Library, Institute Proponent Reflects on Debate, Future of SMU

April 29, 2007

Thanks to my colleague in Political Science, Matthew Wilson, for this thoughtful and reflective guest blog.  Wilson has been one of the most outspoken — and in my view, articulate and compelling — proponents of the Bush complex.  Here he turns his attention to what the Bush Library and Institute and the debate over it might mean for the future of SMU.

–Ben Johnson

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I’d like to thank Ben Johnson for inviting me to say a few words in this forum about our discussion and debate over the Bush Library complex. I welcome the opportunity to communicate with a group of readers who, in the main, do not share my position on this issue. Too often, because of our natural tendency to communicate disproportionately with those who share our own perspectives, we come to believe that our own stance is held by all reasonable/intelligent/moral people. When it comes to the complicated issue of SMU’s relationship with the proposed Bush Policy Institute, however, this is clearly not the case-for any side. Thoughtful and decent people, all of whom genuinely care about this university and its future, disagree about how we should regard the coming of the Institute.

I have made no secret of my own views on this score. In pieces in The Dallas Morning News and Congressional Quarterly Researcher, as well as in an open letter to my faculty colleagues, I have laid out my reasons for enthusiastically supporting SMU’s bid to host the Library, the Museum, and yes, even the Institute. I will not rehash those here-those who are interested can read these statements and evaluate them on their own merits. Instead, I will reinforce two key points: that our positions on the Bush Library complex should not be driven by political judgments of this administration, and that this discussion ties in with broader questions about what kind of institution SMU wants to be.

Opposition to the Bush complex seems to come in two basic varieties: narrowly tailored objections to the proposed structural and administrative relationship between SMU and the Bush Institute, and broad-based moral and/or ideological indictments of the Bush administration, often accompanied by expressions of revulsion at the prospect that SMU would host any facility associated with President Bush. The former I regard as legitimate concerns for us to work through together as a university community; the latter, whether merited or not, I see as irrelevant and unhelpful in this particular discussion. If the standard for hosting a presidential library is that the president in question must not have engaged in behaviors or promulgated policies that many find deeply immoral, then I would submit that no institution could ever accept one.   Richard Nixon initiated secret bombings of Laos and Cambodia, sought to undermine the integrity of the electoral process through the Watergate break-in, and would have been impeached had he not resigned. Bill Clinton twice vetoed bans on partial birth abortion, committed adultery in the Oval Office (literally), perjured himself while president, and was impeached. Lyndon Johnson misled the country about events in the Gulf of Tonkin to get authorization for a divisive war that dwarfs the scale of the Iraq conflict. Ronald Reagan initiated a massive defense buildup and cut taxes on the wealthy at the same time that he slashed many social programs.

I could go on and on about the actions and policies of former presidents that many would deem immoral, but the point is that I would have enthusiastically welcomed the library complexes of any of these presidents if they had wanted to locate on the SMU campus. Becoming the site for such a facility is not tantamount to endorsing any of the president’s specific ideas or behaviors. The University of Texas did not sanction the Vietnam War by accepting the LBJ museum and school, any more than Stanford assumed responsibility for the Great Depression by hosting the Hoover Institution. As hard as it may be for some, we must put aside sweeping judgments about whether the Bush presidency has been a “failure” and catalogs of the administration’s alleged misdeeds when it comes to deciding whether SMU should host the library complex. The record shows that it is the libraries and museums of our nation’s most controversial presidents that have attracted the greatest interest from scholars and visitors alike.

On the second point, the relationship between the library complex and SMU’s long-term trajectory, I believe that this university is potentially poised on the cusp, with apologies to Chairman Mao, of a “Great Leap Forward.” In a post below from April 15th, Ben rightly lauds the comments of one anonymous SMU faculty member who, rather than coming out clearly for or against the Bush Institute, stresses that the key question for our university’s future is what else we do. If our goal is to become a “first-class research university,” well known nationally as opposed to just regionally, then we must evaluate all of our collective decisions through this prism. Making this jump into the top tier of national universities will require principally two things (in addition to good university leadership and wise programmatic decisions): a significant pool of financial resources and increased institutional notoriety. The Bush Library complex will undoubtedly provide both-it will increase the pool of donors for whom SMU is on the radar screen (and, more to the point, not alienate the donor base that is already quite generous toward our institution), and dramatically expand the number of people, both inside and outside of academia, who are exposed to the university’s considerable attractions. The library, museum, and institute, and their associated programs, will create tremendous research synergies for many of our departments, especially in the social sciences. I have tremendous confidence that we as an institution can and will successfully manage the stresses that will inevitably come with a campus addition of this magnitude, and that we will not shrink from our first (and best) opportunity to take a bold and dramatic step forward in institutional growth.

