Chronicle of Higher Ed Focuses on Institute As Faculty Senate Votes Loom

This week’s issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a long and thoughtful piece about the Bush complex debate, framing it as “the latest in a delicate dance between U.S. presidents and the universities that house their papers” and discussing earlier libraries, including the scuttled deal between the Reagan library and Stanford.  The Institute receives the lion’s share of attention.  The reporter, David Glenn, interviewed numerous SMU faculty members with different perspectives, but ended up drawing heavily on yours truly as a critical voice and my political scientist colleague Jim Hollifield as a supportive one.  (I’ve suggested to Jim that we go on the road and make millions with a kind of academic equivalent to “Dueling Banjos.”)

I’ll offer a bit more of a summary than normal, since the Chronicle restricts on-line access to its subscribers.

Glenn identifies the proposed arrangement between SMU and the Institute as “unique in the world of university-affiliated presidential libraries. There are think tanks and research centers associated with the Johnson, Carter, and George H.W. Bush libraries, but all of those are governed to one degree or another by their host universities.”  He quotes my argument that “[w]hat’s being contemplated now is actually the worst of both worlds . . . You’d have something that is embedded in the university to the extent that they’re talking about joint appointments … and so in that sense, it’s a part of who you are as a university. And yet in a fundamental sense, it’s not, because it doesn’t play by your rules. It reports to the Bush foundation, and it exists to push the political and ideological vision of George W. Bush.” 

Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley chimes in with his own doubts about the Institute, noting that “these things can start to overwhelm the library, to become the engine of the library.  The think tanks and public-policy centers become a way to spin the legacy of the former president.”  Charles Palm, former director of the Hoover Institute, is surprisingly sympathetic to SMU faculty wariness of the Institute and expresses his view that the Reagan people “acted legitimately” when they decided not to place their Institute at Stanford after faculty opposition.

On the other hand, James Rutherford, Dean of the Clinton School of Public Service at Arkansas, indicates his belief that the library and museum will be a boon to university life, and Betty Sue Flowers, director of the LBJ library, cites its presence at a university as one reason its records have been opened so comparatively fast (the same, alas, is not true of the George H.W. Bush library, at least not yet).  So there’s plenty to mull over here.

The last section of the article closes with a brief look at the controversies surrounding Jimmy Carter and his center at Emory since the publication of his book about Palestine and Israel.  One Emory professor unhappy with the university’s relationship with Carter’s speech offers the following gem — “At least Carter has a high IQ . .  .What if Bush decideds to write a book about evolution ten years from now?”

My hope is that this article is widely read by SMU’s faculty and that it helps prompt the Faculty Senate to act in a decisive way, refusing to be brushed off by SMU’s administration.  This Wednesday the Senate will be considering two resolutions, one imposing many limits on the joint or concurrent appointment of Bush Fellows to the SMU faculty, and the other calling for a wholesale dissociation of SMU from the Institute.  This is likely to be the last chance for the Faculty Senate to go on record before a final deal is announced.

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