Presidential politics on campus from D.C. to Dallas

DALLAS – Living a few blocks from the White House, students at GW are used to President Bush’s policy decisions making some noise in their neighborhood. But Dallas – Bush’s old backyard – is typically a less-hostile environment.

So, there was little surprise in December when Southern Methodist University learned that it was the finalist in the campaign to land the George W. Bush Presidential Library complex. Long considered the frontrunner, SMU has close ties to the Bush administration – Laura Bush is an SMU alum and Bush made his last 2004 campaign stop at the university.

But here in the heart of Bush country, the idea of the Bush library complex has raised a flurry of controversy over whether or not the University should accept the package offered by President Bush, which includes not only a library, but an avowedly conservative public policy institute to be named George W. Bush Institute.

This doesn’t sit well with many on the SMU campus, who express serious concerns that the faculty of the Institute will report only to the Bush Foundation, not to SMU.

Defenders of the proposal have drawn connections between the proposed Bush Institute and the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. However, the Hoover Institution reports to Stanford University, a distinction SMU President Gerald Turner drew in an open letter to the SMU community, in which he confirmed “the proposed Bush Institute would report to the Bush Foundation.”

This has formed the center of the debate – not general opposition to the library.

“President Bush is proposing something that is – as I understand it – unprecedented: an ideological or partisan think tank that is affiliated with the University, that gets to use the name, but is not controlled by the school,” said Steven Sverdlik, an associate professor of philosophy at SMU, in an interview with The Hatchet.

Sverdlik stressed that his opposition is not against the library or against President Bush – he is concerned about the issue of governance.

“Why should we give our good name to something we don’t control?” he asked. “Bush wants to have our name, but does not want SMU to have a control over it.”

Turner has come under increasing fire for keeping negotiations about the library complex relatively secret. Plans for the institute became public only recently.

“This institution is just sort of an add-on institution. It is not part of the library,” Sverdlik said. “We will not have control over this thing – that is what some faculty are concerned about.”

Yet, while the faculty has been very vocal in its feelings about the institute, SMU students have remained relatively unengaged in the debate.

Student Body President Taylor Russ told The Hatchet that he would characterize the general campus mood as “passively supportive.” Russ expressed his frustration with the whole ordeal, saying “We just want to get the library and be done with it,” he said.

Russ criticized the faculty who have raised questions about the library and think tank as being “short sighted.” Russ openly supports the library and many students from the Dallas area, even at GW, want Bush’s legacy to live out in their hometown.

“The library is a status symbol. It would be another great feature to add to Dallas,” said GW sophomore Meredith Madden, a member of the GW College Republicans and secretary for Students for Life, from the Dallas area.

After hearing about the alleged apathy on the SMU campus, Madden said, “GW students are way more involved in politics than anywhere else. If someone was going to put their library here at GW, everyone would have an opinion.”

The same is apparently not true at SMU.

“Personally, I don’t really care,” said SMU junior Angela Walker. Addressing what many see as general student apathy on campus, she said, “Students may have views, but they are not willing to actually do anything about them.”

With the student body only passively engaged, most of the extensive media coverage has centered on the faculty response, which has split into several different camps. Some oppose the library complex altogether out of general disapproval of President Bush’s policies, however, the majority of opposition has centered on the think tank, a point many on campus feel the media has missed.

This whole debate began last November – before plans for the policy institute were even made public – when William K. McElvaney and Susanne Johnson, both professors at Perkins School of Theology, wrote an op-ed piece for the SMU campus newspaper, Daily Campus, entitled “The George W. Bush Library: Asset or Albatross,” in which they raised ethical concerns about SMU’s acceptance of the Bush Library.

“Many of us feel that Bush’s presidency has violated the basic Methodist ethos. Starting a war on false pretenses doesn’t fit with Methodist ethos – you don’t bomb people into democracy,” McElvaney said in an interview with The Hatchet.

The United Methodist Church owns SMU, but the church has ceded administrative authority to their board of trustees. The United Methodist Church and the Perkins School of Theology has neither officially endorsed nor objected to the plans for the Bush Library complex.

That has not kept some Perkins faculty such as McElvaney from voicing their concerns.

“The erosion of habeas corpus at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the relaxation of the Geneva Convention, are all violations of the Methodist social principles. A Christian should oppose that without any kind of question,” McElvaney said.

A group of Methodist clergy organized an online petition drive on the Web site www.protectsmu.org, which as of Saturday evening had 10, 670 signatures from clergy, parishioners, and others not even affiliated with SMU. The Young Conservatives of Texas have also started a petition focused on building student support for the library. They have received just over 900 student signatures.

The debate at SMU has drawn the attention of the national media, who view the controversy as a sign of Bush’s eroding support – even in Texas.

The debate over the library complex is a “sign of the times,” according to The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau Chief Carl Leubsdorf.

“Our politics are very polarized. Bush has become a polarizing figure. It’s not surprising that a library would be controversial – he is controversial,” Leubsdorf said in an interview with The Hatchet.

Some faculty fear that Bush will use the library complex to rewrite his legacy, but when asked if all presidents attempted to the same thing, Leubsdorf answered, “Yes, presidents are entitled to justify what they did in office. I doubt the Clinton library has a lot to say about Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater.”

Sverdlik, an SMU professor, expressed his concern that the politically driven opposition is overshadowing very real concerns about the proposed policy institute’s relation with SMU.

“The spin is that it is some small bunch of liberal faculty that don’t like Bush, who wouldn’t mind if it was the Clinton Library,” he said. “For me, that isn’t the issue; if it was the Clinton Institution, in the same form, I would be opposed to it.”

Russ, student body president, echoed Sverdlik’s concern that political opposition to Bush threatens to hurt the entire process. As further evidence of the divide in the campus debate, Russ said he is concerned about the involvement of some Methodist clergy and church members in the debate.

“Although we have some affiliation with the Methodist church, it is a very dangerous thing when church and clergy members are trying to keep a library out for political reasons. It would definitely be concerning if we made a decision because of these clergy,” he said. “Most students support the library.”

Both Sverdlik and Ross blamed media coverage for not getting the whole picture, with Sverdlik warning that the media has misconstrued the issues.

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