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History vs. Hagiography
Professors at Southern Methodist University who are worried about plans to create a George W. Bush policy institute there have said that they don't want a partisan center to hurt the institution's academic reputation. SMU officials are now saying that the center will not be part of the university, and will report to the Bush's foundation. The question for faculty members is whether this independence insulates the university from a political taint or insulates the institute from academic oversight.
Last month, the selection committee for the Bush library announced that it was entering into exclusive negotiations to locate it at SMU. The announcement capped years of competition in which universities vied for the presidential library. Southern Methodist administrators see the library as a coup that will strengthen the institution, attract scholars to the campus and -- together with the libraries of Lyndon Baines Johnson and George H.W. Bush, at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University, respectively -- create a hub of presidential libraries in Texas.
But as SMU was winning the library, some faculty members have grown alarmed, especially by reports that the policy institute being created along with the library and museum would be dedicated to scholarship that supported President Bush's vision and nurtured a new generation of scholars sharing the president's views. Such an ideological agenda, some professors at Southern Methodist argue, is inappropriate for a university and antithetical to the idea that a presidential library should provide material to support a range of views.
In an effort to quell the criticism, SMU's president, R. Gerald Turner, sent an e-mail to all students and faculty members last week providing some details of the arrangement -- including word that the institute would report not to the university, but to President Bush's foundation. (The e-mail was not intended for public release, but The Dallas Morning News posted it on its Web site Tuesday.)
In the letter, Turner outlined what he saw as significant advantages to the university of being selected for the library. SMU officials generally have been trying to suggest that only a small minority of faculty members are concerned, and an SMU spokeswoman on Tuesday said that only "a small group" of professors had expressed any concern and that many of them were "not conversant" with presidential libraries. But the Faculty Senate organized a closed door discussion of the library plans Tuesday, and more such meetings are being planned. A memo from the head of the Faculty Senate -- while noting that the administration had consulted with faculty leaders about the plans -- also said that there had been "lively" discussion on campus about the issues involved.
One of the leading faculty critics of the Bush library plans said Tuesday that Turner's letter left him with more questions and that faculty dissent had not evaporated. And one expert on presidential libraries said that SMU professors had reason to be worried.
The key point made in Turner's letter was that the institute -- the part of the Bush complex about which professors have been most worried -- would be controlled by the president's foundation, not the university. Turner said that joint appointments or programs involving the institute and the presidential library, the museum or academic units would have to meet SMU's standards. But he said that fears expressed by professors that the institute would become another Hoover Institution -- the right-leaning think tank at Stanford University -- were needless because the Bush institute wouldn't be part of SMU.
Turner called on professors to see the benefits to scholarship of being host to the Bush center. "For SMU to be associated with the repository of historical documents on a pivotal presidency and era in U.S. history would be a service to the nation transcending political interests," he wrote. "Universities, like the scholars they nurture, must take the long view in assessing their potential for impact."
Rev. William McElvaney, a professor emeritus of preaching and worship at SMU's theology school, is among the faculty members who have been circulating letters in opposition to the Bush project. He said Turner's letter "was not reassuring to us at all."
McElvaney noted that it was unclear what the institute would do, how partisan it would be, and what influence -- if any -- faculty members at SMU would have. He said that many professors are worried about these issues and that the administration wouldn't know how widespread these concerns are "because they haven't been in touch."
The central concern of professors -- that SMU would be associated with a partisan research center committed to spreading President Bush's ideas -- hasn't been dealt with, he said. Having such a center linked to the university, regardless of whether it reports to a foundation or the university, "isn't compatible with openness and academic integrity," McElvaney said.
A scholar of presidential libraries said SMU faculty members are justified in having concerns -- and that presidential libraries aren't the neutral research centers that proponents make them out to be.
Archives themselves may be neutral, and there are numerous examples of scholars writing "rather unflattering" books based on material out of presidential libraries, said Benjamin Hufbauer, an associate professor of art history at the University of Louisville and author of Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory (University Press of Kansas).
But Hufbauer questioned whether the archives would be as valuable in the years ahead. President Bush has supported more constrained classification policies, such that many records will be closed off. And the huge increase in the volume of presidential papers -- while archivist positions to manage the papers have not increased -- effectively means that it could be many decades before most Bush papers are even processed.
In theory, Hufbauer said, the museums, like the libraries, are run by the National Archives and Records Administration, and are scholarly. But that is not generally the case, Hufbauer said, and museum visitors tend to see a "whitewashed, propagandistic view of history." (He stressed that his analysis found this to be the case with Democratic and Republican presidents alike, with improvements coming only when presidents are long dead.) Because 99 percent of people who visit a presidential library visit the museum and not the archives, he said that the image of the institution is more determined by the museum than the archives.
As for the institute, Hufbauer questioned whether having it run by the Bush foundation really dealt with the concerns being raised by professors. "The idea that the control of this would not report at all to SMU would not to me be comforting, but alarming," he said. "So it's a center run by Bush and his associates without regulation -- an ideological center to burnish a president's reputation -- does that fit with the academic mission of SMU?"
Even if the institute must abide by academic standards when it does joint programs with the university, Hufbauer said, there will be an inevitable tilt. "With that kind of money to throw around, they will bring a large number of scholars and other people to serve and write articles and books that are all from one point of view," he said. "That will affect the balance of the intellectual climate at SMU."