Last weekend while at the ever-scintillating meeting of the Organization of American Historians I ran into a few friends in administrative positions at research libraries. The Bush people, they told me, have been scoping out research facilities, taking a look at how institutions try to set themselves up to house both archival records open to a wide range of researchers and provide a productive working environment for fellows. The person leading this effort was nobody other than Karl Rove, the President’s chief political strategist, and — whether you like him or not — undeniably one of the great political geniuses of American history. Rove is personally going around to these libraries, meeting with their directors and checking out their facilities. According to one colleague, he seems to know exactly what the square footage of the building will be and where it will be located on campus.
The idea that somebody as high-up in the Bush administration as he is would actually do this took me by surprise. It suggests that Bush, Rove, and company really do see their complex as a top priority. Upon further reflection, though, this is consistent with the administration’s explicit invocations of its place in history — Bush, like Harry Truman, may be unpopular, his spoksemen tell us, but his heroic struggle against terrorism will be vindicated by history. It’s also consistent with the clear effort to conceal the most damaging information about the administration, whether by using private email accounts for conducting business that should be covered by the Presidential Records Act, or by ensuring through Executive Order 13233 that George W. Bush and his heirs will be able to deny access to pretty much any records that they want.
An important backdrop to all of this is the Bush administration’s continued political collapse, which amazingly enough keeps getting worse. My sense is that this collapse makes the library-museum-institute complex all the more valuable to the Bush people: especially after the crushing defeat in the last Congressional election, the complex may be all that they will have left to leverage to secure their place in history. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rove’s days as a top political strategist are over, so perhaps a position as head of the Bush Institute would be attractive to him in a way that it wouldn’t have been earlier in his career.
All of this ought to be more reason for SMU’s faculty leadership to make sure that it asserts itself to protect SMU from being even more publicly identified with the Bush legacy. The debate on campus over the Bush complex, which has appropriately centered on the Institute, has been a godsend in this regard. At least within academic circles, if my and several colleagues’ experiences at professional conferences are any indication, SMU is known not only as the presumed site of the Bush complex, but also for the debate that has erupted on campus over the library-museum-institute. Yet this debate has happened in spite of, not because of, the university’s administration and much of its faculty leadership.
At the start of the semester, there was a widespread recognition on campus that there had to be some kind of substantive discussion about the coming of the library-museum-institute. An open faculty meeting held before the start of classes attracted nearly a third of the faculty, and the set of issues generated in that discussion were forwarded to President Turner for his response. He responded directly and in some detail a few weeks later, making a presentation and taking questions from the faculty at an open meeting for (according to several of my colleagues) the first time in his tenure as President. (That fact alone is remarkable). This meeting also provided indications that the administration wanted the debate to end. Administrators also spoke openly of their hostility toward the press, something that nearly every reporter who has spoken with me has asked me about or commented on, despite the fact that to my eyes at least the press coverage has been a huge boon to SMU. (The whole point of landing the Bush complex, according to its backers, is to raise the profile of SMU, making this animus all the more bizarre.) Faculty Senate President Rhonda Blair took this a step further in what in retrospect strikes me as the start of a concerted effort to clamp down on the debate: she lambasted the faculty for its general apathy in university governance (probably true, of SMU as most universities), understated the attendance at the first faculty meeting on the Bush complex by half, and launched an ad hominem attack on unnamed critics of the Bush complex (clearly Professors Susanne Johnson and Bill McElvaney, though she didn’t name them) for “playing to the media at the eleventh hour.”
Since then, Blair and the administration have done everything they can to bring the debate to an end, even as undeniable signs of the depth of faculty wariness about the Institute have remained in public view. (My understanding of their reasoning is that continued discord over the Bush complex — or even just over the Institute, since the Bush people have insisted that it’s a package deal — might prompt the Bush people to withdraw the offer, thereby depriving SMU of the benefits of the complex and bringing it great embarrassment.) In response to a petition signed by about a thid of the Faculty, the Faculty Senate declined to hold a faculty referendum on the advisability of the institute, in part because of a series of almost farcically convoluted procedural objections. In this discussion, many Senators spoke of the need for the Senate, as the properly-elected representative body of the Faculty, to conduct its own survey or poll of the faculty. No action was taken. After President Turner essentially ignored a mild resolution requesting clarification on a number of points about the complex, particularly the Institute, the Senate passed one resolution against the mingling of funds for concurrent appointment and deadlocked on another calling for the Institute to be brought under standard academic hiring procedures or to be organizationally and physically dissociated entirely from the campus. The deadlock on the second resolution was particularly remarkable given that the vote followed dire warnings from Provost Tom Tunks, Faculty Senate President Rhonda Blair, and several senators that the passage of the measure might do grave harm to SMU’s future by driving the Bush people to another university and crippling our next capital campaign.
One apparent result of the tie on the second measure was that the Senate belatedly moved to some kind of assessment of faculty opinion, by sending an email asking for input on the Bush complex. Seventy-something professors wrote back, with about twenty nine expressing support for the complex (either in its entirety or out of conviction that the advantages of the library and museum outweigh the disadvantages of the institute) and more than forty expressing different degrees of reservation about the institute. The comments, which preserve the anonymity of their authors, have been circulated to the faculty senate, but Senate President Rhonda Blair has declined to circulate them to the faculty as a whole. She and the administration apparently believe that further discussion of the Bush complex, particularly if it were covered by the press, is not in SMU’s best interest.
In the meantime, elections for some faculty positions have been held. The next president-elect has expressed his wariness of the institute and voted for the second Senate resolution described above, and I was elected to one of the Faculty Senate’s at-large positions, over much more senior candidates with much longer track records of university service. I take these results as reflections of the continued wariness about the Institute by the preponderance of SMU’s faculty. If the Bush complex does come to SMU, and if the Institute ends up fulfilling the fears of its detractors, the debates over the Bush complex may go on for years, and with faculty leadership more willing to hold lengthy discussion and debate.