Prof. Susanne Johnson’s “Background Rationale” on the Institute Petition

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

Open Letter regarding the Bush Institute:

Background Rationale

Susanne Johnson, Ph.D.

Southern Methodist University

We all aspire, no doubt, to the selfsame academic values and goals named by Professor Wilson et al, such as seeking a “boon to intellectual life on campus”. We do not need the Bush partisan institute, however, in order to achieve them. Indeed, presidential libraries and museums predicate themselves on such values. In the 2004 report “Presidential Libraries: A Background Paper,” directed to key stakeholders in presidential libraries, experts underscore this precise point**.

Professor Wilson’s line of thought tends to render the library and museum as extraneous. That is, he and his colleagues take the academic benefits and intellectual riches that libraries and museums are designed to contribute and assign them over, part and parcel, to the institute. But institutes are a recent invention, and not well tested. Let the library and museum do what they are designed to do. Their riches benefit everybody. The partisan agenda of the institute benefits a narrower, select audience.

Professor Wilson and his colleagues say the institute will attract nationally and internationally prominent scholars and analysts who will facilitate debates, symposia, and public lectures. This is precisely what libraries and museums do; this has been their intent from the outset.

The National Archives & Records Administration (NARA), as a matter of fact, expects that the library and museum–rather than the institute per se-will not only attract nationally and internationally prominent scholars and analysts, but will also develop and offer education programs, such as curriculum materials for teachers and students, along with special events and other programs, including public lectures, panels, debates, symposia, book signings, conferences, consultations, celebrations, receptions, recognitions, awards, and a wide variety of other opportunities for the university, and open to the public (2004, p. 9). In recent years, presidential libraries and museums have developed sophisticated educational programs for teachers and students, such as The White House Decision Center, an experiential learning center at the Truman Library (2004, p. 22). Without doubt, the Bush Library and Museum will be similarly creative.

Whether the Bush Foundation builds its institute on- or off-campus, NARA expects it will contribute financially to the library and museum. While NARA oversees the daily operation of the library, it fully expects the Bush Foundation to be the main provider of resources for library programs that benefit the university and the public. Unless the Bush Foundation breaks rank with “best practices”, it will provide generous fellowships and grants “for scholarly research and writing drawing on the holdings of the presidential library” (2004, p. 25).

In other words, even with no institute on-campus, visiting scholars, public officials, analysts, researchers-in-residence, and recipients of fellowships and grants to study library archives will enrich and enliven academic discourse and debate at SMU through the books, articles, pamphlets, dissertations, presentations, panels, lectures, organized debates, classroom visits, and informal conversations proffered by their library research. Presidential libraries, along with their museums, are dynamic, active hubs of lively debate and discourse, for the university, the academy, and the public–local, national, and international.

Through the continuous flow of programs proffered by the library and museum, SMU will bring itself into the national and international spotlight, and enhance its scholarly reputation and stature in the eyes of the Academy and wider world.

A growing number of scholars of stature, however, are expressing reservations about the institute. To date, leading national experts on presidential libraries and museums have publicly commented that we are choosing the worst of all worlds in our present arrangements for the institute. By dove-tailing the institute into the library and museum, SMU will undermine the precise things it seeks through building the presidential library in the first place. Why allow the left hand to take away what the right hand has obtained?

The library and museum programs will be a treasure trove that dramatically enhance resources available to our students and faculty in the social sciences and other academic areas, and that stimulate collegial and professional interaction on campus and beyond.

In building the institute off-campus, we forfeit nothing that we academically value and cherish, while at the same time we avoid certain risks. The presidential library and museum indeed present “a tremendous and unique opportunity”-one that we best not jeopardize with potential drawbacks posed by an unprecedented, politically partisan institute folded in. With the institute on campus, the first thing that visitors will see when they arrive on campus is the enormous library complex labeled “The George W. Bush Presidential Library, Museum, and Institute”. There will be no turning back.

Within all the various venues of the Academy, fellows at the partisan institute will credential themselves as scholars-in-residence at the Bush Institute of Southern Methodist University, without having been vetted through regular academic procedures. The assurance that “joint appointees” will be hired through regular channels does not cancel out the fact that dozens and dozens of partisan fellows will not be! While they may bring excellent credentials and be strong scholars, this does not overcome the partisan bias on which basis they will be hired. On the SMU website, President Turner explicitly acknowledges that the institute’s approach clearly falls outside of University standards and practices.

