Guest Blogger Reports on Faculty Senate Meeting

Thanks again to my colleague Steve Sverdlik from the Philosophy Department for this detailed and thoughtful report and analysis of yesterday’s Faculty Senate meeting.

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Report on the Special Faculty Senate Meeting of April 11, 2007

By Steve Sverdlik
SMU Philosophy Department

The Faculty Senate held a special session today devoted entirely to the consideration of four resolutions related to the Bush Library and Institute. Two overlapping resolutions passed by wide margins that called on the administration to limit the Bush Institute’s ability to use the name of Southern Methodist University. One broader resolution failed by a surprisingly close vote, and the final resolution that thanked many individuals for their contribution to the debate on campus was withdrawn after objections were made to it.

There was clearly a sense in the Senate that today would be the last opportunity for faculty to address the general issues raised by the Library complex. Two other special sessions of the Senate were devoted to it this spring, and it has been a topic at other meetings and Senate sessions. There has been no notice given that a formal announcement of an agreement with the Bush Foundation is imminent, but many faculty members expect one to be made by the summer. The tone of the meeting was generally cordial, but there were a few passionate speeches and biting personal remarks. Clearly some faculty members have been bruised by the debates. But some Senators spoke in praise of the discussions that have taken place.

The meeting took place in the Hughes-Trigg Theater. The attendance by Senators was very good. President Rhonda Blair was strict in keeping the meeting on schedule. There were about 10 other faculty members present. Provost Tunks was not. All votes were taken by a show of hands.

President Blair opened the meeting by noting that the comments on the Institute that were submitted by faculty members to the Senate would soon be generally available. The Senate first needed to procure the permission of the writers, which has been done. A motion was made to re-order the agenda, which passed.

The Senate proceeded to consider the first, and broadest, resolution. The preamble states, in part, that the positions and practices of the Bush Administration are widely considered to be antagonistic to freedom of expression, and that the Bush Foundation publicly acknowledges that the Institute will be a partisan entity. The resolution concludes with a call on President Turner to reject any contractual relationship with the Institute. This resolution largely resembles the earlier one on the Institute that failed on a tie vote on March 7. In the discussion that followed, some Senators objected to the assertions in the preamble about what is ‘widely considered’ to be true. These were said to be controversial. Another Senator objected that the resolution conflates criticism of the Bush Administration with criticism of the Institute. A Senator responded by saying that politics will be guiding the appointments made to the Institute, so it is fair to use political judgment in assessing it. Another said that faculty members would use their moral and political judgment in assessing issues like university investment policy, so using it here is not inappropriate. In order be accurate, the resolution was amended so as to use the language characterizing the Institute found in the Bush Foundation’s own call for proposals. A Senator argued that some proponents of the Institute on campus are clearly financial backers of the Republican Party. The sponsor closed the debate by saying that the Institute would hurt SMU’s reputation and that rejecting it would serve to publicize our commitment to open inquiry. The Senate rejected a call for written ballots. The tally on the amended resolution was, as I said, surprisingly close: 18 opposed; 15 in favor; 2 abstentions.

The second resolution to be considered focuses on the name of the Institute. It closes thus: “the Faculty Senate calls for President Turner to require that the Institute’s charter and name reflect its desired independence and separation from SMU, including foregoing the use of SMU’s name in any naming of the Institute.” Almost all the people who spoke about this resolution supported it. However one Senator objected that it exhibits a mistrust of SMU’s administration that is inappropriate, and “ties President Turner’s hands”. The sponsor said that he did not mistrust President Turner, and he lauded, in particular, the support President Turner gave to providing same sex benefits to employees. The issue, he said, is making clear what the faculty wants. Other Senators supported this view. It was also said that the resolution does not tie President Turner’s hands, since the Senate is only an advisory body. Another Senator spoke at length of the many courageous and upright positions President Turner has taken on issues that have come before the Board. The resolution passed by 25 to 6, with 3 abstentions.

The third resolution was rather similar to the second, and at one point a question was raised about why it was being considered after the other one had passed.  The parliamentarian acknowledged the similarity and said that this was a close question. He noted that in a regular form of procedure, the two resolutions would have been referred to a committee that would have reconciled them.

In any case, the debate proceeded on the third resolution. Eight Senators sponsored it. It was drafted to conclude thus: “the Faculty Senate urges the following: 1) that in the deliberations, the Institute be described in a manner reflecting its independence from SMU and 2) that the Institute clearly expresses that it welcomes opportunities for participation by those representing a variety of views on the topics that it may address.” One of the sponsors said that this resolution differs in “tone and temper” from the other, but largely overlaps with it. He noted six differences in the preamble and conclusion. He said that, for one thing, it is unnecessary to call on President Turner to ‘require’ something of the Bush Foundation. One Senator pointed out that the sponsor’s interpretation of the second concluding clause did not seem to match what it was literally saying. Another questioned some of the sponsor’s claims about what had happened when other universities had considered some Presidential libraries in the past. Another sponsoring Senator then sharply attacked these two Senators for nit-picking and poisoning the atmosphere of the meeting with dogmatic assertions. President Blair accepted a call from the floor to require Senators to address the chair, so as to avoid ad hominem attacks. An amendment was proposed to modify the concluding clauses. Among other things it added a third clause re-affirming the previous actions of the Senate pertaining to the Library and Institute. A vote was then taken on the amended resolution. It passed 25 to 6, with 4 abstentions.

