Universities, Think Tanks, and the Advancement of Knowledge

by Steve Sverdlik

Daily Campus, January 31, 2007
Everyone on campus is now aware that many faculty members, students and alumni are concerned about certain features of the proposed Bush Presidential Library complex at SMU. Much of the discussion by the faculty has come to focus on the Bush Institute, as distinct from the library and its associated museum. The concerns are valid: a think tank like the Bush Institute will trade on our reputation, but not abide by our standards. We have reason to worry, therefore, that it will tarnish our reputation.

The current plan is to have the Bush Institute form an association with SMU. At one time, SMU proposed to establish a Bush School of Public Affairs that would be part of our university and under the authority of our chief academic officer, the Provost. But the current plan envisions an institute, not a school. The Bush Institute may describe itself as being “of” SMU, or “at” SMU, or something else. But whatever the terminology, the Institute will in truth be a separate entity, having its own board of trustees, endowment, director and staff. Most importantly, it will have its own set of guidelines for its activities. While there may be a representative of SMU on its board, its operations will not in any way be overseen or controlled by our university or our Provost.

The Institute will be some sort of conservative ‘think tank’. The model of all think tanks is the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., which traces its origins back to 1916. The goal of Brookings is to change society in an enlightened way. Brookings and other think tanks employ scholars and former government officials who produce books and articles, put together conferences, and other programs, and place their research on the web.

Nowadays Brookings is considered to support policies that are slightly to the left of center of American politics. Over the years, many other think tanks, more or less closely modeled on Brookings, have been established. Generally they are free-standing institutions. They do not have students or grant degrees. They usually focus on a few issues like taxation or the environment, and do not employ scholars from the wide range of disciplines found at a university. Conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute have been established as well. Generally think tanks are ‘non-partisan’ for tax purposes. But this only means that they cannot endorse political candidates. Often their political orientation is obvious.

Now you can begin to see the strange sort of marriage that the Bush Institute is proposing to SMU. Universities produce two products, well-educated students and high-quality research. Think tanks largely produce one product, research. But consider how a university and a think tank go about producing research. A serious university such as SMU bases its evaluation of the research of a faculty member only on its quality. The political orientation of the professor, or his or her work, has no role in this process. Think tanks operate differently. Almost all think tanks require that research fit into their general political orientation. So think tanks generally have a criterion for hiring staff that universities do not: political orientation. SMU only considers intellectual achievement in evaluating faculty research. Just imagine an ad for a job in the political science department that began, “Candidates must be committed to establishing socialized health care and support the Democratic Party. A Ph.D. is required.” Such job ads are in effect published by think tanks. And we have no guarantee that the intellectual standards of the Bush Institute will be anywhere close to ours.
The programs and conferences that the Bush Institute sponsors, the speakers it invites, and the research it produces will all be supportive of one political outlook. Some respond by saying that SMU faculty members are always free to criticize any errors or distortions made by Institute staff. But, as Alexis McCrossen of the History Department noted in a Senate meeting with President Turner, our faculty members have classes to teach, unlike Institute members, and need to do their own research. Nor will we necessarily have resources comparable to the Bush Institute for counter-conferences and programs.

Finally, the trustees of SMU have not announced, as far as I know, any plans to establish a think tank on the other side of the political spectrum to respond to the Bush Institute. One worry I have, therefore, is that such a well-financed institute will inevitably prod some of our first-rate scholars into diverting their energies into ‘truth squads’. And our reputation for impartial research will be at risk.

Hence, I take issue with my colleague, David Weber. In his Opinion Piece in the Daily Campus of January 24, he welcomes the Bush Institute. David also asserts that “a large majority of professors in the humanities and social sciences” at SMU “are on the liberal side of the political spectrum”. He believes they fear the intellectual challenges that a conservative institute would pose.

I find his argument to be unconvincing. Speculation about the political leanings of our faculty is completely beside the point. Over the last hundred years, the great research universities have evolved a number of devices to protect academic freedom and thereby foster the advancement of knowledge. One of the greatest of these devices is precisely the evaluation of faculty research only on the basis of its quality.

It is reasonable to think that the organizers of the Bush Institute wish to tie its name to that of SMU precisely because they know that we adhere to this standard. I am troubled to think that they do not wish their own institute to do so. I can see how they would benefit by associating their Institute with the prestige of our research university. But I do not see how we would benefit, overall, by associating with them, on the terms now proposed. In fact, I can see how it would harm us.

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