Putting the institute aside, the real academic boon to our classrooms, our colleagues, our pedagogy, and our students, particularly in fields like political science, history, and economics, will be the prestigious visiting national and international scholars, the researchers-in-residence, and the wide array of grant and fellowship recipients affiliated with the Bush Presidential Library, and the experts hired by the Museum to design curricular programs for young people, and a vast array of other programs for the university and the public.

Because the findings of researchers, analysts, and scholars will be generated from within the context of completely open inquiry and academic freedom in their library research–members of the student body, the faculty, and the public will benefit from a wide spectrum of political and historical perspectives, all the way from ultra-conservative, to moderate, to liberal. Within the constraints imposed by the institute, unfortunately, this will not be possible. Instead of being informed from standpoints all along a wide spectrum, from conservative to liberal, the partisan institute will give us views from one end of it only.

The fact that scholars-in-residence at the presidential library will include conservatives, moderates, and liberals means that SMU can expect even richer public panels, debates, dialogues, and so forth, than could be afforded by the institute. Such intellectual diversity is profoundly important to sustaining the status of a university in the eyes of academe.

SMU resources are best invested in a library and museum, rather than the institute that is unable to provide, within its own sphere, the intellectual diversity of political and historical thought that we so deeply value. The undesirable alternative is to rely on SMU faculty members to balance potentially one-sided thought propagated by institute fellows. But why should faculty members be expected to dance to tunes called by the institute through the years? Institute agenda could very well detract from faculty research agenda that would be more far profitable to the university and the academy. To rely on and expect SMU faculty members to rebut or balance an intentionally skewed scholarly perspective promoted by a politically partisan institute is nothing short of an exercise in “un-freedom”, as Schubert Ogden would say.

Our academic mission will best be served by capitalizing on the built-in strengths of the library and museum rather than expending effort in seeking to overcome potential drawbacks of a politically partisan institute.

Even so, nothing would prevent SMU professors from tapping into the human and material resources that the institute might potentially offer.

On account of NARA policies and procedures, even with an off-campus institute, the Bush Foundation is obliged to pour resources into the library and museum–though NARA oversees them. NARA permits and encourages much money to be poured directly into the library and museum, and requires only a portion of it to be channeled through NARA auspices (p. 24). Hence, with an off-campus institute, we will lose no monies. We will lose no visitors or sightseers. What’s there to “look at” in an institute anyway? And it’s just as easy to partake of offerings from an off-campus institute as one that’s on-campus, whether one is a student, faculty member, administrator, or member of the public. Some foundations, in fact, build and retain public spaces within the library as a place to sponsor their own events (Appendix, 2004).

Professor Wilson and his colleagues liken the Bush institute to the Carter Center in Atlanta. This is an excellent idea. The mission of the Carter Center explicitly states it is committed to non-partisan scholarship, and the Center is not located on the campus of Emory University. They also mention the Hoover Institution. But the well-known, tumultuous history of clashes with its parent, Stanford University, makes it dubious as a model for us. Partly on account of this, when the Reagan library site selection committee proposed an all-in-one package including a partisan institute, the faculty said yes to the library and museum and no to the institute. The committee immediately withdrew the institute, and this did not cause Stanford to lose the library. Oh that SMU could muster similar courage–it would get similar results. [Library negotiations eventually were called off, but for reasons unrelated to this.]

In his contention that “a general philosophical orientation or distinctive worldview does not imply incompatibility with a university’s mission” Professor Wilson is correct; no one suggests otherwise. Every single one of us faculty members has a “general philosophical orientation” and “distinctive worldview” of some sort. The only persons who do not are dead. These notions are too vague or at best too universal to dispute.

More to the point, we question the fact that a major criterion for hiring institute scholars will be their explicit partisanship to the political thought of President Bush. This includes an understanding that they are hired precisely to enunciate and propagate this specific political agenda through their work [President Turner explicitly acknowledges this fact on the SMU website] including their research, publications, speaking engagements, lectureships, classroom visits, and student interactions. Such an expectation places limits on completely free and open inquiry.

An off-campus site does not preclude “a cooperative relationship” between the institute and SMU and, in fact, the Open Letter recommends a number of informal liaisons of the sort suggested in Professor Wilson’s email. Free of awkward (and potentially ineffectual) administrative arrangements with the institute, SMU will be postured to take advantage of its human and material resources, on top of the rich resources of the library and museum. SMU departments would remain free to hire institute Fellows as adjuncts, and SMU faculty members would be free to apply for grants and fellowships offered by the library or by the institute respectively. Scholars-in-residence at the Library, funded by grants and fellowships, would present an excellent spectrum of scholars to hire as adjuncts, given that they would not have been hand-picked on account of their partisanship.

