Dallas Resident Offers Perspective on Bush Library, Institute from Outside Academia

Since much of the discussion about the Bush Complex revolves around the question if its impact on SMU’s public standing, I turned to a friend who is not an academic — I do have a few, but only a few — for his perspective. He’s exactly the kind of person who an institution like SMU would want to think highly of it — educated, thoughtful, with children who will be in college in the not-too-distant future. I flinched when I read his description of how he perceives SMU, but he’s far from the only person with this view.

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Professor Johnson asked me to comment on the Bush Library debate from the perspective of an outsider.

I have been a Dallas area resident (on and off) since 1978.

Politically, I consider myself to have strong Libertarian shading. I am an ex -“big tent” Republican who left when the party turned into something more like a tent revival. I am disgusted and disappointed at the performance and competence of Mr. Bush and his administration. But my views on the Bush Library are not the reflection of any rabid anti-Bush or anti-Republican sentiment.

My fiancée is a historian (not at SMU). Since I met her, it has been interesting to learn about academia. As a “civilian”, there is so much about the inner workings of a university that seem counter-intuitive, and even bizarre. But I have gained enough knowledge to understand the process going on at SMU is important for the Dallas and SMU, given the big money, prestige and internal/external politics involved.

As for the library itself, a few points. First, it is going to be at SMU, no matter what. The people that are behind this get what they want, especially in Dallas. However, the debate about the Library is creating activism and passion on both sides and that can only be a good. As John Raisian, the Director of the Hoover Institution, observes, “ideas have consequences, and a free flow of competing ideas leads to an evolution of policy consequences affecting the well-being of society. The Hoover Institution endeavors to be a preeminent contributor of ideas having positive consequences.”

If the Bush library can be a place where there is a free flow of ideas, then I am for it. Thus far, I have not been convinced this is the case. In large part this is because of Executive Order 13233, which disgusts me. I feel guilty as a citizen for not knowing about it before the Bush library debate erupted. The lack of access that historians and other researchers will have to records is very troubling. The philosophical issue disturbs me more. Mr. Bush’s records do not personally belong to him! There are plenty of laws to protect national security already on the books, so that argument is ridiculous. 13233 is a blatant attempt to hide something, and if a Democrat had done it, the right wingers would be going insane. Of all the issues brought up by the debate over the Library, this is the one that resonates the most for me.

As for the Bush Institute, it is OK with me so long as the people involved on both sides (the academics at SMU and the people participating in the Institute) are satisfied with relationship between the two entities. I understand why SMU professors don’t want the Institute to represent its activities as being part of SMU. I get the feeling that the idea of joint appointments of faculty to the Institute and SMU is cute way of installing professors who represent what Bush and his cronies believe to be something in short supply – right-wing professors. But really, does the general public even understand what goes on at a Presidential Library, and why they should think it is important? I don’t believe this idea has been explored well enough in any media.

The ongoing discussion also raises some interesting points about SMU. I realized years ago that Dallas is missing the influence a university provides. Not necessarily a GREAT University, but ANY University. Great cities have a diversity of thought and people. A university injects this into a city’s social fabric. SMU has never provided this, and Dallas has suffered for it.

I see SMU as a school where affluent families send their kids when they can’t get into more academically prestigious universities. SMU students are expected to find a suitable mate as they drink their way through four or five years of fraternity and sorority parties. It doesn’t seem to be academically rigorous, or produce quality graduates who go on to make a big impact outside of Dallas.

To the outsider, it is a pretty campus in a ritzy area with lots of students in expensive clothes and cars. The topic of SMU almost never comes up in conversation with anyone I know outside of academia. It is as if, outside of the bubble of the Park Cities, SMU does not even exist. It has no impact on my perception of Dallas as a city or a region because it is seemingly invisible.

The Bush library, if it is constructed correctly, could have the effect of raising SMU’s profile as a university. However, if this process is just another big money Dallas railroad job, and the Institute and Library are not a serious academic and public policy resources for scholars (both academic and non-academic), then the entire thing becomes a farce and a candy coated revisionist Bush museum. This would be the worst of all possible outcomes for both Dallas and SMU.

The debate about the Bush library, and the opportunity to meet several faculty members, has raised my estimation of SMU as an academic institution. There are people who are passionate, and SMU is not just a monolithic institution churning out young affluent Republicans to populate the exurbs.

So – from an outsider’s view (though I am slightly biased because of my connection to a historian), I see an opportunity for the prestige of SMU and Dallas to be greatly enhanced, ONLY if the Library and Institute are set up in a way that maintains the credibility of both institutions.

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