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Have You Ever Seen SMU from a DC-9 at Night?

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If you were shocked when George W. Bush chose Southern Methodist University in Dallas for his presidential center, you must have been nearly comatose after his two long terms in office. After all, most rumors reported the Bushes would be settling in Dallas, which they preferred to Austin. Laura Bush is an SMU alumna. And—come on now—would any Ivy League graduate really locate a presidential library and museum way off in the desolate prairies of Midland or Lubbock or Waco? Most important, though, wasn’t SMU—a well-heeled, conservative campus in swanky University Park—the perfect right-wing tinderbox to reignite belief in the 43rd president’s tattered “Mission Accomplished” banner?

Not so fast, my friends. That tinderbox isn’t as reliably conservative as you might think.  In a display of outrage that made headlines nationwide, a significant number of SMU faculty members loudly objected to the presidential center’s think tank, the Bush Institute. An institute with a right-wing, partisan agenda had no place on a university campus, they argued. It would tarnish the ideals of objective scholarship and undermine SMU’s progress toward greater diversity and academic rigor.

The tinderbox, it turned out, had its own ideas about when to ignite.

Enough with the outgrown stereotypes, they’ll tell you when you come to campus.

SMU is a different and better university than it used to be. Once known as a haven for rich, not terribly bright, white kids, the student body is now 8 percent Hispanic, 6 percent black and 6 percent Asian, with 70 percent of the students receiving financial aid. The SAT scores of freshman classes have increased by almost 100 points in the past decade, the endowment has doubled, and the university has added six new Ph.D. programs. In 2001, SMU became the second university in Texas to offer tuition and health benefits to same-sex partners.

For a big-city campus, though, it remains quiet and placid. On the last day of classes before winter break, SMU students walked along sidewalks next to emerald-green grass, chatting on cellphones. Around them, the campus architecture is stately and tasteful, with red bricks and white columns, modeled on Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia.

Like their counterparts on many private university campuses, SMU faculty members have traditionally been quiet, too. As serious scholars, they have mostly been concerned with their own research and teaching loads—too preoccupied to engage much in university politics.

The elective body that represents professors in such matters, the Faculty Senate, meets monthly.  My husband, who taught at SMU from 1983 to 97, reports he only went to three Faculty Senate meetings during his entire tenure. “It’s like faculty senates everywhere,” he says. “Lots of talk and resolutions that rarely pertain to anything important.”

So in late 2006 and early 2007, it was a shocker in University Park when the SMU faculty and Faculty Senate didn’t uniformly line up to welcome the Bush Presidential Center.

Faculty op-ed pieces criticizing SMU’s proposed alliance with the Bush administration were published in the student newspaper, The Daily Campus. Roughly a quarter of the 600-member faculty signed protest petitions. The once-sleepy Faculty Senate met in repeated special sessions to discuss objections to the center.  Some faculty members objected to any kind of association with the Bush presidency. But most felt the presidential center’s library and museum would attract scholars and tourists to the campus. The policy arm of the center, however, was an entirely different beast.

Unlike the library and museum, which will be run by the National Archives, the Bush Institute will be answerable only to the Bush Library Foundation. The think tank will bring in scholars, host forums and suggest policy changes in national and international arenas. It will stand on SMU property—but it won’t be subject to SMU’s jurisdiction like other academic departments.

After SMU’s alliance with the Bush Presidential Center became a “done deal,” Bonnie Wheeler says, you could find posted copies of a Doonesbury cartoon in faculty offices all over campus.

“The cartoon said the Bush Institute was going to be a belief tank—and not a think tank,” says Wheeler, an associate professor of English and director of the Medieval Studies program.

SMU didn’t originally envision it that way. During Bush’s second term, Cal Jillson was on the faculty committee that drafted the academic section of the university’s proposal to woo the Bush library and museum. Jillson, a political science professor and one of the top political experts in the state, says he and other faculty members assumed Bush and his people would also want a school—much like Harvard’s Kennedy School or UT-Austin’s LBJ School—that would be part of SMU and subject to its academic control.

Team Bush had other ideas. It told SMU the presidential center was a package deal: museum, library—and a policy institute that would be run by the Bush Library Foundation. (The foundation is a nonprofit charged with raising funds for the presidential center, with a board of directors chaired by Donald L. Evans, Bush’s former commerce secretary and longtime friend. It has refused to identify its donors, citing their preference for anonymity.)

SMU could have negotiated the terms of the Bush package deal. It could have walked away. Instead, it blinked—or maybe it closed its eyes.

Jillson thinks administrators and trustees were fearful the center might move on down the road to Baylor or Texas Tech or Midland. “I never believed that threat,” he says. “Dallas—with its population and central location—was the only appropriate place to put the center.”

Groundbreaking for the Bush Presidential Center will take place in November. In the meantime, the acres along Central Expressway are barren and mud-soaked. But the center, slated to open in 2013, is moving forward and will evidently hold.

After all the controversy, the center is making cautious, low-key moves. Its architectural renderings, critics have pointed out, belie Bush’s tumultuous presidency; it will be deliberately low-key, low-slung and environmentally friendly. Similarly, the Bush Institute’s first appointments have been academically respectable and noncontroversial. Its founding executive director, James K. Glassman, has wide experience in public policy, diplomacy and journalism. James Guthrie, who will be both a faculty member at SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development and a Senior Fellow at the Institute, has been generally lauded for his academic credentials. (Such joint appointments are subject to SMU’s normal academic procedures—a vital point for faculty members.) At first glance, the institute’s subjects of interest look similarly benign: education, global health, human freedom, economic growth.

SMU’s agreement with the Bush Foundation, released in February 2008, gives the university some representation on the Bush Institute’s board, which is slated to include three to nine members. One seat is promised SMU if the board numbers five or fewer members, with another SMU seat added if the board is larger. In either case, this amounts to academic advice—not academic control. Regardless, SMU President Gerald Turner has insisted he will install a “firewall” between the institute and the university, with the institute not identifying itself or its views with SMU.

In the end, though, SMU has accepted the former president’s assurances that the Bush Institute will be nonpartisan and objective. And maybe, Cal Jillson says, you can believe George and Laura Bush’s promises that the Bush Institute will be resolutely nonpartisan. Maybe it really will promote critical, independent scholarship. Maybe it will enhance SMU’s reputation. Maybe—but he doubts it.

“Taking human nature into account, it won’t work,” Jillson says. “It isn’t in a politician’s nature to be neutral. It isn’t in your blood—or in the blood of the minions who will run it.”

Think about it: SMU’s faculty has assurances from the man who billed himself as a “uniter, not a divider”—and then went on to run one of the most divisive administrations in U.S. history. Now, nine years after promising to be a “uniter,” he says he’s come back to Texas from the cauldrons of Washington, D.C., with his “values intact.”

Watching the video of a recent meeting with presidential center supporters, you can see that Bush hasn’t changed much. He joked about occasionally dropping in on classes at SMU—much as he did, he noted, when he was a college student himself. He didn’t seem to find it inappropriate that he was still joshing about his frat-boy antics at a university that’s now bound its academic reputation to his.

But there’s little that the SMU tinderbox can do but try to maintain its own sense of humor about it. As Bonnie Wheeler tartly points out, “At least the presidential center will overlook the things Bush likes the best: the sports facilities—the football stadium, running tracks, tennis courts, the basketball building.”