Volume 10, No. 2 - March 2000
Established in 1993 on ninety well-manicured acres at Texas A&M University, the George Bush School of Government and Public Service is dedicated to "the continuing legacy of George Bush." Thanks in part to the name, reporters like to call the school looking for political insight and reaction quotes. But professors at the young school--caught between Bush-family loyalty and the principles of academic freedom--haven't always been sure how to answer.
The trouble started in October 1996, when the Corpus Christi Caller-Times interviewed George Edwards III, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at the Bush School. Asked to handicap the Clinton-Dole presidential race in Texas, Edwards remarked that Clinton had a shot at carrying the traditionally Republican state. Said Edwards, "People don't like the Republicans very much [this year]."
The comment set off a chain reaction of angry phone calls from both high-ranking Bush School administrators and Bush-family contacts, resulting in a meeting between Edwards, Bush School director Charles Hermann, and other Texas A&M officials. School officials say that at the meeting they merely asked Edwards to distinguish clearly between his personal views and those of the school when he talked to the press. But Edwards remembers it a bit differently: He says he was asked to tone down his GOP-critical comments. "I said forcefully that the meeting was very inappropriate and should never have taken place," he recalls.
Fast-forward to October 1998, when the Dallas Morning News called James Aune, an associate professor of speech communications with a small Bush School research grant. Invited to assess a gubernatorial debate between George W. Bush and his Democratic opponent, Aune presciently noted that the younger Bush looked "presidential." He then added, "He's so much in his demeanor like his father. But his father was so inept as a public speaker. The governor seems to have corrected that."
The dig at the senior Bush's rhetorical prowess caught the attention of Dale Laine Jr., then the manager of George W.'s gubernatorial campaign. Laine called a Bush School vice president and suggested that the faculty limit their comments to those based on "research or scientific evidence." The vice president relayed the George W. campaign's displeasure to the director. Thinking that the school administration wanted an official policy, Hermann drafted an e-mail titled "Talking to Media" and sent it to a few colleagues.
As a "matter of sensitivity and simple courtesy to the people who have made possible this school," Hermann wrote, faculty members should not "use the affiliation with the Bush School in ways that cause embarrassment to the Bush family." Hermann counseled faculty to refrain from claiming a Bush School affiliation if they intended to give "personal opinions or undocumented material pertaining to any member of the Bush family or an organization with which they are prominently associated." In a memo, Hermann also cautioned that "failure to comply" with this policy could "lead to termination of the relationship" between the school and the offending professor.
In their own defense, Bush School administrators point out that since the memo was never distributed, no one's academic freedom was compromised. Says Ray Bowen, president of Texas A&M, "We should be blamed for doing things, not for thinking of doing things." Nonetheless, the affair has heightened anxiety among some faculty about the Bush family's influence. Concerned professors point to the school's twelve-member advisory board, reportedly handpicked by President Bush.
The board's roster reads like the guest list to a White House reception circa 1990. It includes Lynne Cheney, Bush's choice to head the National Endowment for the Humanities and the wife of his secretary of defense; Lieutenant Colonel Marc Cisneros, a leader of Bush's Panama invasion in 1989; and Don Powell, a wealthy banking executive and member of the Bush "pioneers," an elite group of fund-raisers committed to bringing in $100,000 each for George W.'s presidential campaign. There's even an actual Bush--Neil, of S&L infamy, the cadet of the junior Bush triumvirate. (Of course, presidential cronyism is nothing new in the academic world. President Johnson, for instance, installed his old postmaster general as the founding dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, the Bush School's counterpart at the University of Texas.)
Faculty anxiety surged anew in July, when Texas A&M's board of regents, headed by Powell, approved a plan to remove the Bush School from the College of Liberal Arts and make it an autonomous unit within the university. No one had consulted the faculty. According to school administrators, the move to independence wasn't scheduled for another ten to fifteen years. Governor Bush was a major backer of autonomy, however, and in a secret rider to an appropriations bill passed in April, the Texas legislature had granted the Bush School a badly needed $2.5 million on condition that it become independent. Some professors worried that the unmooring of the school was an attempt by the family to make it more amenable to outside control.
Over the summer, Charles Hermann (who soon after writing his memo became a strong defender of the school's integrity) was removed as director. President Bush recruited his old CIA director, Robert Gates, to replace him. And in September, the Bush School won its independence. Gates, who will serve only as interim dean, has made clear his support for academic freedom: "Anyone who calls me from the outside about what our faculty members say in a newspaper will get an unwelcome response." But many are reserving judgment until the appointment of the permanent dean (Condoleeza Rice, the Bush campaign's top foreign-policy adviser, heads the search committee). According to Hermann, now an associate dean, "Everyone is taking a wait-and-see kind of stance."
Have Bush School professors become more guarded about political issues? Edwards believes some professors may become even more outspoken, to prove their resistance to censorship. But Aune admits that for him punditry has lost some of its charm. "From now on," he says, "I am going to devote myself to eighteenth-century political theory. It's safer."
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