Bush Library 2: The Price of Prestige


The controversy over the placement of Bush’s presidential library at Southern Methodist University continues. It may even have intensified a bit, and not without reason. While most of this is happening under the press’ radar (but then, one could legitimately wonder, what isn’t?), what I characterized as a “tempest…somewhat larger than a teapot but smaller than a breadbox” last week came within a single vote of becoming a full-blown hurricane.

The SMU Faculty Senate held a meeting on March 7 in which two resolutions were discussed, the most explosive of which ended in a tie vote (talk about drama). The first resolution concerned the question of who would pay for – and therefore control – the proposed institute’s “fellows”. Philosophy Prof Steven Sverdlik explains.

It concerned the financing of concurrent faculty appointments at SMU that involve fellows of the Bush Institute. The Senate has already seen a set of guidelines that are meant to govern the making of such appointments by SMU departments and schools. The purpose of the proposed resolution was to make sure that funds to pay for work at SMU come only from SMU and are under its control. (Otherwise there is a risk that Bush fellows will be subject to Bush Institute control while they work at SMU.) Provost Tunks praised the resolution as helpful in the way that it supplements the hiring guidelines. With a few minor amendments, the resolution passed almost unanimously.

This apparently means that the university will have control of any institute faculty that also work for SMU. That resolution was pretty standard stuff and the outcome was more or less a given. It was the second resolution that held the dynamite. It would have made SMU sever all ties with the library/think tank.

At 4:20, the Senate took up the resolution on severing relations with the Bush Institute. One of the Senators who introduced it made a PowerPoint presentation. She emphasized the following facts: the Institute will be governed entirely by the Bush Foundation; it will be partisan and ideological in its mission but will reside on SMU’s property and use its name. The plan for the Bush Institute is thus unprecedented for presidential libraries associated with institutions of higher learning. In some cases there are schools associated with the presidential libraries, but these are under the control of the universities. No entity associated with a presidential library is partisan.

This one will be. Sverdlik notes “that the Bush Foundation is framing the complex as a package deal in which the Institute must be included; severing the Institute would mean losing the Library and Museum.” The library/institute complex is meant to be partisan and anything that would prevent that use of it is a deal-breaker – an odd position for an educational institution to find itself in.

Even if you put aside the question of partisanship for the moment, there are still serious problems with the whole idea as the Bush people have proposed it.

The first is, of course, the issue of conflict with Methodist values. Rev Andrew Weaver, one of the leaders of the opposition, quoted Bishop C Joseph Sprague regarding this in comments to the first post.

Bishop…Sprague condemned the administration, stating that. “Bush violated United Methodist teachings when he initiated a pre-emptive, first- strike war, contrary to Just War criteria, when he pursued policies that reward the rich, while punishing the poor and he further sneered at church teaching by condoning the torture of prisoners. Add to these callous and arrogant acts the fact that he presided over more capital punishment executions (state-sanctioned murder is condemned by our church) than any governor in this nation’s history, and it becomes abundantly clear why a G.W. Bush Library should not be housed on United Methodist Church property. The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles call all United Methodists to social holiness. This petition reflects our church’s tradition that all United Methodists are to be held accountable for our personal and institutional behavior.”

I’m not Methodist but if I was I would consider that statement fairly conclusive. Every action mentioned by Bishop Sprague is a pretty serious violation of Methodist principles, making the placement of a Bush propaganda unit on the SMU campus somewhat akin to naming a law school after, say, John Mitchell or Ollie North – someone whose contempt for the law was manifest in the way they ignored it. At a minimum the irony and hypocrisy of such a thing would be painful. At a maximum, it would destroy forever the illusion that SMU was anything other than a prop for a right-wing activist training center. Institute of higher learning? Fugget about it.

Then there is the secrecy issue. In 2001, Bush signed Exec Order 13223 giving executors of a presidential library unprecedented power to prevent historians and researchers from accessing any ex-president’s records. In an editorial yesterday, the NYT condemned the Order and called for the Congress to pass Henry Waxman’s bill undoing it.

Mr. Bush’s decision effectively repealed the presumption of public availability enshrined in the Presidential Records Act of 1978, a post-Watergate reform that established that the treasure trove of historical material amassed by a president belongs to the American people.

In the place of these open government principles, Mr. Bush established cumbersome review procedures that give former presidents, and even their heirs, unprecedented authority to selectively withhold sensitive records indefinitely. The backlog of presidential document requests now extends to five years or longer, compared with 18 months in 2001, according to recent testimony in the House.

Bush is – and has been throughout his tenure – one of the most secretive presidents in history. His entire administration is shrouded in mystery, as we are learning now. Everything that has come out during the past few weeks, starting with the Libby trial, was hidden by the Bushies for years before Congress and the courts pulled some of it into the light, and scandals like Cheney’s energy “task force” are still secret.

The general consensus – almost certainly accurate – is that the NSL scandal, the Plame scandal, the corruption scandals, and the Prosecutor Purge are the tip of the iceberg. Bush – and everybody in his administration – has a lot to hide, and they’re quite successfully hiding it. Waiting in the wings are more executive orders to prevent his records from being scrutinized because of what he will undoubtedly call “national security concerns”. Before he leaves office, he could easily sign orders preventing anyone who disagrees with anything he’s done from examining any records at all. That’s been his MO for years.

A third difficulty is its effect on the school itself. As an unnamed poster on the Bush Library Blog put it:

We’re going to bring an institute to campus backed by major local powers, including the wealthiest and most influential of our board members, with an endowment of up to $500 million (according to press accounts, which is nearly half of SMU’s endowment), and bearing an incredibly high public profile, one much higher than SMU’s. The Bush people are going to eat us alive.

There’s one commentator who understands exactly who s/he’s dealing with.

The fourth reason is the probable negative effect of the complex on SMU’s resources.

[T]here are serious and under-explored opportunity costs for SMU. Our next capital campaign is supposed to be targeted at the faculty and the curriculum – more endowed chairs, more faculty positions (my department has lost several in the five years I’ve been here), more student scholarships. The hundreds of millions of dollars that will go to the library-museum-institute will derail our other goals.

All good reasons and some of them are compelling. But to my mind there’s another even stronger reason for SMU to dump the library: neoconservatism.

Why in gadsname would any university in the world want to be associated with a political philosophy that has proven itself to be both morally bankrupt and – more importantly, perhaps – spectacularly wrong about everything? It’s as if SMU was about to sponsor a multi-$$$million$$$ Flat-Earth Society Institute. The neocons in the Bush Administration have had 6 unrestricted years to put their fantastic ideas into practice and every single one of them, from their Mid-East policy to their tax policy to their Free Market philosophy to their imperialism, has been an unqualified and disastrous failure. Neoconservatism has proven to have no more relevance to the real world than Mary Poppins’ flying umbrella, and any college or university worth the name can kiss its reputation good-bye if it aligns itself with them. Why would anybody do that?

Only one reason, as it turns out: the supposed “prestige” of having a presidential library on campus. That and that alone is what the supporters’ arguments boil down to. Seems like an awful high price to pay for a cachet that will last about 15 mins before the inevitable ridicule begins.

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