Reading James Traub’s article on the plans for the George W. Bush presidential library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine took me back to my own years (1988-2000) as a trustee of SMU. Though neither a Methodist nor a Dallasite (a word I had not heard before 1988), I was added to the board of trustees by my close friend A. Kenneth Pye, who had just been recruited to help rebuild the university after its recent football scandal. Ken, who died all too soon thereafter, had ambitious plans to improve the quality of research and instruction, and to make SMU more fully a national university. I learned an incredible amount about a smaller and church-related university, and came to admire the business-dominated board. One of my last duties was to serve on the search committee that selected Gerald Turner, then at Ole Miss, to succeed Ken Pye. I have come to think Gerald an excellent choice.
This is all by way of saying that I was disappointed to find that President Turner and the SMU trustees had agreed to permit former President George W. Bush to establish, alongside the Bush presidential library and museum, what appears to be a fully independent research institute to be operated by the George W. Bush foundation, not SMU. This has, as Traub describes, provoked a serious division among the faculty as to whether the University should permit an institute on its campus, “to further the domestic and international goals of the Bush administration.” It is to be, if we are to take this language literally, an advocacy organization. It was apparently loosely modeled on the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, but it appears to be a more thoroughly focused political effort than the Hoover, even at its most partisan.
I have spent some time worrying about presidential libraries generally. They are administered by the National Archives (NARA), and occasionally they have generated a good deal of controversy — none so much as the Nixon Library, of course. Some of the complexes contain research or teaching institutes of one sort or another, ordinarily administered by the host university. But the related presidential museum is always run by a non-profit foundation established by the former president’s friends, whose continuing mission is to burnish his reputation. It’s their money, and private funds, they argue. NARA has no control over these foundations, or over their programs, with the result that they vary greatly in nature and quality. Most of the museums do a fine job, but they are tenuously related to the well-managed libraries. Few Americans realize that the real Mt. Rushmore has many more than four faces, for it is distributed across the country in these presidential museums. This may be a good thing (I don’t think so), but would we be better off if each of these monuments had an advocacy arm?