Report on Methodist Council Meeting

As reported in the media already, this afternoon the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church approved the SMU administration’s request for permission to lease SMU land for the library-museum-institute, by a margin of 10 to 4.  The vote marks a defeat for institute opponents and a continuation of the debate within larger SMU circles and the public more broadly.  About 30 audience members were present, in addition to five or six reporters.

The meeting’s setting was slightly surreal — a Holiday Inn near Love Field, with substantial internal construction and remodelling work going on.  The public phase of the meeting began at about noon with the introduction of SMU’s President R. Gerald Turner, who began his presentation only to be interrupted by technical difficulties with the Council members on speaker phone.  After about 10 minutes he began his presentation again.  It was a clear, matter-of-fact summary of SMU’s seeking a Presidential library, with an emphasis on the difficulty of competing with other schools, several of whom were offering much more land than SMU has available.  Turner referenced the “campus discussion,” much of which he labelled as “politically based,” and acknowledged the centrality of the Bush institute to the debate.  He acknowledged that the reporting structure of the Institute (i.e., not to the university president, but rather to the Bush foundation” is “unique,” but insisted that the institute’s programs would over time come to include people of a variety of political perspectives.  Turner surveyed the benefits of the complex — which he reiterated is being offered as a package deal — and described them as “tremendous assets,” particularly the research resources and the hundreds of thousands of annual visitors. 

Turner was followed by Rebekah Miles, an Associate Professor at Perkins Theological Seminary.  Miles offered as good a defense of the Bush complex as I’ve heard, characterizing it as “an extension and not a denial of this mission.”  Bill Lawrence, the Dean of Perkins, followed her, arguing the complex was “entirely consistent” with both educational and Wesleyan traditions.  The administration then closed, reserving some of its time for the end.  It seemed more concerned with the Methodist petition against the Bush complex than with the faculty critique of the institute. 

The chair of the meeting then turned the floor over to those wishing to speak against the resolution.  The ten people or so who signed this list agreed to yield their time to two faculty members, history professor Alexis McCrossen and Perkins professor emeritus Bill McElvaney.  McCrossen’s presentation was essentially a run-through of the powerpoint presentation that she made last week to the SMU Faculty Senate (click here to read).  This presentation places the institute in the context of American higher education, and differentiates it from its seeming predecessors, such as the Hoover Institution at Stanford.  McCrossen stressed the institute’s novelty, and emphasized that other universities in parallel situations had taken steps to bring such institutes under academic control and make them non- or bi-partisan.  She concluded by arguing that SMU should either follow this example with the Bush institute or not accept it as part of the package.

Bill McElvaney followed McCrossen.  He began by invoking his Methodist heritage and deep connections to SMU — a former faculty member, a holder of three SMU degrees, the son and parent of SMU alums, the son of a former chair of the SMU Board of Trustees.  McElvaney stressed that bringing the Bush complex to campus, particularly the institute, would radically change the university.  He spoke passionately of the disjunction between Methodist values and the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive warfare, which was condemned several years ago by United Methodist Bishops, and which would presumably be furthered by the Bush institute.  McElvaney closed (with frequent ringing of the phones in the room mean to connect absent council members to the proceedings) by responding the assertion that the Bush complex was a package deal, insisting that it was up to the Bush people to accommodate themselves to SMU, and not up to SMU to accommodate itself to the Bush people.  He was lightly applauded by the audience, the only such expression of sentiment.

Turner responded briefly with his remaining time, stressing that other universities had proposed institutes, that the debate would continue once the institute were brought to campus, and that over time the institute would come to represent different political perspectives. 

The members of the commission asked several questions.  When asked about the use of SMU’s name by the institute, Turner insisted that anybody claiming an affiliation with the school would need its approval.  Another member asked whether President Turner had discussed with the Bush people the possibility of bringing the institute under university control or pushing it off campus, as McCrossen’s presentation had suggested.  Turner indicated that he had discussed the matter with the chair of Bush’s library committee, who reiterated that the arrangement was a package deal.  After a few more questions, the meeting concluded and the council recessed to a closed executive session, announcing its vote later that afternoon.

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