At 4:30 the Senate turned to a final resolution. It has a long preamble describing the many activities and discussions concerning the Bush Library complex that have occurred on campus since December, and concludes by expressing thanks to the various people involved. It was sponsored by two Senators. The debate over this apparently bland resolution was quite intense. One Senator objected to it on the grounds that the resolution is one-sided in the people and groups it singles out for mention. He said that the preamble is not an objective history of the debate. He particularly objected to the inclusion of the Bush Library Blog which, he said, had belittled President Blair and the Executive Committee of the Senate. He proposed an amendment that removed mention of all individuals and groups, leaving a resolution that gives a generic thanks to everyone who participated in the recent discussions. One of the sponsors responded sharply to the suggestion that there is any distortion in the description of the activities and discussions, although she said that she welcomed any additions to the preamble that others cared to make. But she opposed any amendment that reduced the resolution to a generic expression of gratitude. The Senate passed the proposed amendment, 18 to 13. One of the two sponsors then asked to withdraw the resolution. Van Kemper ruled that once a resolution is amended it is no longer under the exclusive control of its sponsor. She then asked for a vote to withdraw it. The motion to withdraw passed 20 to 11, with 3 abstentions. The Senate then adjourned at 5 PM.

Analysis. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I urged a number of Senators to sponsor a resolution restricting the use of SMU’s name. So I was pleased by the fact that this matter was positively resolved today. I would have voted for either of the proposed resolutions. I think that the use of our name is an issue of principle: an Institute that is not under our control and subject to our procedures of hiring and promotion should not be allowed to use any name that suggests it is a part of a respected university. The Senate affirmed (twice!) by a margin of 4 to 1 that it accepts this principle.

If we assume that the Senate has now concluded its deliberations on the Bush Library complex, we can try to take stock of its stance with regard to this project. We have no way of knowing what the faculty of SMU in general thinks about it, since no referendum was ever conducted. But it is reasonable to suppose that the Senate represents the thinking of the entire faculty. The Senate has accepted the idea of having the Bush Library, Museum and Institute come to SMU. It has therefore accepted the most controversial component of the package: an independent think tank answering only to the Bush Foundation, to be located on SMU’s campus. But it has also passed three resolutions on the Institute. These concern the nature of any joint (or ‘concurrent’) appointments at the Institute and SMU; the commingling of funds for such positions at SMU; and the use of the SMU name. (The Senate also passed a resolution calling for the rescission of President Bush’s Executive Order 13233. This pertains to the Library, not the Institute.) The vote today on the first resolution indicates that support for accepting the Institute is hardly overwhelming. 18 out of 35 Senators voted against it, which is to say, supported accepting the Institute. This is 51%. But we should all now accept that this is the majority view.

There are various reasons for supporting the Institute. Undoubtedly many people accept the view of President Turner and Provost Tunks: that it will bring some interesting people to campus and will at least eventually be an intellectually respectable enterprise. And the argument that rejecting the Institute will mean losing the whole complex has carried great weight. It is hard to believe that SMU would have accepted the Institute had it been the only thing offered to us. Some of us have wondered whether the claim that it is a package deal is really true, or simply a bargaining ploy. We will never know. The criticisms of the Institute-that its partisan or ideological basis is in conflict with the values of a research university; that it will hurt the reputation of this university; that the Bush Foundation will have a beachhead from which to exert control over SMU, and so on-have been given a fair hearing and embodied in Senate resolutions. President Turner and the Board of Trustees now must insure that the final agreement reached with the Bush Foundation respects the serious concerns expressed by the faculty. Today knowledgeable Senators repeatedly expressed confidence in President Turner’s character and effectiveness. We will be studying the results of his negotiations with interest.

Like the sponsors of the last resolution, I find today an opportune moment to reflect on the discussions and debates of the last four months. It has been an exciting time here-probably the most exciting in the last 25 years. The debates have been vigorous, and not completely courteous-which is not surprising. But a remarkably large segment of the faculty has spoken up thoughtfully and earnestly. I have learned a lot about politics, the University, academic values, and even my own character by taking part in this discussion. Looking back now, we can all see that serious mistakes were made by not informing the faculty earlier about the Bush complex negotiations. And the discussions in the Senate and elsewhere were not always structured so as to facilitate reasonable and informed debate. In pondering the significance of this, we should remember these points: the Senate is basically a volunteer organization run each year by a new set of amateur politicians. With no real warning, it seems, Rhonda Blair and the Executive Committee were called on to manage the discussion of what often seemed like a crisis. At the end of the day, I too am thankful that so many good people—on the Senate and off, opposed to the Institute and in favor—rose to the occasion and helped us all think through what it means to uphold the values of a research university.

One Response to Guest Blogger Reports on Faculty Senate Meeting

  1. [...] recently, and my sense is that all of the on-campus debate about this has played out — see Steve Sverdlik’s report on the Faculty Senate meeting this week.  But there are a few developments of note:  The author [...]

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