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SMU, Bush Foundation approve presidential library

Trustees of Southern Methodist University in Dallas have approved a resolution to bring the George W. Bush Presidential Library to the campus. A UMNS photo courtesy of Southern Methodist University.

A UMNS Report
By Marta W. Aldrich
Feb. 22, 2008

Thanking U.S. President George W. Bush for entrusting Southern Methodist University with an important national resource, the school's board of trustees unanimously approved an agreement to locate the Bush presidential library, museum and policy institute on the Dallas campus.

The Feb. 22 vote came hours after an official announcement that the Bush Presidential Library Foundation had chosen the United Methodist-related school as home of the planned facility. The school had been in exclusive negotiations with the foundation for more than a year.

R. Gerald Turner

"It’s a great honor for SMU to be chosen as the site of this tremendous resource for historical research, dialogue and public programs," said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. "… We thank President Bush for entrusting this important long-term resource to our community, and for the opportunity for SMU to serve the nation in this special way."

In a letter to Turner, Bush expressed his happiness with the SMU choice and echoed President Franklin D. Roosevelt's comments that presidential libraries can be used by the public to "learn from the past" and "gain in judgment in creating their own future."

"I look forward to the day when both the general public and scholars come and explore the important and challenging issues our nation has faced during my presidency––from economic and homeland security to fighting terrorism and promoting freedom and democracy," Bush wrote.

'This fight is not over'

Opponents of the Bush library campaign for SMU quickly responded by vowing to fight the school's lease agreement in court.

"This fight is not over," said the Rev. Andrew Weaver, a United Methodist pastor and SMU alumnus who has led a petition against the library plan. "SMU has signed something that is totally out of bounds, and it's only a matter of going to court with them. It will be David vs. Goliath, but David won the first time."

The George W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation and Southern Methodist University have been in exclusive negotiations since 2006. A UMNS photo courtesy of Southern Methodist University.

Critics have questioned the appropriateness of linking the Bush presidency with the private, 11,000-student school founded in 1911 by what is now The United Methodist Church. They argue that many policies of the Bush administration, particularly the war in Iraq, are contrary to United Methodist teaching.

Weaver and some church leaders have questioned the process through which the school has obtained approval from the church's South Central Jurisdiction for the 99-year lease on the library property.

In a closed executive session last March, the jurisdiction's 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 Mission Council is the executive committee of the jurisdictional conference, which meets once every four years and is scheduled to meet this July in Dallas.

Weaver argues that only the full jurisdictional conference can give final approval for the lease.

"SMU is owned lock, stock and barrel by the church's South Central Jurisdiction. No one can sign a lease without their permission," Weaver told United Methodist News Service. "Cutting the delegates out of the vote over their own property is not going to stand in the church law and, more important, the lawyers tell us it will never stand in civil law."

Weaver said the decision by school administrators to sign the lease five months before the jurisdictional conference meeting indicates "they are really concerned by the outcome of the vote."

Bishop Scott Jones


However, Bishop Scott Jones, president of the jurisdiction's College of Bishops, said the Mission Council was the proper body to vote on the matter in between jurisdictional meetings.

"There is precedence for this, and the Mission Council has the authority," said Jones, an SMU trustee and former professor at SMU's Perkins School of Theology. "The Mission Council must report its actions to the jurisdictional conference, and I'm sure there will be conversation at that time. But SMU has the authority to enter this agreement regarding the lease, and they have executed that agreement."

An academic asset

Jones called the agreement "a great step forward for SMU."

"For scholars who want to talk about the 20th century and conflict in the Middle East, hunger in Africa, and other important aspects of our country's history during this time, the Bush presidential library is a huge academic asset," said Jones.

Throughout much of Bush's two presidential terms, SMU has lobbied to serve as host for the presidential center. Bush and his wife, Laura, are both United Methodists, and the first lady is a graduate of SMU and a member of its board of trustees.

Foundation officials said SMU was chosen because of its academic reputation, its Dallas location, SMU's willingness to lease the land for the project and the "strong support of the university's leaders, alumni and friends."

They said they expect to break ground on the complex in 2009 and complete construction within five years. Cost estimates have ranged from $200 million to $500 million, and fundraising will be conducted by the foundation in collaboration with SMU.

The presidential center will consist of the presidential library that contains documents and artifacts of the Bush administration; a museum with permanent and traveling exhibits; and a public policy institute. The library and museum will be operated by the National Archives and Records Administration.

Critics have expressed concern that SMU would have no control over the Bush institute, a partisan think tank that would further his administration’s views.

SMU officials said the institute will be governed by a board of directors of from three to nine members, elected annually. If that board has five or fewer members, SMU will appoint one member; if more than five, SMU will appoint two members.

"I'm confident that the proper steps have been taken by SMU to guarantee academic freedom and a proper relationship between SMU and the Bush Foundation," said Jones. "I am fully confident that this is in SMU's best interest."

'Defining moment'

A friendly crowd of about 200 people attended the school's news conference at Hughes-Trigg Student Center on the SMU campus after school and foundation officials signed the agreement.

The Rev. William McElvaney


"This is a big deal, a very big deal," said Don Evans, chairman of the foundation, in a Dallas Morning News story. "We are at a defining moment in our history."

The Rev. William McElvaney, a professor emeritus at SMU's Perkins School of Theology, attended the news conference and told UMNS later that the planned policy institute "constitutes a major change of direction of SMU's previously nonpartisan educational history and practice."

He also lamented the process by which the school reached its agreement with the foundation. "There was a lack of transparency characterizing the university's process from the inception of seeking the Bush legacy to be on our campus," he said.

Dallas business leader Carl Sewell, who leads the SMU trustees board, said the presidential center will add benefit to an SMU education and attract outstanding students and faculty to the Dallas campus. "Securing this library represents an important step forward in academic achievement for SMU and for our service to Dallas and the nation."

*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.

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

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