With thousands of universities competing for students, faculty, funds, and respect, how can one upstart institution stand out? At the moment, administrators at the University of Texas at San Antonio (where, full disclosure, I teach) are eyeing NCAA football, but back in February 2005, a presidential library seemed a way to advance the school’s grand ambitions.
The University of Texas board of regents created a committee to formulate and promote a plan to construct the George W. Bush library on a UT campus. Peter Flawn, a former president of UTSA as well as UT Austin, and Tom Loeffler, a former San Antonio Congressman as well as former chairman of the board of UT regents, were hometown boosters tapped to lead the effort.
Presidential libraries generally consist of an archive, museum, and research institute, and the plan that Flawn and Loeffler devised called for the Bush facilities to be housed at both UT-Dallas and UTSA. Ricardo Romo, UTSA president, was quoted in the Express-News as saying that his campus would be “privileged and honored to be a contender.” As Mark Twain said about the prospect of being tarred and feathered, serving as host to a Bush theme park is an honor one might just as well decline.
The UTSA director of libraries knew nothing about the project, perhaps because it never stood a chance. UTSA lacks the connection to the Bush family that the finalist, Southern Methodist University, has; Laura Bush is an alumna and trustee, and she and her husband used to live in Dallas. SMU President R. Gerald Turner is currently negotiating arrangements for the library, which, at $500 million, will be the most expensive presidential facility outside the White House. He is also facing a revolt by his own faculty and staff that might make him covet Romo’s losing bid. Similar dissension scuttled plans to place the Nixon library at Duke University and sent it to an independent site in California.
In a January 5 email to students and faculty, Turner argued that acquiring the Bush library would be a coup. “To be one of only 13 such sites in the nation would place SMU at the center of scholarly interest nationally and internationally,” he wrote. “For SMU to be associated with the repository of historical documents on a pivotal presidency and era in U.S. history would be a service to the nation transcending political interests.” Turner tried to calm a tense meeting with faculty by assuring them that the proposed Bush Institute would report to the Bush Foundation, not SMU, but many believe that a university ought to be responsible for what occurs within its own walls.
In a column published in SMU’s Daily Campus, two theology professors, William K. McElvaney and Susanne Johnson, question the ethics of bringing the library to their university. “Do we want SMU to benefit financially from a legacy of massive violence, destruction, and death brought about by the Bush presidency in dismissal of broad international opinion?” they ask. “What moral justification supports SMU’s providing a haven for a legacy of environmental predation and denial of global warming, shameful exploitation of gay rights, and the most critical erosion of habeas corpus in memory?”
Though he married a librarian, Bush’s bookishness was most evident in his decision to continue reading The Pet Goat while New York burned. His commitment to independent research is demonstrated by the unprecedented restrictions that his administration has placed on archives, including those of the last three presidents. Without guarantees of open access, a George W. Bush Library (the very term seems an oxymoron) could become a factory for sanitizing the reputation of a pampered yahoo (who was an embarrassment to higher education and a disgrace to the American presidency) and any past governmental misdeeds.
So UTSA need not grieve over losing the Bush sweepstakes.
Yale remains a great university without even bidding to house the papers of its dunderhead alumnus (Bush, see above). However, Yale houses a great academic library, the second largest in the Western Hemisphere. It acquires almost as many new books in a single year as UTSA possesses in its entire collection. UTSA’s John Peace Library is barely one-sixth the size of the library at Auburn University, ranked 100th in the United States. To be recognized as — and even be — a major research institution, UTSA needs a major library. A competitive football program is expensive (Alabama spends $4 million a year on just its coach), and one that cannot compete is a greater waste. Let others squander millions on football and monuments to presidential magnificence. A high-powered campaign to create a great library at UTSA is still overdue.
Steven G. Kellman is a University of Texas at San Antonio professor and a regular Current contributor.