March 21, 2007
Recently, a group of faculty circulated an open letter/petition regarding the proposed George W. Bush Library, Museum, and Institute. The letter categorically rejects the policy institute, and asks for your signature. Unfortunately, both the open letter itself and the email introducing it contain a number of misrepresentations, unverifiable claims, important omissions, and unwarranted assumptions. Thus, we would ask our colleagues to consider very carefully the impact of signing a letter that could adversely affect the University’s ability to take advantage of a tremendous and unique opportunity.
The most important issues concern the alleged character of the proposed policy institute. While we can anticipate that the institute will have an ideological focus, we must be mindful of several points. First, the Bush Foundation has said that the institute will focus on policy issues of concern to President Bush, many of which (immigration reform, faith-based charitable initiatives, free trade, etc.) are not distinctively conservative. In that respect, it will be similar to the Carter Center of Emory University, which focuses on policy issues (e.g. global democracy, electoral fairness and transparency) of interest to President Carter. Of course, realistically, we should expect that most fellows of the institute, and most of their policy prescriptions, would be conservative in one sense or another. However, a general philosophical orientation or distinctive worldview does not imply incompatibility with a university’s mission, especially in a unit that would neither be hiring any faculty nor granting any degrees. For example, the Hoover Institution, widely regarded as a right-leaning policy institute, existed for decades at Stanford outside of the university administration’s formal control. During that time, Hoover fellows (including Milton Friedman, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Gary Becker, and Condoleezza Rice) produced hundreds of books, articles, and policy reports that contributed meaningfully to discussion and debate both on campus and in policy circles at large. Moreover, we would submit that “academic freedom, open inquiry, and scholarly integrity” survived intact at Stanford. Indeed, to suggest that open inquiry and academic freedom would be put at risk not only for SMU but for all academic institutions by the presence of an autonomous policy institute is wildly implausible.
Far from being a danger to the university’s mission, the proposed institute should be seen as a potential boon to intellectual life on campus and to pedagogy. The institute will attract nationally and internationally prominent scholars and analysts, whose presence would facilitate debates, symposia, and public lectures, many of which would almost certainly feature bipartisan participation. Moreover, the potential for classroom visits and other student access to institute fellows would be a tremendous asset to our teaching mission, particularly in fields like political science, history, and economics. A cooperative relationship with the institute would position SMU to take maximum advantage of its human and material resources in the service of our teaching and research mission-subject, of course, to President Turner’s repeated assurances that any teaching role would come only at the invitation of the relevant SMU department.
Finally, the demands of the open letter are both impracticable and insulting to President Turner and the university trustees. It does not give them “solid grounds” on which to do anything; rather, it gives the appearance of a lack of confidence in the university leadership. How do the authors know that “President Turner has made only passing reference to the institute” during his conversations with Don Evans, when, indeed, the discussions are still in progress? We expect that the President and trustees are doing their jobs by forcefully representing the university’s interest in these negotiations; nothing in their tenure gives us any reason to doubt this. It does no good to try to tie their hands by making unenforceable demands, such as seeking to bar members of the SMU board from serving on the institute board, prohibiting SMU from selling or leasing an adjacent parcel of land to the institute (raising the problematic question of “How close is too close?”), or seeking to legally constrain how the Bush Foundation will “interpret” the institute. We are confident that, given the choice, the President and trustees would respectfully decline the “help” that this open letter claims to provide. The letter simply re-hashes the concerns of some faculty about which President Turner is already well aware, and seeks to circumvent the duly constituted authority of the Faculty Senate, in which a resolution expressing these sentiments has already failed. All voices in this debate have received a full hearing, both on campus and in the media (a process which has been constructive in many ways). It is time to let our university leadership do their work in the negotiations. We would urge our colleagues not to add their support to the misguided effort that the open letter represents.
J. Matthew Wilson
Associate Professor of Political Science
Associate Professor of Political Science
Dennis S. Ippolito
Eugene McElvaney Professor of Political Science
David J. Weber
Dedman Professor of History