SMU's Deal with Bush Library Threatens University's Academic Independence

You know what's wrong with the Bush Presidential Center at SMU? It's not a terrible thing or place in and of itself, yet. But what's wrong already is that it represents such a lay-down by the leadership of the university. The way the thing is set up is a betrayal of academic excellence, which depends entirely on academic independence. Its constitution is a rebuke to real rigor and research.

Who actually thinks independent academic research and independent rigor are bad? Tons of people. It's practically a reflex for them. Ask Holden Thorp, the highly respected academician now departing a five-year tenure as chancellor of the University of North Carolina with his tail tucked between his legs after being made a bit of a chump by his own out-of-control athletic department. Football idiots. They're a good example of people who hate academic excellence or just don't care. Look around. America probably has more football idiots than Episcopalians. That's a guess, by the way.

Football idiots all over America have shown time and time again that they would gladly trash their own alma mater's academic standing in order to hire a better football team. Excellence is for wimps. We want us some game!

Look at the state's highest elected official, Governor Oops. Oops is carrying out a holy war against University of Texas President Bill Powers, based on Oops' determination to shut down research at UT. Who on earth would want to shut down research at the University of Texas? I just told you. Governor Oops.

Why? Oh, who knows? Some rich kid didn't get in or got in and got bounced out. Hostility to academic rigor is like murder: Rarely is there a truly rational motive. It's more an inchoate wrath welling up darkly from the emotional equivalent of the lower gastro-intestinal tract. Hostility to academic and intellectual rigor is always just there, a fact of life. That's why universities always need thick, high walls to protect against the horde.

In a story in The Dallas Morning News today, political science professor Cal Jillson laments the decision by SMU to allow the creation of a policy institute in the Bush center that stands free and independent of the faculty but is allowed to make joint appointments to the faculty: "We could have bargained harder and argued with more clarity about which principles were at stake," Jillson says.

So let's review. What if somebody came to SMU and said, "We want to create the Jim Schutze Football Idiot Institute. The JSFII will be independent of academic control, but it will joint-appoint people to the faculty who will be half-professor, half-football idiot. We will field a major football team under the name, the SMU JSFII Pony-Ups. How 'bout it?"

That's basically what SMU has done by allowing Bush to ride in and set up his autonomous out-of-office political action arm under the banner of the university. The point being: SMU didn't have to do it that way. Both Texas A&M and the University of Texas kept strong thumbs on their presidential centers by making them degree-granting departments within and under the control of their faculties, rather than allowing creation of an autonomous entity.

And what's wrong, again, with an autonomous think tank? What's wrong is that a university must shelter the academic flame from external corruption or even, remembering Governor Oops, from extinction. In a piece in The New York Times today op-ed columnist Joe Nocera talks about the penchant of hard-nosed business-world football idiots to ride roughshod over the academics once they're allowed on campus on their horsies.

Do we really believe that a bunch of conservative political hacks at Bush's self-styled "action-oriented think tank" are going to behave any better after the nicey-nice wears off? They will behave as badly as they are allowed to behave, and SMU has given them a whole lot of permission.

The advocates for the Bush library within the SMU administration, mainly President Gerald Turner, have argued from the beginning that the Bush library will bring fame and luster to the university. But in the longer run the structure they have put in place will do just the opposite. It will make SMU look like a lay-down for The Money.

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