W. and Us

Dallas, home to the George W. Bush think tank. Let's think about that.

It's an outrageous reach. Scholars and archivists around the country are beginning to suggest that SMU makes a whore of itself if it accepts the presidential center without first insisting that 13233 be vacated.

Then there is the matter of the think tank. Dubbed a "policy center," the think tank portion of the presidential center will openly pursue and promote the ideological goals of George W. Bush. In his op-ed piece in the Morning News, Wilson chastised critics of the think tank by saying, "To view these opportunities with skepticism is, I think, misguided. To squander them by rejecting the Bush Institute would be a tragic mistake."

Yeah, but we've got a little bit of a straw-man deal going here, maybe not deliberately but perhaps through a lack of communication. The SMU faculty I talked to were not necessarily opposed to think tanks generally but to specific aspects of this one.

As proposed, this think tank will be independent and outside the control of the university but will offer "joint chairs," so that fellows of the institute may also be SMU professors. Scholars, you know, are supposed to promote scholarship, not ideology. Scholarship, by its nature, has to be able to stand up to rigorous challenge, some might even say vicious challenge. An ideological think tank is about as closely related to true scholarship as an ad agency.

For some faculty and former faculty, the polemic mission of the think tank, fire-walled from university control but conjugally joined to the university through joint appointments, makes the whole thing totally unpalatable.

I asked William K. McElvaney, LeVan Professor Emeritus of Preaching and Worship at the SMU Perkins School of Theology, if the think tank proposal could be fixed.

First of all, he said, the joint appointments would have to be completely eliminated. "As long as the institute has the authority to espouse the ideology of this administration, that simply isn't acceptable to some of us."

I asked the same question of Dr. Kathleen A. Wellman, professor of history at SMU. She said the current proposal—a fire-walled think tank with joint appointments—is the worst of all possible worlds. But she said two fixes are possible:

"I think there are two fixes, and some people will be happy with one and not the other. I think what we have proposed now is the worst alternative.

"One possibility is the institute is truly independent, with no association with SMU, no possibility of joint appointments, and it just happens to be on SMU land. It's never allowed to say that there's any affiliation with SMU.

"The other possibility is that SMU, like most other institutions and universities with think tanks, has the think tank reporting to it and has academic representation on all committees, on all boards and has thorough oversight."

Dr. Susanne Johnson, associate professor of Christian education in the SMU Perkins School of Theology, cited the same three possibilities: 1) fire-walled but with conjugal privileges, as proposed; 2) totally independent and segregated; or 3) subordinate to the university.

"The second answer is my school of thought, and that is an institute that is neither at nor of Southern Methodist University but is rather situated nearby, completely fire-walled from the university. The think tank would then have to refer to itself as Dallas-based rather than SMU-based. To my mind that's a model where every stakeholder wins something."

Look, universities are weird places; academic politics can be nasty; it takes real courage for these people to express any degree of skepticism about the promotional schemes of the university president and board of trustees. So please don't let me conflate my own feelings about this with theirs.

The faculty I talked to really didn't want to talk much about the war or the Bush administration. They believe they have urgent scholarly issues that the university must address if it wants to maintain its academic prestige.

But I do want to put my own two cents in. We're about to confront an era when the entire world will seek an answer to the questions: Did a wrong-headed, immoral American policy produce a holocaust in Iraq? Was it for oil?

If the George W. Bush center comes here, the question comes with it. If the answer is an angry fist rather than an open heart, then that answer becomes the emblem of SMU and of this city.

There's your elephant.

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