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SMU's Deal With Bush

February 25, 2008

Despite the concerns of many of its faculty members and historians nationwide, Southern Methodist University agreed to terms Friday for becoming the home of President Bush's library and of an institute that will promote the president's views and that will not be controlled by the university.

Presidential libraries -- which are managed by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration -- have generally been considered a plum for a university to obtain. Scholars are attracted by the archives, and tourists and name recognition come with the affiliated museums. But the Bush library complex will also feature an institute -- independent of academic governance of the university -- to sponsor research and programs designed to promote the vision of the president. At the press briefing announcing the agreement, Donald Evans, who chairs the president's foundation, said that the complex would "celebrate" the president and his tenure in office.

It's that part of the plan -- an institute that is at the university, but not run by standard academic procedures -- that has angered many academics. The public policy programs at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University that are named for Presidents Johnson and Bush (I), whose libraries are also located there, are regular units of their respective universities. Scholars are judged by normal standards, deans are hired by university presidents, and there is no goal of offering a particular perspective on the respective presidents. Leaders of the president's foundation, however, have said that they want to control the institute and that it will have a specific goal of promoting the president's ideas and views.

Faculty critics have pushed SMU to either get the institute moved away from the campus or (on the other extreme) to gain control of it so it would follow regular academic procedures. While SMU will not release details about its agreement with the president's foundation until later today, the summary indicates that the university agreed to a structure that would link the institute to the rest of the library and the university, while agreeing to let the foundation control the institute.

The institute will have its own board, which will consist of from three to nine members. SMU said that under its agreement with Bush, the university will be assured one board seat if the board size is up to five, and two board seats if the board is larger. In addition, SMU and the institute also will establish an Academic Advisory Committee, with representatives from both entities, to explore joint programming.

R. Gerald Turner, president of SMU, said at the press conference that the library complex and affiliated institute would not create any problems with partisanship. "I think you will find that this university is open to all opinions," he said. If any problems arise with partisanship, he said, "I trust our faculty to point that out.” Turner has stressed that presidential libraries bring prestige to universities and he has repeatedly told professors that to get the library, the university needed to accept the institute, too.

But some experts -- at SMU and beyond -- think the university has agreed to terms that undercut the ideal of presidential library centers as places to promote scholarship. 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), said that the model agreed to at SMU was "totally different" from the approaches at other universities with presidential libraries. The institute that is part of the complex "has a partisan agenda -- that's very significant," he said.

"Academics everywhere should be concerned about this. Clearly this goes against the idea of dispassionate inquiry, of looking at things on the basis of fact and merit. If it's ideological, that's opposed to the mission of a university," Hufbauer said.

SMU has significant ties to the Bush administration. Laura Bush is an alumna and trustee. Richard B. Cheney was a trustee before being elected vice president. And the president plans to move to Dallas when his term expires next year. As it became more clear that SMU was beating out other Texas universities vying for the library and center, some professors began to express concern.

To a minority, any association with the president would be bad for the university. But many other professors -- including people who disagree vehemently with the president's policies -- said that there is great scholarly value in the archives of any president. That argument, however, has been undercut somewhat because President Bush signed an executive order giving presidents and former presidents much more control over their papers -- and extended that right to a family member when a former president dies.

"As long as that executive order is in place, it's really a censored library. What self-respecting university would accept a censored library?" said Rev. William McElvaney, a professor emeritus of preaching and worship at SMU’s theology school, and one of the leading critics of the library. (He has also been involved in religious debates over the issue, arguing that President Bush's record on issues of war and poverty are so inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus that a Methodist university should not honor him.)

Susanne Johnson, an associate professor of Christian education, has also been a leader in efforts to change or reject the library plans and she said she was devastated by Friday's news. With some other professors and some Methodist leaders, she is talking with lawyers about a possible suit arguing that SMU will be violating its own rules by allowing land to be used for a partisan institute.

Johnson said that a library adhering to true academic values would be different, but that the Bush project isn't about such values. "The whole purpose of a library is for unfettered, unbiased, critically reflective academic inquiry into the administration of a given presidency. It's not to cheer-lead for a particular president. It's not to be groupies," she said. "We all know very well that this institute -- which has no lines of accountability to the faculty -- is about getting some scholars lined up to put window dressing on the presidency of George Bush."

While many of those most vocal about the library and institute have been against it, others at SMU have become resigned to it or are enthusiastic about it. A recent editorial in The Daily Campus criticized the university and foundation officials for taking so long to reach a formal agreement.

A collection of faculty comments -- without names -- was posted on the Faculty Senate Web site by Rhonda Blair, a professor of theater who was president of the Faculty Senate last year. One said: "I am in favor of the library, museum and institute coming to SMU. I am no fan of President Bush or his policies, or the war, or most of what he has done. I am green, Democratic, feminist, and ready for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton for President. I think the library can become a valuable resource for us and I think we can handle whatever comes our way in challenges of hiring, etc. I believe in the intelligence and fortitude of my colleagues and myself, to engage the presidential library, etc. with academic rigor and moral rectitude."

Another said: "If faculty opposition causes this $500 million complex, with its attendant hundreds of thousands of annual visitors, to go elsewhere, it would be the most extraordinary act of institutional self-sabotage that I have ever witnessed. I hope that cooler heads prevail before that is allowed to happen."

Many others, however, echoed the criticisms. One professor wrote: "Would SMU accept an endowed chair with the condition that the donor would pick the candidate? This is more or less what the Bush Institute would be. Scholars working within SMU but being appointed by a foreign body. Let’s say that President Chavez from Venezuela would like to endow a chair related to Venezuela’s recent history but the condition would be that he would decide every year who holds it. Would SMU accept such a deal? Wouldn’t [it] be nice to have someone from that perspective on campus to enrich our dialogue? Certainly not. There cannot be any dialogue between scholars who pursue their research no matter where it might lead them and scholars who are paid to defend a certain ideology."

In an interview, Blair noted that many of the faculty distinguished between the library and the institute, but that President Bush's representatives had made clear to SMU that it was to be a package. She described the faculty as "very split," with many excited about the potential for scholarship from the archives but worried about the institute. She said that the institute remains "a substantial concern" for many, herself included.

The "all or nothing" approach to the library and institute was very difficult on faculty members, she said, especially knowing of the enthusiasm for the project on the SMU board and among its major donors. "This places the faculty in an incredibly difficult position," she said. "We were having to look at the current situation at the university and the constitution of our Board of Trustees and the fact that we are in the quiet stage of a capital campaign and one of the main initiatives is to solicit funds for endowed chairs and professorships."

 

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