Justin Elliott

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Five months after Southern Methodist University in Dallas entered into exclusive negotiations with the George W. Bush Presidential Library selection committee, faculty opponents of the plan to build a complex honoring Bush at SMU are still fighting. But their focus has shifted to preserving SMU’s independence from the proposed Bush policy institute–a conservative think tank modeled on the Hoover Institution at Stanford–rather than blocking the entire complex.

Critics are afraid that a highly partisan Bush institute would be too closely affiliated with SMU and out of sync with the principles of academic freedom and open inquiry. They also worry that a policy institute that will draw from a colossal endowment (reportedly $500 million) could dominate SMU’s public image and sully its reputation, especially given the Bush administration’s plummeting popularity.

Some faculty members don’t like the idea of an institute that would exist for the express purpose of burnishing Bush’s legacy, especially if institute scholars would be up for joint appointments in university departments.

“I am very concerned about the partisan nature of the institute,” SMU Spanish professor George Henson told Campus Progress. “Its mission is going to be to carry on the policy goals of the administration. That would have a very far-reaching impact on the university”

In a minor victory for critics of the plan, the Faculty Senate last month passed two non-binding resolutions calling for independence between the university and the institute and specifically asking that SMU’s name not be associated with the Bush think tank.

“To be honest, I’m really proud of the faculty. It’s not very easy having a progressive voice on a very conservative campus,” said Henson, who writes a liberal column for the Daily Campus, SMU’s student newspaper.

Everyone agrees SMU is a right-leaning campus. But on the library question, student opinion has been defined by apathy and disengagement more than pro- or anti-Bush sentiment.

The Young Conservatives of Texas, a group to the right of the College Republicans, tabled in favor of the Bush complex in front of SMU’s student center for one day in February. But that has been the sum total of student activism on the Bush library issue, Daily Campus Editor-in-Chief Mark Norris, a junior, told Campus Progress.

Even after the library debate surfaced in the national media and dominated the op-ed and letters pages of the Daily Campus for months, fewer than 30 students (out of a student body of 11,000) showed up at an open forum on the issue in March. While Norris noted that the event was poorly scheduled–in the thick of midterm period–he was not surprised by the low turnout.

“People don’t really debate or protest anything at SMU. It’s just not like that,”Norris said.

Most of the columns and letters in the Daily Campus have come from faculty members or alums. The Student Senate passed a resolution supporting the Bush library and institute, citing “the towering prestige and immense merits that accrue to universities with presidential libraries” But the resolution did not engage with the substance of critics’ arguments about academic freedom and SMU’s independence.

Opinions vary on why there has been so little student engagement on such a crucial issue, even as fierce debate persists among the faculty. Taylor Russ, an SMU senior who supports the Bush project and is president of the student body, agreed there has been “a consistent amount of apathy” But he told Campus Progress there may be a silent majority of students who support the Bush complex.

“The general attitude is: ‘We want the library, but I’m not so interested that I’m going to jump into a debate,'” Russ said.

Henson, the Spanish professor, sees a more disturbing trend. “SMU students are too worried about where they’re going to go on spring break,” he said. “I’ve taught college for 20 years and I’ve seen a decline overall in the interest of students about the things going on around them”

Perhaps faculty critics of the Bush project also bear some of the blame for not communicating the seriousness of their concerns to students. “There hasn’t been a concerted effort to reach out to students,” Henson said. “They’re too apathetic”

There is also a growing fatalism among the professors, like Henson, who oppose the institute altogether or want stronger measures to preserve SMU’s independence.

The university’s administration holds all the decision-making power and it has been bending over backwards to accommodate the Bush library selection committee. It has issued cheery press releases about the project and, in a rejoinder to an anti-library petition, asserted that research at the Bush complex would “reflect the United Methodist heritage in higher education”

That petition was created in January by Rev. Andrew Weaver, a United Methodist minister and graduate of SMU’s theology school, to oppose the project on the grounds that the Bush administration violated Methodist teachings by condoning torture and starting a
pre-emptive war. More than a dozen Methodist bishops and thousands of others signed. But the petition was effectively rejected when the Methodist council that must approve land use at SMU voted in favor of the Bush project in March.

Ominously for critics of the proposed complex, SMU’s board of trustees has more than its share of “Bush Pioneers,” those who gave $100,000 or more to the President’s campaigns. Hunt Oil chief executive officer Ray Hunt, for example, is a Bush Pioneer and SMU trustee who quietly gave the university $35 million in 2005 to buy real estate that may become the site of the library. (First Lady Laura Bush, class of ’68, also sits on the board of trustees but has recused herself from the library discussions.)

SMU President R. Gerald Turner has responded to critics by arguing that the Bush library would attract researchers of all political stripes to SMU and that the institute would increase the intellectual vitality of the campus, regardless of politics.

But if a Bush think tank at SMU is truly modeled on the Hoover Institution, it would have fellows like Newt Gingrich and The Enemy At Home-author Dinesh D’Souza–not exactly sober academics.

Nevertheless, Russ, the student body president, said he isn’t concerned about an institute devoted to burnishing Bush’s legacy calling SMU home.

“The Bush administration is taking a ton of criticism right now, but 10 years down the line will SMU’s name be smeared because we have Bush’s library here? I don’t think so,” he said.

A recent post on the Bush Library Blog, a popular site created by a history professor as a clearinghouse of information about the proposed complex, noted that the Faculty Senate is likely done looking at the issue. Combined with the lack of student interest, this means the Bush library debate is finally coming to an end.

Henson ruefully predicts that SMU’s administration will announce a final deal with the Bush library selection committee in May, when exams are over and the Daily Campus has stopped publication.

“There will be weeks of summer for people to get used to the idea,” he said. “When school starts again in August they’ll deal with any fallout then”

The final announcement might be made when school is out, but the finished product will be impossible to ignore. Barring an unexpected reversal, future generations of SMU students will have to get used to the oxymoronic idea of a “George W. Bush library”