Scholarly Archive or Ideological Center?

Reports on Bush ambitions for presidential library have SMU professors doubting the university should push to be host.
December 18, 2006

Southern Methodist University has long been considered the front-runner in the competition to be the site of President Bush's presidential library. Laura Bush is an alumna and trustee. Dick Cheney was a trustee before being elected vice president. And the university's main challenge -- a lack of space -- may have been fixed this month when SMU won a court fight over its right to demolish a condo complex the university had purchased, in part to have land for the Bush project.

But now, as President Bush prepares to decide among SMU, Baylor University and the University of Dallas, a new issue has emerged. Professors at SMU are circulating an open letter calling for the university to have a full discussion of the implications of being host to the Bush library. Several recent press reports have quoted Bush advisers as saying that SMU has the edge and that the library's affiliated think tank will encourage scholarship with a specific political agenda.

An article in the New York  Daily News -- much discussed on the SMU campus -- quotes a "Bush insider" as saying that the center would hire conservative scholars and "give them money to write papers and books favorable to the president's policies." Other articles have said that the center will be designed to spread the president's ideas about "compassionate conservatism."

Faculty critics say that although many of them disagree with Preside    nt Bush's policies, they would not object to a library-oriented archive and museum -- and they say that in discussions with professors, the university has discussed a vision for such a Bush center. But creating an academic center with a specific goal of boosting the Bush image and agenda strikes many professors as antithetical to a university's academic values.

A letter drafted in SMU's theology school that organizers said was attracting support from dozens of professors in less than 48 hours states that "there are two distinct, irreconcilable visions" being put forth for the library -- one for the campus and another for those being asked to contribute the hundreds of millions of dollars being raised for the project. "In the first vision, the library will be a neutral space. Using archived artifacts and documents from President Bush’s administration, scholars will do non-partisan, academic inquiry into his presidency. They will attempt objective, balanced assessment of the president’s thought, legacy and impact on our country and the world," says the letter.

"In the second vision, the library will be a partisan space. Going by various terms, such as conservative think tank, institute or policy center, the library will hire conservative scholars to pursue a partisan agenda in favor of the president’s policies and programs."

The letter doesn't call for the university to withdraw from the competition, but to have a full discussion of the library's goals -- with the clear implication that the university must agree to be host only to a library without an agenda. The Bush administration's record, the letter says, has seen "erosion of habeas corpus, denial of global warming, disrespect of international treaties, alienation of long-time U.S. allies, environmental predation, disregard for rights of gay persons, a pre-emptive war based on false premises, and other perceived disrespect for the created order and global community." Such issues, the letter says, "beg for the kind of space" where "historians and scholars can fairly assess the years of George Bush’s presidency and its forms of impact on our nation and the entire globe."

Presidential libraries -- which are built with private funds and then maintained by the federal government -- typically include both museums and archives, and frequently policy centers as well. Several are located at universities, and all attract researchers from all over the world. Many political scientists and historians pay little attention to the public exhibits, but they attract so many visitors that they make the libraries important economic institutions in the cities where they are located. In other cases, scholars have worried about the messages conveyed or potentially conveyed by their institutions' associations with presidential libraries.

In 1981, Duke University held negotiations to create a Nixon presidential library at the institution, where Nixon earned his law degree. Faculty objected -- particularly to the plans for a Nixon museum -- and amid the controversy, the library ended up in California. Democratic presidents' libraries can also be controversial. Emory University played up its association with President Carter and his library when he won the Nobel Peace Prize. But Kenneth W. Stein, who heads two Emory research programs on the Middle East and has also been involved with the Carter Library, severed all ties to the library this month in a dispute over the former president's new book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the debate at SMU, critics of the library plans are trying hard to frame the question as about academic standards for open research and debate, not about Bush-bashing. Susanne Johnson, an associate professor of Christian education, said that she would understand the value of an archive of the Bush administration, and sees how many SMU scholars would benefit from having such a collection on campus. But she said that the campus has been left "uninformed and naive" about President Bush's plans to create a policy center to promote his view of the world.

Johnson said that earlier drafts of the letter -- some of which have been publicized in Texas -- were more critical of President Bush. Organizers of the letter decided to keep the document more focused on the library's mission, she said, to build support and to emphasize possible erosion of academic values, not politics.

Despite those efforts, some critics say that Bush's record itself should be disqualifying for the university to want to be home to his papers. The United Methodist Reporter this month published a letter from two Methodist ministers, both SMU graduates, saying that if the university ends up as the home of the library, Methodist leaders should try to have the word "Methodist" removed from the university's name. The authors say that Bush's support for the use of torture is too inconsistent with Methodist teachings to justify keeping the name.

Some faculty members are not happy generally to be associated with the library of a president who -- his librarian wife notwithstanding -- isn't seen as a big fan of intellectual life. When the reported price tag of $500 million for the library was publicized last month, professors didn't like their institution being linked to the jokes being told. (Conan O’Brien: "President Bush is putting together his presidential library and apparently the library is going to cost $500 million, which will work out to $100 million a book.")

Johnson said that there are also real problems with the message the library could send. SMU historically has had a reputation for attracting wealthy students -- a reputation that the university has tried to fight in recent years by offering generous scholarship to low-income students. "I think it might be a setback in terms of trying to attract a different constituency among students," Johnson said. "Children of wealthy, leading Republicans in this state come to SMU, and then they are groomed here to become Republican leaders in all sectors of society. We shouldn't be in the business of just replicating Republicans."

Brad Cheves, vice president for external relations at SMU, said Sunday evening that officials couldn't comment on the faculty letter, when it hasn't been delivered and it is unclear how many people have signed. Likewise, he said he couldn't comment on the Daily News article because the university was communicating on library matters strictly with the selection committee working with President Bush.

However, Cheves stressed that "SMU has and continues to celebrate a diversity of thought."

Efforts to attract the Bush library have excited students, most of whom want SMU's bid to be accepted, said Taylor Russ, president of the student body. "We're very excited about it," Russ said, adding that the only thing he was anxious about was whether SMU would win.

Russ predicted that if SMU sets up the Bush library, "the buzz about the politics will pass." He said that he sees the project as "not about politics, but education."

"Students view the library as part of history and as a way for us to expand our education," he said. "It would bring prestige and politics to the campus."

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