Old Thorn, New Wrinkles

March 25, 2007

Thanks to my colleague Kathleen Wellman for calling my attention to two stories in yesterday’s Dallas Morning News.  The first reveals that University Park lawyer Gary Vodicka has succeeded in having his long-running legal battle against SMU’s buyout and demolition of the University Gardens apartment/condo complex shifted back into state court.  SMU spokespeople characterize this as a stalling tactic.  This lawsuit has always struck me as a nuisance matter, with no real principle at stake, but I suppose that it may be playing an important role in the dealings between SMU and the Bush people if the article’s assertion that “according to some, the process has held up the Bush administration’s selection of a library site” is correct. 

I’m surprised that an announcement of a final deal has not been struck — it’s been three months since the announcement that SMU was the final finalist.  Maybe it’s Vodicka’s lawsuit, maybe there’s another hitch, or maybe there’s no hitch at all.  Still, if the Bush people were going to pull out I’d think they’d line up another arrangement beforehand, which would surely take some time.

The second article, “SMU Profs Protest Intelligent Design Conference,” is much more tied to the campus debate over the proposed Bush Institute.  (The institute has attracted much criticism because it is designed to advance the political agenda of the Bush administration and as far as we know will be located on campus and have the potential for joint appointments with SMU departments, but will report to its own board and hire fellows at the discretion of its director rather through a standard academic hiring procedure.) 

Here’s the substance of the dispute that the article covers:

Science professors upset about a presentation on “Intelligent Design” fired blistering letters to the administration, asking that the event be shut down.

The “Darwin vs. Design” conference, co-sponsored by the SMU law school’s Christian Legal Society, will say that a designer with the power to shape the cosmos is the best explanation for aspects of life and the universe. The event is produced by the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based organization that says it has scientific evidence for its claims.

The anthropology department at SMU begged to differ:

“These are conferences of and for believers and their sympathetic recruits,” said the letter sent to administrators by the department. “They have no place on an academic campus with their polemics hidden behind a deceptive mask.”

Similar letters were sent by the biology and geology departments.

What does this have to with the Bush Institute?  Here are the connections that the reporter and the Dean of Dedman College (SMU’s core liberal arts unit) make:

The size of the dispute reflects two ongoing battles about academic freedom and responsibility.

One is local: The concern that some SMU professors have that the proposed Bush library and an accompanying policy institute would create the impression that the school tilts politically toward the positions of the current administration.

The other is national and local: The struggle between those who say the material world couldn’t get this way on it’s [sic] own versus those who say that there’s no scientific justification to invoke the supernatural as an explanation.

Many SMU science professors say they are worried that merely allowing “Darwin vs. Design” on campus could give the public impression that Intelligent Design has support from scientists at the school.

The Bush library debate has increased the size of the response to the Intelligent Design conference, some university officials said.

“In the broader context of the Bush library debate, this is causing enormous discomfort,” said Caroline Brettell, interim dean of the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences and an anthropologist.

This is a remarkable statement for a Dean to make, and whatever one thinks of this conference, gives some indication of just how widespread are the concerns over SMU’s coziness and public association with George W. Bush and his circles throughout SMU’s faculty, and (though generally behind closed doors) within its administration as well.  Some of the most influential people at SMU have expressed their concerns about the Institute, privately and publicly.  Whether they will have a bearing on a final agreement with the Bush people and whether they will shape the future relations of the university and Bush’s circles remain to be seen.