Stanley Fish on Hosting the GWB Presidential Library:
In a blog post hidden behind the TimesSelect barrier over at the N.Y. Times, Stanley Fish has an interesting post arguing that members of the SMU community should be proud to host the George W. Bush Presidential Library regardless of what they think of the current President. Here's the gist of Fish's argument:
  A university is pledged to determine the truth of the texts its faculty studies. It is not pledged to confining itself to texts of whose truthfulness it is convinced. A university is pledged to the integrity of the work that goes on within its precincts. But it is not pledged to conduct that work only on persons and agenda of whose integrity it is confident. A university is pledged to respect the persons of its employees, which means that it evaluates everyone by the same set of nondiscriminatory standards. But it is not pledged to restrict the object of its academic attention to people and groups who do not discriminate. A university is pledged to use its resources -- money, equipment, labor -- responsibly, but neither the responsibility or irresponsibility of those entities it chooses to study is something it is pledged to consider.
  Those who think that by insisting on a moral yardstick, the university protects its integrity have it all wrong; the university forsakes its integrity when it takes upon itself the task of making judgments that belong properly to the electorate and to history. A university's obligation is to choose things worthy of study, not to study only those things it finds worthy.
  College Station, Tex., the home of George H.W. Bush's library, has become an obligatory stop on the lecture circuit. And while Dallas is no backwater, its cultural and intellectual life would surely be enriched by the presence of still another world-class attraction.
Ragerz (mail):
If the university is obligated to spend even one dollar subsidizing this library, it is entitled to make moral judgments.

We can't subsidize everything. Resources are scarce. Choices have to be made. Moral considerations are perfectly acceptable in making choices in how to expend scarce resources.

What if this library is free? I still don't see why SMU has to tolerate it on its property.

The library can be seperate from any university.
1.22.2007 9:20pm
Fish is consistently the most intellectually honest and least doctrinaire of the name-brand left-wing academics. Must be that studying the classics (in his case, Milton) really does improve your thought no matter what you think.
1.22.2007 9:41pm
MnZ (mail):
I agree with Ragerz. We shouldn't let history judge GWB, because history might get it wrong like it did with Reagan.
1.22.2007 9:44pm
Ian (www):
The problem with Fish's argument is that it ignores the tension between a university's purpose (what Fish describes as "determin[ing] the truth") and that of the Bush library, which Bush and his library supporters have been quite candid in admitting will be a $500 million "legacy polishing center."

In other words, the debate between Bushistas and academics is not that Bushistas believe that President Bush is a source of "truth" and most academics disagree. The problem is that academics believe that universities should exist for the purpose of discovering truth, while Bushistas want to use SMU &the Bush library to promote Bush's legacy even in the face of truth. An academic, faced with compelling evidence that George Bush is an ass (setting aside the political debate over whether such evidence exists) is bound by academic standards to follow that evidence to its conclusion. The Bush library, however, when faced with such evidence, is bound by its mission to obscure it, scrub it, ignore it or otherwise dodge whatever truth it may reveal in order to advance a pre-defined mission of legacy polishing.

There are dozens of think tanks in D.C. which exist for this purpose—advancing a political agenda no matter how much truth tries to intervene. If Bush wants to build such an institution, than he has a First Amendment right to do so with money he collects subsequent to leaving office. Since this institution's mission would be fundamentally incompatable with that of a university, however, SMU professors are rightly concerned about allowing their university to support an institution whose mission runs counter to their own.
1.22.2007 9:51pm
Irving Washington (mail):
Harvard and Yale aren't fighting for the library?
1.22.2007 10:07pm
I'm not really sure what you think you're talking about. This is a Presidential Library, we have one for every President from Coolidge on. The missions of the Presidential Libraries aren't really controversial and are definitely compatible with the missions of other academic institutions.
1.22.2007 10:13pm
eric (mail):
If SMU does not want the library, Bush should withdraw the offer. Shop the library around, a university somewhere in the midwest will probably take it.

As far as the objection of the SMU professors, this is just another example of attempting to shout down anything they disagree with.
1.22.2007 10:19pm
PhillyLawyer (mail):
I find it rich that the same academics who can support Ward Churchill et al using arguments very similar to the one advanced by Fish are suddenly turning on a dime and finding moral problems being remotely associated with anything having to do with President Bush.
1.22.2007 10:34pm
Stanley Fish - he's the guy who used to be at Duke but is now at something called Florida International? Is that a cosmetology school?
1.22.2007 10:37pm
Mark Field (mail):

I find it rich that the same academics who can support Ward Churchill et al using arguments very similar to the one advanced by Fish are suddenly turning on a dime and finding moral problems being remotely associated with anything having to do with President Bush.

Perhaps you could identify even one of those "same academics".
1.22.2007 10:40pm
frankcross (mail):
I think SMU should take the library but continue to be amazed by Fish's arguments.
Think about the implications. Somebody wants to put a major Holocaust denial institute at SMU or an institute supporting the 9-11 attacks. I think it would be proper, even morally compelled, for them to reject this, even if it required none of their funds.
1.22.2007 10:44pm
BobNSF (mail):
Perhaps Bush should suggest a permanent, single presidential archive. Bush can have the honor of being the first president whose papers reside there, and his donors can have the honor of founding what will become a national treasure. It would set of a frenzy of competition for Bush's papers.

