Opponents of the George W. Bush institute failed Thursday afternoon to keep the think tank off of the SMU campus. Their petition, an acknowledged last-ditch effort, called for the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church to withhold leasing the land upon which the Bush Foundation will construct the public policy institute. It failed with 118 supporting the measure and 158 voting against.
The organizer of the opposition, Perkins School of Theology graduate Rev. Andrew Weaver, was not in attendance due to health reasons. But he said via telephone that the vote showed the church was clearly divided over the institute.
“Civilizations don’t die over time, they die by suicide,” Weaver said. “This was moral suicide.”
SMU President R. Gerald Turner said confusion over what delegates were voting on may have contributed to the close nature of the vote, but the school was happy with the outcome. “It was an affirmation that we expected,” Turner said. “It’s all or none. We’ve said that from the beginning.”
SMU professor emeritus William McElvaney, who, along with Susanne Johnson, triggered the debate in November 2006 with an op-ed in The Daily Campus, said he was disappointed the measure failed. But he was also encouraged by how close the vote was.
“It’s a considerably higher percentage than what I thought we would have,” he said. “I think it's put SMU on notice. There’s a deep concern about this, and they know what those concerns are.” Of the close vote, McElvaney said, "I think it matters," at least to those hoping to keep the institute from becoming a cog in the right wing's machinery. Only, he added, "I don’t know whether it does to SMU or not.”
Delegates to the regional conference discussed the petition briefly during a morning session before wrapping up the discussion in the afternoon. Delegates spent an hour debating the measure, with supporters of the petition emphasizing that it would apply to the institute only an not the library, and the opposition saying it was time to move on with the project.
Lengthy procedural moves dragged out the voting process, with petition supporters requesting a secret ballot. That request was challenged, forcing an additional vote to determine if the delegates supported voting by secret ballot. Turner was scheduled to address the assembly in the morning; he didn't get his chance till much later in the day.
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After rejecting the petition to quash the land lease, delegates overwhelmingly approved a measure that was recommended from the Petitions and Resolutions committee. The resolution calls on the Bush institute to protect the academic integrity of SMU and not interfere with the academic functions of the school.
SMU will be required to report back to the next conference -- which is four years from now -- regarding the status of the institute. Turner expects the questions and criticism of the institute to continue.
“I think until it’s up and running, there will continue to be questions about it,” Turner said. “Once it’s up and working, will it not be controversial? I don’t think so.” --Mark W. Norris
Mark W. Norris is a recent SMU graduate and former writer for The Daily Campus.