By now you’ve probably heard about the debate in Dallas. Southern Methodist University is the proposed site for the George W. Bush Presidential Library. The site would host a museum, the administration’s archives, and a public policy institute. The initial announcement in the fall garnered protest from faculty members, students, alumni, and United Methodist clergy and church members. The university is moving forward with its negotiations with the president’s site selection committee, and it is expected to formally accept soon. The question raised here is, should SMU accept, and why?
The university has offered several reasons for their decision to pursue hosting the George W. Bush Presidential Library, including the following:
“The major motivation of some competitors was economic development, as has been seen with the Clinton Library and the revitalization of Little Rock. In fact, developers near SMU are already investing in projects and using the proposed Library in their marketing.”
“Any marketing expert will tell you that the publicity surrounding our receiving the Presidential Library will significantly elevate the national and international visibility of the University.”
“Hosting the Library is in the best interests of SMU. It builds and continues our institutional momentum…”
“From the standpoint of a research university, the most important benefit is the enhancement of academic resources and professional interactions that a Library, Museum and Institute can bring.”
Broadly, the university’s supporting arguments for hosting the Presidential Library fit into four categories: money, fame, power, and academic pursuit. Regarding the danger of pursuing the first three, I refer you to Jesus in the gospels. Start with Matthew 4-7.
On academic pursuit, I think it is important to note Bush’s stance towards freedom of inquiry, pointed out by Dorothy Samuels in The New York Times, particularly:
Executive Order 13233, his 2001 directive that reverses — illegally in the view of many leading historians, journalists and legal thinkers — the strong presumption of a public right of access to presidential papers embedded in the 1978 Presidential Records Act. Under this early exertion of presidential power, both sitting presidents and former presidents (and even their heirs) can indefinitely postpone public release of sensitive material past the law’s usual 12-year waiting period by simply denying a request for access. No explanation is required, and there is no provision for appealing the denial to a trained professional archivist.
In other words, researchers likely won’t have access to the golden nuggets they are searching for in the presidential archives. Realistically, do we expect the administration’s general habits of shrouding itself in secrecy and refusing to offer explanation to change once it leaves office?
Ultimately though, whether or not a university should welcome a presidential library is not a question of liberal/conservative politics. SMU should consider its institutional identity, particularly in relation to its religious roots. If it does, it should think twice before associating itself with a president whose policies have often been in direct opposition to the social principles of the United Methodist Church. The Bush administration’s legacy is marked by unjustifiable wars, growing economic disparity, and environmental degradation. How could this relationship possibly enhance the public face of this university, United Methodism, and by extension Christianity?
Tim Kumfer is an executive assistant for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.