On a separate note, nothing of value in the Bush library will be viewable for at least 50 years. Half a billion dollars to showcase Barney Christmas videos seems a bit much, no?
1.22.2007 11:02pm
Prof. Cross, I don't think anyone is suggesting that a university has to host institutes that are fundamentally opposed to the search for truth (like a holocaust-denial factory that refuses to engage in the disciplined practice of historical scholarship) or a 9-11 promotion center that simply has no truth-seeking aims. He's just suggesting that a presidential library has a lot to offer academics, even those who dislike the particular president in question.

There seems to be a pretty bright line between a presidential library and your examples, is all that I'm saying. Has Fish gone on record as supporting holocaust denial centers? If he has, I'm unaware of it.
1.22.2007 11:13pm
Elliot123 (mail):
I hope those professors continue their campaign into the stacks of the SMU library. There must be thousands of books in there they disagree with. Don't let the momentunm die.
1.23.2007 12:26am
Freddy Hill (mail):
Presidential libraries serve as both research centers and as museums where the life of the president in question is celebrated, sometimes in hagiographical tones.

Just as a thought experiment, imagine that somebody wanted to donate to SMU a newly-discovered archive containing everything Hitler ever wrote. I'd bet that SMU would be extremely pleased to receive such a historical treasure.

Now suppose that as condition of the gift SMU was expected to build a museum celebrating the life of Hitler. I'd willing to bet that enthusiasm would cool significantly.

I am by no means trying to push the Bush=Hitler meme, but if a SMU professor thinks that Bush has acted unethically (and we all know that there are many who do) he/she may be justified in opposing the library and rejecting Fish's argument.
1.23.2007 1:13am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Presidential libraries are a bad idea for several reasons. One is that it doesn't really make sense to house presidential papers separately from the other government papers of the period. Presidential papers should go to the National Archives where researchers will have access to other relevant materials and where they will not be under the control of people committed to preserving and enhancing the President's reputation.

However benign some presidential libraries may be, the proponents of the Bush library have made it very clear that they intend a "policy institute" to be a significant component of it. What they envision is clearly partisan and inconsistent with the mission of a university. The Hoover Institution at Stanford provides an excellent example of the problems caused by lodging a partisan think tank within a university.

As for Stanley Fish, I suppose that he compares favorably with many other postmodernist lunatics, but it seems to me that at best what he has to say is pedestrian. Why he is considered an important public intellectual is beyond me.
1.23.2007 2:23am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I am reminded of my visit to the LBJ library in Austin. My brother and sister-in-law were scandalized when I pointed out, loudly, how he got elected personally stuffing ballot boxes, and how he managed to go from being a penniless school teacher to being quite wealthy on his long civil service salary.

My point though is that the reality is that the real complaint is that this library would George W. Bush's memorial. It is GWB that they are really complaining about, and not anything else. They were quiet when the Clinton library was being funded and built, despite its obvious flaws, including some adverse impacts on the community in which it was being built.

Yes, these libraries are getting bigger and grander. This is IMHO primarily a function of this country getting richer, more than anything else. They are invariably the primary memorial for the presidents whose papers are housed there.

Finally, I don't see the university turning it down. While the invariably liberal faculty may scream about it, the majority of the alums, who are the ones who contribute money and send their kids there, are likely to be in favor of it. The school turning it down would likely result in a fair financial hit to it, above and beyond any direct loss. In the end, faculty are replacible, and alumni donors are not.
1.23.2007 4:48am
Federal Dog:
The position of SMU is unwittingly revealing. If the purpose of that school were scholarly or academic, housing a presidential archive there would be considered positive. Only if one has wholly replaced scholarship with political activism does even housing a scholarly archive become objectionable. SMU has thus clearly communicated that it is not a scholarly institution, but, rather, an inconsequential political camp.

The only concern here is for any students who might not understand that the school has jettisoned academics for loud (and ineffectual) political posturing.
1.23.2007 7:23am
Andy Freeman (mail):
> If the university is obligated to spend even one dollar subsidizing this library, it is entitled to make moral judgments.

Universities don't support anything; they spend other people's money.

> We can't subsidize everything. Resources are scarce.

