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.
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