that “the ‘Brazil Grant’… is institutional shorthand for the unrestricted proceeds of a grant NOVA completed in 2019.”

The first lady had hoped to return to campus in January, and asked if she could be there “to zoom for classes…to keep work separate from WH,” according to discussions between administrators. The request was denied because administrators were limiting faculty on campus during the pandemic until “possibly mid-February,” the administrators’ wrote. “In the meantime, the resources of the College…are fully available to support Dr. Biden Biden while she is teaching remotely.” 

As of this week, the first lady’s office confirmed she is still teaching remotely. 

“I was waiting to see for many years what it would look like for a first lady to be employed outside the White House because I was always concerned about conflicts of interest and security. I really just wondered if it was really going to work,” Myra Gutin, first ladies historian and professor emerita of communications and journalism at Rider University told CBS News. “It looks like Jill Biden has made it work.” 

Correspondence obtained by CBS News also reveals a glimpse of her commitment to teaching and her enthusiasm for the job.

Last July, as she helped her husband campaign for the White House, Dr. Biden submitted her leave of absence for the fall teaching semester. 

“I am not ready to retire…but I KNOW we have to work as hard as we can to win. So, I’m going to sign up for hybrid training for teaching NEXT semester,” Dr. Biden wrote in an email to an associate dean about the leave request.

“Life has taken such surprising turns for all of us… hope you and your family are well. Thanks for your patience,” Dr. Biden concluded, with a pink double-heart emoticon next to her name, a frequent part of her email signatures. 

But teaching has its drawbacks, too, like online training courses. “She was locked out of her account because of the training but has finished most of the training courses now,” the college’s dean told colleagues in December. 

Emails also showed something of the impression she’s made on her colleagues. When a Wall Street Journal opinion piece in December questioned her use of the title of “doctor” before her surname for her doctorate in educational leadership, her colleagues were quick to defend her.

“We are so proud of the work you do as an English professor at NOVA and know you will bring inspiration and grace to your new position as First Lady,” a group of 13 faculty members wrote to her a night before Inauguration Day, including a Zoom group photo of them wearing t-shirts with the words: “Doctor, First Lady, Jill Biden.” 

They dubbed her: the “Teacher-in-Chief.” 

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