This guest blog entry is written by Professor Andrew Graybill of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Graybill’s comments take on particular importance in light of the repeated insistence by SMU’s administration that the Bush Complex (library, museum, institute) will raise the university’s stature within higher education.
As someone with very fond feelings towards SMU, I feel compelled to comment on the debate about bringing the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Institute to the university.
I spent the 2004-05 academic year at SMU as a research fellow at the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies, which was a thoroughly wonderful experience. The fellowship provided time and support (intellectual, financial, and otherwise) for me to revise my doctoral dissertation for publication as a book. But I also had the opportunity to observe up close what makes SMU so special, something that I – even as a native-born Texan – had never realized.
For one thing, it’s a lovely place to go to work each day, and the campus truly inspires, what with its beautiful, manicured grounds and impressive buildings (I felt smarter just for having an office in Dallas Hall). For another, SMU has amazing resources, like the DeGolyer Library, and also its many centers and institutes, including of course the Clements Center. But most of all I was struck by the quality of the faculty, especially in Dedman College, which is where I spent most of my time. In fact, I believe that the history department belongs in any conversation about the best such collections of scholars at any college or university in the country, and even when losing luminaries – William B. Taylor to Stanford, Peter Onuf to Virginia – the department has brought in eminently worthy successors, like Peter Bakewell and Edward Countryman.
So with all this in mind, I often found myself wondering why SMU wasn’t better. This, of course, does not refer exclusively or even primarily to its modest ranking in US News & World Report (though how it plods along in the low 60s among research universities baffles me, if only because of its enormous endowment). Rather, I refer to the general lack of oomph or ambition I sensed to push SMU into the upper tier of the nation’s best universities. Why can’t it compete with Duke or Vanderbilt for preeminence in the South, or even Rice for supremacy in Texas?
Those questions are best debated elsewhere, but I think that there are some people in the SMU community who see the Bush Library & Institute as the solution to this dilemma, a ticket to rapidly improving the University. I strongly disagree, for three reasons.
First, and as others have pointed out, SMU is just too small to comfortably absorb such a complex. With only 11,000 students, it doesn’t have nearly the population or even the physical plant of, say, UT-Austin, which is five times larger and thus much less likely to be overwhelmed by the establishment of a presidential library and museum (to say nothing of a partisan think tank) in its midst. Indeed, the LBJ Library is just another square in UT’s enormous patchwork quilt, not the centerpiece. Moreover, SMU simply doesn’t have the national and international stature of a place like Stanford, whose reputation serves as a bulwark against the too-close association of that university with the Hoover Institute. I fear that SMU, on the other hand, would become synonymous with the Bush Library & Institute.
Second, the overtly partisan nature of the Institute would likely drive away some current faculty and certainly inhibit the recruitment of others. Dallas, though an exciting metropolis with much to offer, is already something of a tough sell to prospective faculty with affinities that draw them more naturally to the East or West coasts, or to other cities that seem to offer a wider range of political views. Adding a nakedly partisan think tank to SMU will only confirm the suspicions of others that Dallas more broadly, and SMU in particular, is committed to only one way of viewing the world.
Finally, the emphasis of George W. Bush’s administration on secrecy and obfuscation – with the most relevant example being Executive Order 13233 – undermines the very spirit of inquiry that universities like SMU profess to hold dear. Constructing a complex that is dedicated not to studying his presidency and its significance but rather to presenting a one-sided and highly partisan view of it will do incalculable damage to SMU’s reputation, driving it backward instead of pushing it forward. And this, I suspect, runs counter to what all in the University community – regardless of their feelings about the Library and Institute – hope for SMU.
Andrew R. Graybill