Some institute supporters have suggested that institute boards created for oversight or advising, including the board of the Bush Foundation, should have University representatives on them “so that a University point of view will be available, unless it is inappropriate for some legal reason” (Gerald Turner, SMU website). In all due respect, the availability of a “University point of view”, whatever that means, is virtually bankrupt unless it is backed up by a “University point of power”.

That is, interests of the University do not mean very much if there is no corresponding power and no corresponding way to enforce or ensure that those interests are respected whenever the best interests of the University are being violated. Without substantial and real power, a “representative” on a board is merely token in nature, and we all know this to be the case. SMU has the right and responsibility to retain the balance of power, but the Bush Foundation wants to be completely free of administrative constraints. An off-campus institute is the logical outcome of the freedom the Bush committee seeks for its partisan institute.

At any rate, it is important to keep in mind that SMU’s articles of incorporation preclude selling or leasing church-owned land for anything other than strictly educational or religious purposes. This legally precludes a politically partisan institute. This fact places constraints as to where, on the immediate campus, a partisan institute can be built in the first place. We cannot afford to wade into murky waters of potential litigation (there have been enough lawsuits filed on this matter) by breaking our laws of incorporation.

One place where authors of the email are dead wrong is their contention that the Open Letter “seeks to circumvent the duly constituted authority of the Faculty Senate.” Likely, they are simply unaware of the following fact. When the Faculty Senate received, considered, amended, and then rejected a resolution calling for a “referendum” on the Bush institute, a Senator with expertise in Robert’s Rules pointed out that representative bodies do not instigate referendums. These come not from the “top down”, he says, but rather from the “bottom up”. Grassroots people initiate a referendum. He suggested that any informal group of faculty members may initiate a referendum on the institute-implying the “blessing” of the Faculty Senate in so doing. It is in this spirit, therefore, that the Open Letter is being circulated.

On a related note. Grassroots organizing (of which the Open Letter is an expression) outside so-called “proper channels” [harking back to Provost Tunk’s comments at a January faculty meeting] is a staple and cornerstone of a free and democratic society, and does not deserve pot shots, but rather praise. Such organizing would never and could never happen in unfree societies, especially within educational institutions (which function as tools of oppressive governments). If one is against such activities outside “proper channels”, then what does that suggest?

In another instance, Professor Wilson & colleagues are not so much wrong as they seem to be proponents of a model of governance and leadership different from that which many of us faculty members advocate. Their contentions imply a model that tends towards being top-down, hands-off, and non-participatory. They seem to equate asking for ongoing voice, participation, transparency, and mutual collaboration with a “lack of confidence in the university leadership”. This signals that these authors operate from within a different paradigm or approach to desirable university leadership than do many SMU colleagues. Lack of ongoing voice and participation dissipates confidence and trust, while ongoing collaboration, communication, and participation build and sustain trust. (Here, of course, we are talking in terms of relative degree.)

Moreover, if the President and the Trustees do their jobs “by forcefully representing the university’s interests in these negotiations” then, similarly, faculty members also do their jobs “by forcefully representing the university’s [academic] interests in these negotiations”. And unless the authors are soothsayers, they do not know if it’s true that “all voices in this debate have received a full hearing.” Likely not. Many legitimate stakeholders were never consulted in the first place, such as alums and emeritus faculty members.

In a separate email Rhonda Blair, the Faculty Senate President asserts, “characterizations of the Institute at this time are necessarily hypothetical because planning regarding the Institute is still in process.”

It would be imprudent for faculty members to assent to something so fluid, unfixed, and vague that about all one can say for sure is that planning “is still in process”. The comment, however, may be a rhetorical device to deflect valid criticism of what we actually do know to be the case about the institute. At any rate, Professor Blair and Professor Wilson cannot have it both ways. That is, if we do not know enough to do a critique of the institute, then we certainly do not know enough to buy into Professor Wilson’s at-length valorization of it. If we take Professor Blair’s assertion at face value then this renders Professor Wilson’s email null and void.

Therefore, it’s best for us to stick to what does, in fact, have an historically proven track record as academically beneficial to universities: presidential libraries and museums.

Besides, the official Call for Proposals (CFP), including the cover letter by Marvin Bush, along with public comments made by President Turner (cf. SMU website, faculty speeches, many newspaper articles), and by President Bush himself (CFP, press releases, media statements) all testify to the politically partisan intentions for the institute, despite demurrals to the contrary by Professor Wilson. There is more than ample documented, public evidence of the overriding political purposes planned for the institute.

