The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


Those articles of incorporation: An Inconvenient Truth

According to President R. Gerald Turner, in order for SMU to secure the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, the university must also accept a proposed partisan institute. Yes, such an institute is troubling, so the argument goes, but because the positive benefits of a presidential library and museum outweigh the negative reality of a politically partisan institute, the prospective all-in-one package is thereby acceptable.

Many of us would submit, however, that there are no valid reasons, academic or otherwise, why the library and institute should be said to rise or fall together, or the institute considered as an inseparable unit. Scholarly integrity demands that we evaluate each component of the proposed package on its own distinct academic merits, and against its respective capacity to support the academic mission of SMU.

A politically partisan think tank located at any school, college or university is utterly contradictory to education as approached within a free and democratic society. The precedent it would set, moreover, would put the values of open inquiry and academic freedom at risk not only for SMU but also for all institutions of higher education.

There is no reason not to disaggregate the institute from the so-called all-in-one package. By President Turner’s own public admission, serious discussion around the negotiating table about such a possibility has never taken place; he’s only mentioned it in passing reference during a phone conversation with Don Evans.

Because SMU so sorely wants to host the presidential library and museum, and because George W. Bush so intensely desires for us to do so, there is plenty of commitment on both sides to accommodate further give-and-take negotiations. This is what reasonable people do. And if we doubt the capacity of Bush Foundation people to engage in reasoned and respectful negotiations, then we have no business transacting with them in the first place. “Reason” is the staple of a university as surely as flour is to a kitchen cabinet. In Hebrew scripture, as a matter of fact, reasoning together in mutually respectful dialogue is seen as a participation in the life of the Divine (Isaiah 1:18).

When Stanford was approached by the Reagan library site selection committee with a similar proposal for an all-in-one package, faculty and administrators said an enthusiastic “yes” to the library and museum, but an emphatic “no” to the partisan institute. The university did not thereby “automatically” lose the library. Negotiations for the presidential library and museum proceeded forward. We can summon forth similar courage and expect similar results. Though proceedings later fell apart, it clearly was not because administrators and faculty members initially drew and maintained clear boundaries.

But to put things even more to the point here. The “inconvenient Truth” is that SMU’s articles of incorporation prohibit a politically partisan institute from being built on church-owned campus property in the first place!

According to Article 13, real estate of the corporation “may be sold or leased only by the consent of the South Central Jurisdictional Conference,” and then “only for religious or educational purposes.” As defined in Article 4, the meaning of “educational purposes” cannot be stretched far enough to include a politically partisan institute such as that conceived and articulated by George W. Bush.

Whether we agree or disagree with the policy initiatives of President Bush, and whether we admire him as a leader and fellow human being, is all quite beside the point, and has no bearing on these matters whatsoever. What does matter is that President Bush himself makes no bones that he wants his institute to be politically partisan in nature.

In a statement published on the SMU website, President Turner himself acknowledges that the institute will seek to enunciate and defend the political philosophies of President Bush, and in the July 7, 2005 cover letter of the Call for Proposals (CFP), Marvin Bush and Donald Evans say that part of the institute’s mission “will be to further the domestic and international goals of the Bush administration.” That the institute will serve as one among other venues from which George W. Bush will continue his public and political life after he leaves the White House is plain to see in the CFP.

By self-definition, therefore, SMU articles of incorporation prohibit the partisan institute from legally being built on church-owned campus property. Its explicitly partisan nature is the major reason why it will be under the exclusive control of the Bush Foundation rather than SMU in the first place, and this is made clear in the CFP.

These facts render the recent decision of the Mission Council of the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church incomprehensible. At a specially convened session in Dallas on March 14, 2007, the Council approved SMU’s request that it be allowed to lease church-owned land to the Bush Foundation for purposes of building a partisan institute. Even more mystifying is the fact that the theology school dean and a professor of theological ethics spoke in favor of the Mission Council voting in a way that runs completely counter to SMU’s bylaws. But then, they spoke at the behest of President Turner.

Pre-given in our articles of incorporation, which are intended for the orderly governance of our great university, we have legal and moral boundaries pertaining precisely to the matter at hand. Therefore, for SMU to ask the Mission Council if it can use church-owned property to build a partisan institute is akin to an unlicensed driver asking a friend to hand over their car keys and car for the evening. One party should know better than to ask, and the other should know better than to say yes.

Several attorneys, who wish not to go on public record, independently conducted an informal (but informed!) review of the by-laws. Each concurs that, in their legal opinion, a partisan institute on church-owned property stands in clear violation of the language and spirit of Article 13.

As one who attended the Mission Council meeting and followed the proceedings quite closely, it is not entirely clear to me that members of the Mission Council were fully briefed on the legal ramifications of the SMU articles of incorporation. Moreover, one is left to wonder about the thoroughness of their deliberations. Either the good folks on the United Methodist Mission Council are quicker learners than I am, or else they have a direct pipeline to God, for they were able to hear the various sides of the issue and then deliberate behind closed doors for only thirty minutes before rendering their decision. Whew. Compare those thirty minutes to the extended Faculty Senate discussions and the series of two-hour faculty discussions with President Turner.

Gosh, it sure makes all of us seem slow, doesn’t it?

We do not have to break by-laws and breach covenants to attain what is of lasting academic value for our university. SMU can embrace the Presidential Library and Museum, but ask that the partisan institute be built off-campus. By proceeding within the bounds both of law and of reason, all stakeholders will obtain what they most value and emerge with integrity intact.

About the writer:

Susanne Johnson, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Christian education in the Perkins School of Theology. She can be reached at [email protected].

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