As a final note, I should say that my confidence in our ability as a university to manage this transition (should it come to pass) has been bolstered by observing the discussion and debate on this campus over the last few months. The Faculty Senate (a body to which, perhaps ironically, Ben and I will both be inaugurated next week) has been very thoughtful and deliberate in its consideration of the many facets of the library complex proposal. More broadly, we as a community have engaged in a lively and vigorous exchange of ideas in open fora, campus publications, emails, external media outlets, and more informal one-on-one conversations. Most of this discussion has been both cordial and constructive; to be sure, a few voices have tended toward condemnation of those with opposing views (see the reference to Institute supporters, among the anonymous comments below, as “Scooter Libbys on our faculty”), but those have been remarkably limited in a discussion as momentous as this one. For good or for ill (or, more likely, some combination of both), a decision to host the Bush Library, Museum, and Institute would be one of the most significant events in this university’s history. No one on campus will be unaffected by it, positively and/or negatively. Even though it represents, in my view, a tremendous opportunity that we would be foolish to turn down, the details of the relationship still merit serious discussion and debate. I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to that debate here.

J. Matthew Wilson

Associate Professor of Political Science

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Dallas Blog: Another Side on Bush Institute

March 24, 2007

Another Side on Bush Institute
Carolyn Barta
Dallas Blog
March 21, 2007

The SMU faculty discussion over the institute that will accompany the Bush Presidential Library is turning into a “she said, he said” debate. The latest is a “Dear Colleague” letter today from several political science/history professors saying the open letter sent out by a faculty group Tuesday, asking that the institute be totally separated from SMU, contained misrepresentations, unverifiable claims, and unwarranted assumptions. The new letter presents arguments in support of the institute’s connection to SMU, asserting that it will be a boon to intellectual life at SMU.

Continued here.


Discussion Continues Spread into Media, Cyberspace

February 18, 2007

Things on campus seem much less intense now, probably because most discussions are now happening behind closed doors. Consider the last two Faculty Senate meetings — no announcements of the meetings were made to the faculty as a whole, no agendas distributed, no meeting place set, no announcements about the decisions issued, no copy of the resolutions passed provided. And this at what is clearly an important turning point in the history of SMU.

Nonetheless, people across the country and locally continue to take notice and weigh in on things. Nearly 1,000 United Methodists signed a petition calling for the Highland Park United Methodist Church, located right by SMU, to revoke George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s membership unless they “repent” of their violations of United Methodist teachings. I suppose this is the Methodist equivalent of excommunication.

Writing in a United Methodist publication, Perkins School of Theology faculty member acknowledged that the arguments against the Institute were stronger than those against the Library, but insisted that the Institute would still be good for SMU. Another commentator returned attention to the donor base for the library and to the question of what policy measures the Institute would advance. The Communist Party’s newspaper, The People’s Weekly World — whose influence, I suppose one could say, isn’t what it used to be — ran a thorough account of the debate written by a local party member. Should I be surprised that there are real live communists in Dallas — this is the city that the late Molly Ivins once quipped “would have rooted for Goliath.”

In a more humorous vein, Melinda Pillsbury-Foster penned an imaginative preview of what the library exhibit might look like — unlikely to change any minds on the subject, but a great piece of political satire.

And finally, Source Watch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, has established a page for the library.


Faculty Senate Presses SMU President on Executive Order

February 15, 2007

Today the Associated Press has a helpful report by Angela Brown on the February 14 Faculty Senate meeting. The Senate voted to endorse the SMU historians’ statement on Executive Order 13233, and added to that statement a request that SMU president R. Gerald Turner ask President Bush to rescind the order. In another measure, it also asked for responses from Turner and the board to a series of concerns focusing on the Bush Institute and joint (or, in the new politically correct terminology, “concurrent”) appointments.

This AP report raises two interesting issues. The first is how President Turner will respond to the request re Executive Order 13233. As the report says,

Brad Cheves, SMU’s vice president for external affairs and development, said Turner would consider the resolutions carefully. Cheves said he did not know if Turner would ask Bush to rescind the order because the SMU president has not yet seen the resolution.

I’m betting that Turner won’t ask Bush to revoke the order, though maybe I understimate him. If he doesn’t, or doesn’t reply to the Faculty Senate, will the Senate try to press this issue?

The second issue relates to statements by Andy Hemming, head of SMU’s chapter of Young Conservatives of Texas (who wrote a guest blog several weeks ago). Hemming is ready to rumble with the faculty opponents of the Institute:

But student Andy Hemming said faculty who oppose the library project have changed their positions, first saying they oppose the library, then only the institute and now the executive order.

“The student body as a whole feels ignored; the faculty is going off on their own,” Hemming said Wednesday. “I think their (professors’) problem is with George Bush.”

(For the record, I think the Library is acceptable, the Institute as constituted is dangerous, and the executive order is is unacceptable). But more to the point, does this mean that Hemming likes the Library and Institute because he likes Bush? If so, who is being partisan here? Would he welcome the establishment of an ideologically driven think tank by advocates of affirmative action, with concurrent appointments in SMU departments, backed by tens of millions of dollars, that reports to a board of directors of Clinton family members and friends? Especially if the Clintons already had friends and family members on the SMU Board of Trustees?


