Contributing writer James Traub uses the left-wing generated controversy over plans for a George W. Bush presidential center at Southern Methodist University as an excuse for one last assault on Bush's legacy, under phony concerns of academic freedom, in a story for the Times' Sunday Magazine: "The Academic Freedom Agenda - George Bush's Controversial Presidential Center." SMU academics seem to translate "academic freedom" as freedom from considering conservative ideas.
Traub, who called Joseph Coors Sr. the late beer magnate who helped created the conservative Heritage Foundation, a "right-wing nut" in a December 2003 story, hasno sympathy for conservative doctrine butwas the magazine's choice to write about it.
When a Marine helicopter bore George W. Bush away from the Capitol the afternoon of Jan. 20, the American people turned their attention, and desperate hopes, to his successor. Bush, meanwhile, moved into a new home in Dallas and took up the work of his post-presidency. He had often said that he viewed the Freedom Agenda - his campaign to promote democracy around the world, and above all in the Middle East - as the great legacy of his time in office.
Bush left office with the lowest poll ratings recorded in 60 years of presidents, but he is still regarded with reverence and fondness in Dallas, where he lived for many years before becoming president. One ZIP code in Highland Park, the neighborhood adjacent to S.M.U., gave more money per capita to Bush's 2000 presidential campaign than any other ZIP code in the nation. The day after Obama's inauguration, the lawns of Highland Park's neoeverything palazzi were festooned with signs reading, "Welcome Home, George and Laura," and bearing an image of the flag of Texas. And S.M.U., long a finishing school for the children of Dallas money, is the closest thing to a Bushworld alma mater: George didn't go, but Laura did, and she still sits on the board, along with Ray Hunt, of the oil fortune, and a great many other Bush loyalists and benefactors.
But George Bush is not everyone's guy on the S.M.U. campus. Indeed, the prospect of being identified in perpetuity with the Freedom Agenda freezes the blood of some of the university's leading academics. Everything about the planned institute reminds them of what they detested about the Bush administration. It will proselytize rather than explore: a letter sent to universities bidding for the Bush center stipulated that the institute would, among other things, "further the domestic and international goals of the Bush administration." And it will hold itself apart from S.M.U.'s own world of academic inquiry, reporting to the Bush Foundation itself rather than to the university president or provost, as academic institutes - even presidential ones - normally do.
So a bunch of (unlabeled)liberal academics oppose having any connection to a Republican president? What a shock.
Some members of the S.M.U. community, who had not found the prospect of housing the Bush center terribly appealing in mid-2005, now viewed it with horror. In November 2006, William McElvaney, a United Methodist minister and former faculty member, now retired, at S.M.U.'s Perkins School of Theology, and a younger colleague, Susanne Johnson, wrote an article in The Daily Campus, the school paper, that bluntly asked: "Do we want S.M.U. to benefit financially from a legacy of massive violence, destruction and death brought about by the Bush presidency in dismissal of broad international opinion?" Still, many faculty members did not share McElvaney and Johnson's view of the Bush administration; and others who did were not prepared to simply reject so prestigious a facility. Thomas Knock, a leading scholar of Woodrow Wilson, has done some of his most important research work in presidential libraries and archives. Whatever he thought about the Bush presidency, he says, "A presidential library could only be a positive thing for a university." And he could accept a policy institute. But the prospect of a George W. Bush policy institute inside the walls of S.M.U. that was in no way beholden to academic principles or standards, responsible only to itself, appalled him, and many of his colleagues as well.
The above sentence in bold was added back in to the website version of the article through an unusual correction - a footnote explained that it had been originally omitted "due to an editing error."
Traub surveyed a range of no-doubt independent-minded academics both inside and outside SMU, each of whom excoriated Bush and feared for SMU's reputation:
In December 2006 the foundation announced, to no one's surprise, that it was focusing on S.M.U. And only then did it become fully clear that the board of the institute would report not to the university but to the Bush Foundation - and thus that S.M.U. would not be able to control its programs or political impulses. As Benjamin Johnson, another historian, puts it, "The Bush circle has done so much damage to every institution they've touched, it would be naïve not to worry about the damage they could do to S.M.U."