Another President, Another Campus

June 1, 2011
 
(left) George W. Bush and Laura Bush at groundbreaking for presidential library at Southern Methodist University in November 2010. /(right) Protestor at George W. Bush Presidential Center groundbreaking.

(left) George W. Bush and Laura Bush at groundbreaking for presidential library at Southern Methodist University in November 2010. /(right) Protestor at George W. Bush Presidential Center groundbreaking.
Courtney Perry(left), G.J. McCarthy (right)/Dallas Morning News/Corbis

More than twenty-five years after the Nixon Library episode at Duke, there were echoes at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In December 2007, SMU learned that it was the favored site for a library, museum, and policy institute dedicated to then-President George W. Bush, who was embarking on his last year in office. The SMU board of trustees approved the deal in February 2008; construction began last fall.

Almost a year earlier, The New York Times, writing about the likelihood of the facility’s landing at SMU (where Bush’s wife, Laura, is an alumna and remains a trustee), had reported that SMU “faculty members, complaining of being bypassed, are raising sharp questions about the school’s identification with [Bush’s] presidency.” One SMU professor cited “a lack of transparency” around the negotiations; another complained that “this train is leaving” before faculty could have their say.

“This was in the works for quite a long time,” says SMU theater professor Rhonda Blair, at the time president of the Faculty Senate. From the earliest days of Bush’s presidency, there had been library-related discussions among Bush representatives, trustees, and SMU president R. Gerald Turner. Today, Blair, who calls herself “about as leftist as they come,” says it was “supremely ironic” that she was the voice of the faculty when those discussions came to a head. It quickly became clear, she says, that from the perspective of the Bush Foundation, it would be an “all or nothing package”—library, museum, and policy institute.

“If I had my druthers, I would rather have had a different presidential library here at SMU,” says Blair. But, she adds, faculty views were “incredibly diverse,” and the opposition was slow to organize—quite unlike the dynamics at Duke around the proposed Nixon Presidential Library. “Those who were opposed did not stand up until the very end, and that was just too late. So from my perspective, the issue was not whether the center would come here, but given that it would come here, what could the faculty do to have it happen in as academically respectable and socially responsible way as possible?”

Blair says she and her colleagues worked hard to ensure that the ties between the George W. Bush Policy Institute and the university were guided by traditions of academic freedom. Under the negotiated arrangement, she says, SMU’s individual academic departments can decide to extend—or not to extend—academic appointments to the institute’s scholars in residence.

“I’m appalled by what Bush did to this country in eight years,” says Blair. “But I keep coming back to the value of history and the value of a history-revealing archive. I want materials from the Bush administration to see the light of day. Given the way these presidential centers work, that may not happen for decades. But they are important sites for exploration of our past and for figuring out how to negotiate a complex future. In the long term, it’s going to redound to SMU’s benefit that scholars will be coming here to do that important work.”

The 225,000-square-foot center, located on the eastern edge of SMU’s campus, will be completed in 2013. Private donors will cover construction costs, expected to be more than $200 million.