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Bush library opponents question process for approval

The George W. Bush Foundation wants to build the Bush presidential library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The George W. Bush Foundation wants to build the Bush presidential library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Opponents say a United Methodist jurisdictional conference must approve the lease first. A UMNS photo courtesy of Southern Methodist University.

By J. Richard Peck*
Feb. 1, 2008 |

Officials of Southern Methodist University say they have approval to give the George W. Bush Foundation a 99-year lease to build a presidential library, museum and policy institute on school property. The lease is renewable up to 249 years.

Bishop Scott Jones
Bishop Scott Jones

However, United Methodists who oppose building the library and institute here argue that only the church's South Central Jurisdictional Conference can give final approval for the lease. The jurisdictional conference, which meets once every four years, is scheduled to meet this July in Dallas.

University officials and 10 bishops in the South Central Jurisdiction say jurisdictional rules permit its Mission Council, which is the executive committee of the jurisdictional conference, to make decisions between sessions. In a closed executive session last March, the Mission Council voted 10-4, with one abstention, to allow SMU to lease to the foundation up to 36 acres on the southeast side of campus.

The opposing opinions suggest that the project's future may depend on interpretation of church law.

The library and museum would be administered by the National Archives and Records Administration. The policy institute––over which the school would have no control––would be run by an independent board. The project is to be financed with a private fund drive conducted by the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation. Cost estimates hover around $500 million.

President Bush and his wife, Laura, are United Methodists, and the first lady is a 1968 graduate of SMU.

Opponents have questioned the appropriateness of linking the Bush presidency with SMU, an 11,000-student school founded in 1911 by what is now The United Methodist Church. Critics argue that many policies of the Bush administration have been contrary to United Methodist teaching.

Proponents say the library would be an invaluable and prestigious resource for scholarly research and would enhance SMU's educational mission, as well as help the local economy.

Special session considered

The church's South Central Jurisdiction includes 1.83 million United Methodists living in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska.

"We, as bishops, considered convening a special session of the jurisdictional conference. The proposal was rejected because that is not the normal way we make decisions." –Bishop Scott Jones

The South Central College of Bishops considered convening a special session of the jurisdictional conference over the matter, according to Kansas Area Bishop Scott Jones, the body's president. "The proposal was rejected because that is not the normal way we make decisions," he told United Methodist News Service.

Jones said that after the bishops considered the cost and time to gather 290 delegates from eight states, they decided to follow "normal procedures" that empower the Mission Council to make the decision.

Jurisdictional conference rules require the chairperson of the Mission Council to submit a "written report of all actions taken by the council" over the previous four years to the jurisdictional conference. The South Central conference is scheduled to meet July16-19.

David Severe, secretary of the jurisdiction, said it is not clear whether the library lease decision needs to be ratified by the conference gathering or just reported to it. "It’s a matter of interpretation," he said, "and I’m only the secretary."

Severe said it might be possible for one-third of the conference members to seek a Judicial Council ruling (based on Paragraph 56.4 of the Book of Discipline, the denomination's book of rules and bylaws). If the nine-member council were to declare that the lease must be ratified, and if no other action were taken by conference delegates, the jurisdiction would have to hold a special session to consider the matter.

Jones said the Judicial Council only could rule on whether the conference had violated the Book of Discipline––not on administrative matters within the jurisdiction.

Seeking clarification

The Bush Foundation asked SMU for evidence of its authority to approve the lease, so the school asked the South Central College of Bishops to explain the process to Bush attorneys. Jones drafted a letter describing rules that empower the Mission Council to make decisions between sessions of the jurisdictional conference. During a Jan. 9 conference phone call, the letter was approved by 10 of the active bishops with one abstention.

The letter was signed by Jones, a member of the SMU trustees, and Arkansas Bishop Charles Crutchfield, secretary of the South Central College of Bishops.

During the January conference call, some retired bishops said the matter should be left to jurisdictional conference delegates. Retired bishops have voice but no vote in meetings of the College of Bishops, which are jurisdictional meetings, or the Council of Bishops, which are international meetings.

"I think the bishops should have sought legal counsel before writing the letter," said retired Bishop Kenneth W. Hicks in an interview with UMNS. Hicks said it "is important that the delegates of the jurisdictional conference be given the opportunity to approve the actions of the Mission Council." He said a $500 million library would dominate the SMU campus and would give it a new identity.

Differing points of view

Rev. Andrew Weaver
Rev. Andrew Weaver

The Rev. Andrew Weaver, a research psychologist in New York and a graduate of Perkins School of Theology on the SMU campus, has led the effort against the proposed library to honor President Bush. Weaver launched an online petition that has collected the signatures of 28 bishops and more than 11,200 individuals.

"'Methodist’ is one of the most trusted 'brand names' in the world. An association with SMU is an attempt by Bush to re-brand himself with the good name of our church," Weaver said. "Unfortunately, what Bush will do is re-brand our trusted name and damage our ability to proclaim Christ to the world."

"The placement of the George W. Bush library and the establishment of an institute to promote the policies of this president at SMU would be a tragedy," said retired Bishop William Boyd Grove of Charleston, W.Va. "The policies of the Bush administration are in direct conflict with the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church on issues of war and peace, civil liberties and human rights, care for the environment, and health care."

Schubert M. Ogden, SMU professor emeritus, said establishing a "partisan think tank will unquestionably damage the integrity and the reputation of SMU. … Delegates to the South Central Jurisdiction should in no way be deprived of their legal right to vote."

SMU President R. Gerald Turner sent an e-mail to students and faculty saying that fears that the institute would become another Hoover Institution—the right-leaning think tank at Stanford University—were needless because the Bush institute would not be part of SMU.

Turner promoted the benefits to scholarship of being host to the Bush center. "For SMU to be associated with the repository of historical documents on a pivotal presidency and era in U.S. history would be a service to the nation transcending political interests," he wrote. "Universities, like the scholars they nurture, must take the long view in assessing their potential for impact."

Marvin P. Bush, a brother of the president, and Donald J. Evans, a foundation official, said, "Part of (the institute’s) mission will be to further the domestic and international goals of the Bush administration," including "compassionate conservatism" and "defeating terrorism."

Questions of control

"(It) is important that the delegates of the jurisdictional conference be given the opportunity to approve the actions of the Mission Council." –Bishop Kenneth W. Hicks

The fact that the library and the institute would not be controlled by the university did not comfort faculty members opposing the library, however.

Alexis McCrossen, a professor of history, reviewed policies of the 12 presidential libraries. All of them are administered and run by the National Archives and Records Administration. "What they share in common is university oversight and non-partisan or bi-partisan agendas," said McCrossen. "These standards ensure academic freedom and the unfettered pursuit of truth.

"If the SMU trustees establish an autonomous, partisan Bush institute on campus, it will undermine the university’s reputation and good standing in the academy."

McCrossen noted that one other United Methodist school––Emory University in Atlanta––currently oversees a presidential policy center. In 1982, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter established the Carter Center in cooperation with Emory. Although not located on the Emory campus, the school appoints half of the Carter Center trustees, and Emory’s human relations department oversees all of the Carter Center hiring. Emory is owned by the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference of The United Methodist Church.

*Peck is a retired clergy member of New York Annual Conference and serves as a free-lance journalist in Nashville.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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