Debate Rolls on and on . . .

February 7, 2007

Today the Dallas Morning News reported on the University Park hearing. The Daily Campus was dominated by Library-Institute matters. One of my senior colleagues in the history department mounted a vigorous defense of the Institute , concuding that “SMU will not be judged or tarnished by a Bush think tank unless its faculty abandons research for politics and leaves the think tank to play the only research game on the Hilltop. Two students editorialized on behalf of the Library and Institute. A writer identifying herself as a granddaughter, niece and cousin of Methodist ministers urged SMU President R. Gerald Turner not to accept the Library, “[i]n the name of Methodism and in the name of Christianity.” The paper also ran its own story on the University Park hearing.

Beyond SMU and Dallas, the debate was all over the blogosphere. The Daily Kos weighed in on the matter. Another blog, entitled “How the Neocons Stole Freedom,” contrasted the two Methodist petition campaigns. An editorialist from the Institute for Religion and Democracy vigorously backed the Library and Institute, concluding that the debate demonstrates “how the religious and academic left, which are too often unwilling to engage in robust debate, simply want to eradicate any possibility of dissent.”


Guest Blogger Reports on University Park Meeting

February 6, 2007

A good friend sends me this report of the University Park City Council meeting on Tuesday evening:

At the meeting of the University Park city council this evening, the sale of the city property called Potomac Park to SMU was the first item on the agenda. SMU President Turner addressed the council and crowded room, noting that SMU had wished to acquire the property since the 1990s, before there were any considerations of a Presidential Library on the location. He pointed out that University Park residents have long used SMU’s campus as a park for walking with children and pets, and assured them that the new facilities would be maintained at the previous high level. (Later, a local resident responded that while UP treated the campus like a park, SMU had used her street as a parking lot since she bought her home in the 1970s).

Then the “pros” and the “antis” were each given 30 minutes to address the meeting, with 3 minutes for each person to make his or her statement. All those who planned to speak were requested to refrain from making any political statements and to focus on the sale of the land. Those in favor of the proposition generally appeared to feel that Potomac Park did not function as a park, would be no great loss, and that SMU was a good neighbor and they trusted President Turner and the city council to make the proper decision.

Those who spoke in opposition identified a number of reasons to reject the proposal, including the preservation of green space and mature trees, the loss of a buffer against noise, and concerns about increased traffic in the area. But the dominant theme was terrorism — an incredibly ironic comment on the Bush administration’s constant ratcheting up of anxiety and fear of attack by scary brown Muslim people over the past six years. A trial lawyer and former Green Beret warned that those who favored the proposal were “naïve” and that an aerial attack was a genuine threat; then what would they all do, after a Saudi flew a plane into the building? Several others voiced similar worries about terrorist attacks and the dangers posed to their families, drawing bursts of applause until the council requested such demonstrations to cease. It is not clear to what extent their fears are shared by others in the community, but the proposal goes to University Park voters in May.


Dallas Morning News on Secrecy, Institute

February 5, 2007

This morning I had more Bush Library-Institute with breakfast. The Dallas Morning News ran a front-page story entitled “SMU is Pressed to Fight Secrecy” written by a reporter from its Washington, D.C. Bureau. It is the most thorough treatment of Presidential secrecy and the unprecedented control that George W. Bush has given to former Presidents to appear in the mass media. It underscores the radicalism of this administration, and the ferocious response that these measures have provoked from professional associations of archivists, scientists, and historians. Some of these groups are weighing in on the SMU discussion in particular, as the first two sentences of the article make clear:

Archivists and historians are urging Southern Methodist University to reject the Bush presidential library unless the administration reverses an executive order that gives former presidents and their heirs the right to keep White House papers secret in perpetuity.

“If the Bush folks are going to play games with the records, no self-respecting academic institution should cooperate,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

Continued here

The Bush Library-Institute also dominates the Morning News’ editorial page. SMU political scientist Matthew Wilson makes a strong argument for the Bush Institute, which, as he notes, is now the real focus of faculty debate. Benjamin Hufbauer, a professor at the University of Louisville who wrote Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory, argues that the Bush plans for the Library-Museum-Institute represent “a stark break with the way past presidential libraries and their associated institutions at universities have worked.” He urges the revocation of Executive Order 13233, increased funding for the National Archives, and greater input of historians and political scientists in presidential museum exhibits. Hufbaeur concludes with the observation that “[a]s currently proposed, the Bush Library and Institute would be by far the most ideologically driven presidential center ever built.”

What SMU could do about Executive Order 13233 and most faculty think about the Institute remain open questions. We may find out the answer to the second one, if the SMU Faculty Senate decides in this Wednesday’s meeting to hold a faculty referendum on the Institute as it is currently designed.