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


Intellectual ‘best practices’

I would like to see the Bush Presidential Library complex come to SMU. It is an exciting possibility. There are certainly worrisome aspects to the library and museum components of the proposal that have been discussed elsewhere.

I hope we can avoid the problems these facilities are known to have and make the museum, for instance, an informative experience for its many visitors.

The proposed Bush Institute was the focus of my Jan. 31 op-ed piece in The Daily Campus. I claimed that the current form of the institute represents a danger to our standards of intellectual excellence and to our reputation. Here, again, I hope that the defects of the proposal can be remedied.

An academically rigorous Bush Institute would be a credit to SMU and President Bush. Faculty members are now discussing two different ideas about how to address the defects in the current proposal. One is to sever the relationship with the institute altogether so that it would be a fully independent Bush Institute of Dallas, not SMU.

The other is to bring the Institute under our academic jurisdiction so that its fellows have to meet the same intellectual standards our faculty members do. I do not know which is the better route. I would like to see our faculty and administration work that out at some point. But I remain convinced that the current proposal is unacceptable.

David Weber responded on Feb. 7 to my arguments about the institute. He makes a number of points that call for rebuttal.

Most important is his flat assertion that the opponents of the institute, such as myself, are largely liberals and “seem to fear association with the Bush administration’s unpopular views and policies.” He cites no evidence for these statements whatsoever. I invite readers to look at my first op-ed piece and see what my objections to the institute are.

I believe that they raise important questions for anyone who has the interests of SMU at heart, whatever his or her political convictions.

Weber also responds to the arguments that I actually did make. He misses some vital points.

First of all, he compares my objections to the Bush Institute to objections made in the past by conservatives to the hiring of leftist professors like Herbert Marcuse, and to the establishment of university departments of Black Studies, Mexican-American Studies and so on.

Weber sees a threat to universities now coming from the left where once it came from the right. But his comparison of the two objections is fundamentally flawed. The past objection that he refers to was indeed political.

Conservatives would presumably have objected to the appointment of a scholar like Marcuse no matter what his intellectual achievements. But Marcuse was hired as a regular faculty member who had to meet the university’s standards of intellectual excellence.

The staff of the Bush Institute, as it is now proposed, will not have to meet university standards of intellectual excellence. So the objection I am making is scholarly, not political. If a scholar who happens to be conservative meets our standards of excellence, I would be happy to have him or her appointed to our faculty or the institute.

Second, Weber responds to the distinction I made between the procedures of academic research and those that we can expect in a think tank. He grants that this is a useful point but contends that the research produced at universities in the past was imperfect and made fundamental errors about subjects like race and gender.

This is true. But it does not address the point I was making.

Over the last 100 years or so, universities have developed more and more rigorous methods for advancing knowledge.

Our current methods are imperfect, but they enabled us to eventually find the errors committed in the past. They represent the best practices of intellectual life, and we should be zealously upholding them even if they are imperfect. The Bush Institute is not prepared to insist that its fellows uphold these best practices.

But they wish to have these fellows put the good name of SMU under their work. I stand by my assertion that this poses a danger to our reputation.

Finally, Weber claims that “it seems presumptuous at best to characterize a think tank that does not yet exist and to assume that its fellows will all be inexpert ideologues.”

This frames the issue in a completely mistaken way. The Bush Foundation wishes to retain complete control of institute staffing, and it will not commit itself to hiring fellows only on the basis of their academic credentials.

If the Foundation were committed to avoiding the hiring of inexpert ideologues, it could readily do this by utilizing our non-ideological standards. It seems very reasonable to wonder why the Foundation refuses to do this.

We cannot conclude for certain that the fellows will be inexpert ideologues, but David gives us no reason to think that they won’t be. And he will not insist on proven methods for ensuring that they won’t be.

About the writer:

Steve Sverdlik is an associate professor of Philosophy. He can be reached at [email protected].

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