When George W Bush and a small group of close political allies selected Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas as their preferred site for his future presidential library and institute, it seemed a straightforward choice.
After all, the university was established in 1911 by the United Methodist denomination of which the president is a member, it is the alma mater of his wife Laura, who now sits on the board of trustees – and the campus abuts the Highland Park church, where the couple are still registered as worshippers.
But even here, in the heart of Texan Bush territory, the decision has provoked outrage. The university president, Gerald Turner, called a special meeting of the academic body last week to defuse the row, but dissidents remain strongly opposed to plans to host a partisan, Bush political institute, where conservative scholars will promote the president’s policies and burnish his reputation.
Their campaign spread beyond the campus on Thursday when a group of Methodist ministers launched a nationwide petition against the proposal, citing the war in Iraq and the treatment of Guantánamo Bay detainees as reasons why SMU should not be associated with the Bush legacy. The university is non-sectarian, but maintains a strong Wesleyan Methodist tradition, which has fuelled criticisms on campus.
Among the most vocal critics is Susanne Johnson, an associate professor of theology who sent a protest letter signed by 68 faculty members to the trustees.
“I am willing to accept a non-partisan library of presidential papers and a museum, but a Bush institute is unacceptable and goes against SMU’s core principles of academic freedom, open inquiry and promoting the United Methodist heritage,” she said.
The university is playing down the row, saying that only a minority of its 609-strong faculty share Prof Johnson’s view. “We respect our friends’ strongly held views and are delighted that they feel free to express them,” said Brad Cheves, the vice-president for development. “The debate is evidence of SMU’s healthy tradition of academic freedom, and the presence of the Bush library and institute would not compromise those principles.”
Mr Bush’s approval rating in his adopted state has slipped markedly, as it has across the US, hitting a low of 38 per cent in Texas last month. Until September 2005, his approval figures consistently exceeded disapproval ratings.