Quite true. Let's see what SMU finds more worthy than a presidential library.
1.23.2007 8:53am
Stanley Fish seems to be describing his idea of a university, but a social scientist would determine the purpose of universities by examining their actions, and no one who did that would come up with a list like Stanley Fish's. Briefly, society as a whole supports universities because they act as, more or less, personnel offices for corporate America, screening and ranking potential employees. The universities themselves are run by professors, whose primary aim is job security (academia generally attracts unadventurous people who prefer length of days to glory). A minor secondary aim is promotion of the political agenda of the majority of the faculty. (You won't, for instance, find a single professor resigning from SMU if it accepts the Bush library, because job security is a lot more important to them than politics.) Nothing in the conduct of the average university--and I went to several--indicates that the university is "pledged to determine the truth" of anything.
1.23.2007 8:53am
frankcross (mail):
The issue is whether moral judgments "belong to the electorate and history." As a private citizen, I reject that -- I have a right to make judgments even when the electorate may disagree with me. Presumably a private institution can take the same position. Fish suggests that a university is in a unique situation where it foregoes such moral judgments by nature. That makes no sense to me insofar as his exclusive "seeking truth" objective involves a moral judgment in its own right.
1.23.2007 11:36am
Maarja Krusten (historian and former government archivist) (mail):
A university plays no role in determining what is released and what is restricted in archival collections held in a post-Watergate Presidential Library. Academics may have their own views on what is historical truth and how to craft conclusory narratives. But they cannot affect what is released of the contemporaneous records held within a Presidential Library. Neither can a think tank or institute. The Presidential Libraries are staffed and administered by the National Archives. By law, decisions on access to a former President's papers are governmental, not academic, matters. The controlling authority is the Presidential Records Act of 1978, passed after Watergate. The PRA of 1978 gives Presidents a 12-year period after leaving office in which to restrict certain classes of information in their historical records. Separate provisions in the PRA apply to information requiring more open-ended or longterm protection from inappropriate and premature disclosure. Those provisions are applied by government archivists.

The impact on the PRA of 1978 of Executive Order 13233, signed by President Bush in 2001, is unclear as the matter is in litigation. After its archivists have finished their review but before the agency opens Presidential records to the public, the National Archives informs the President of what it proposes to open. The 2001 executive order gives former Presidents and their descendants the right in perpetuity to block information in Presidential records from disclosure.

Again, the principal players are governmental and the controlling authorites are statutes and executive orders. In terms of what information is released from a President's records, it does not matter whether a President's records are in a Presidential Library associated with a university, in a "free standing" Presidential Library, or in the National Archives in the Washington, DC area. This may not have been clear, as Professor Fish does not address the issue of statutory controlling authorities in his blog entry.

All of the information to which I refer above is public and available to anyone wishing to consider issues related to Presidential Libraries. Go to and look for links on the history of Presidential Libraries and on the laws affecting them.
1.23.2007 1:16pm
Virginia Postrel (www):
Contrary to the assumptions of some posts here, SMU wants the library. The university actively campaigned for it, and has devoted considerable attention and resources to developing a plan for it, including acquiring land adjacent to the campus. A few vocal faculty members have objected to the library, a few more to the institute that would accompany it. The library may, indeed, have some negative impact on university operations in the short run, by diverting funding from local donors who support both SMU and Bush and who will donate to the library rather than to other programs. In the long run, however, having presidential papers on campus can only help the university become a center of historical research, especially given the proximity to Little Rock and the Clinton library. Stanford was short-sighted to block the Reagan library, and SMU is no Stanford.
1.23.2007 2:41pm
hey (mail):
VP: I see you continue your career of being hilariously wrong. Just because you have supposed "facts" and rely on "reason", you have the arrogance to contradict those of us who know the TRUTH.

So what that your husband is a professor at SMU and we're a bunch of people with no connection to SMU/Dallas except what we read in Mother Jones (horrible state, horrible city. Really what right thinking person would live in Texas outside of Austing?). We know the TRUTH. Bush is evil and of course the University opposes him. These outspoken heroes are the true voice of the school, not the "administration" that engaged in a "fierce" "competition" with "other" "schools". Baylor isn't even a real school, Baptist Xian bigots. Further, this whole "competition" is just an expression of the bourgeois patriarchy's oppression of the working classes and minorities. Why doesn't he have his library at Howard or NCCU?

We will unveil the truth about Bush and force his "Library" away. We will hunt it to the ends of the earth, just as we have persecuted rightfully opposed John Yoo and any other lawyer that didn't provide the same brief to the executive as the ACLU would have.
1.23.2007 4:00pm
hey (mail):
P.S. I love your book and the site (which everyone should read daily, if only to encourage you to write more). It was such a tragedy that you were such a rare appearance in the NYT, and an even greater one that you've moved on to higher integrity publications. Their readers need so much more exposure to the real world of empirical economic research, rather than just what their sandal wearing Marxist prof told them.
1.23.2007 4:03pm
I have sympathies on both sides in this one. I think there is great value in the library system, but I have long since lost patience with the twists that those seeking to justify a legacy and to undermine it take. And yes, I know that academic balance has long since lost it's cachet.

I think that for many of the participants on both sides of this one, to paraphrase Fish, the quote should be:

"A university is pledged to determine the truthiness of the texts its faculty studies."
1.23.2007 4:14pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
Well, Postrel's right. The university will definitely have to balance the integrity costs of hosting the presidential library of a historical embarrassment against the other gains that hosting said library may well bring. (After all, everyone knew that bestowing an honorary doctorate upon Kermit the Frog was a joke, but it still brought Southampton College some good publicity.)
1.23.2007 4:41pm
Federal Dog:
"The university will definitely have to balance the integrity costs of hosting the presidential library of a historical embarrassment"

They're not proposing to house the Carter library.
1.27.2007 7:35am
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
"They're not proposing to house the Carter library."

Oh. I get it.
1.29.2007 10:29am