To reiterate a point made by Schubert Ogden, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology and one of the greatest intellectual giants who’s ever taught at SMU. There is a gulf fixed between the library and the institute, and “the gulf is rightly said to be great, because it is nothing less than the gulf between critical reflection and uncritical rationalization-between institutional autonomy and academic freedom…and institutional subservience and academic bondage….” (SMU Daily Campus, March 2, 2007).

In comments made to the Dallas Morning News, Professor Charles Curran says that he does not support the partisan institute and he asserts that the better strategy is for SMU to distance itself from it. He also hopes that SMU will not allow its name to be attached to the institute. These requests are foundational to the Open Letter that is circulating.

On a final note, there’s a matter with considerable bearing on the future wellbeing of SMU, but which, to date, has received virtually no attention. It relates to President Bush’s faith-based work–one of three partisan areas his institute will address. To find theological grounds for certain policy initiatives-faith-based and otherwise–President Bush turns to the founders and leaders of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), in particular, Father John Richard Neuhaus.

There’s no reason to assume that George Bush will discontinue his close consultatory relationship with the IRD once he leaves the White House. On faith-based issues, he could very well accord IRD leaders an official or semi-official voice in the policy institute. In the least, IRD participants and leaders no doubt will insert themselves into institute proceedings, and sponsor applicants for research fellowships in order to play a role in major shaping the direction and ethos of the institute.

Here’s the rub. A forthcoming video exposes the decades-long divisive assaults on the United Methodist Church (UMC) in which the IRD-through its “Methodist Action Committee” zealously engages itself. Consider this analogy. When individuals marry, each partner “inherits” the extended family of the other. When SMU hires a new faculty member, administrator, institute director, and so on, in similar fashion the University inherits the network or “family” of professional connections the individual brings. SMU will inherit the IRD’s connection to and influence on President Bush.

If the IRD were to insinuate itself into the work of the on-campus partisan institute, which is highly likely, Perkins School of Theology would suffer more from the IRD’s mischief and nuisance than any other department–on account of its close connection with the United Methodist Church. Given the nature of the IRD’s agenda, on a regular basis it will also impugn SMU’s overall reputation and integrity. On its website are articles that question the integrity of United Methodist-related universities and their “liberal” professors.

The IRD assumes that the University-indeed the entire United Methodist denomination–has fallen away from the “true” United Methodist heritage. To put it another way, the IRD would be delighted to see the University controlled by the Methodists in the same fashion that the Southern Baptists control Baylor–but not the United Methodist denomination itself, but rather the conservative, evangelical “renewal” faction within it. Sometimes the IRD is upfront and honest about its agenda; sometimes not.

If Mark Tooley, director of the Methodist Action Committee of the IRD, sees this “background paper” as he saw the Daily Campus op ed about the IRD (he keeps tabs on us), he will deny this analysis, in the same fashion that he denies claims of the documentary and all other publications that do a critique and analysis of his work. Suffice it to point out that on his website already are articles putting SMU in the worst light possible, such as “Southern Methodist University Grad Hails Spiritual Beauty of Men Having Sex with Horses in Highly Acclaimed New Film,” January 24, 2007. Another posting reads “National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church Want Colleges to be ‘Safe’ Place to Explore Homosexuality. What ever happened to teaching Christian values?”, March 16, 2006.

A university cannot flourish without mutual accountability, which includes not only individual faculty members one to another, but also departments one to another. It seems appropriate and fitting for all SMU departments to consider the potentially undue negative fallout that might accrue to Perkins and to other specific departments through President Bush’s ongoing alliance with the IRD. For example, in his February 2, 2007 op ed in the Daily Campus, Dr. Campbell Read, SMU professor emeritus of statistical science, asserts that Fellows of the institute likely will exert an unacceptable influence on students and faculty members in the natural sciences.

Professor Read points out that some members of the Union of Concerned Scientists, including 20 Nobel Laureates, charged the Bush administration with manipulating “the process through which science enters into its decisions.” If this top-tier group truly has demonstrated that the Bush administration endorses “junk science,” on what grounds could we assume that this trend would not perpetuate itself in the ongoing work of the institute, especially given that the institute will be devoted to continuing the policy initiatives and political thought begun by President Bush during his White House years.

A commendable course of action is to grant the Bush Foundation the complete freedom it requests for the institute, and to build the institute off-campus. After several years, questions about official affiliation with SMU could be opened. Clearly, it is too soon for SMU to make a permanent, unalterable commitment to an on-campus institute.

**Larry Hacker, “Presidential Libraries: A Background Paper on their Museums and their Public Programs” (2004). Available free on-line at

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