The responses to my recent column “Obama Library Is A Compromise Not Worth Making” (1/17/14) raise a number of important questions. On January 31, 2014, President Robert Zimmer formally announced the University’s support of efforts to locate the Obama presidential library on the South Side. Zimmer’s statement did not advocate for locating the library on campus, but instead voiced support for establishing it in “our neighboring communities on the South Side of Chicago.”
This is significant, as it indicates the potential for the Obama presidential library to exist independent of the University, but still remain near campus, an idea for which I voiced support in my previous column. Moreover, Zimmer’s words came after a statement by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in late January that the city of Chicago will be making a unified bid for the library. The legal and statutory rights to the library itself would arise after confirmation of the library’s location. However, if the library should be in Chicago, the proximity of the institution to our University is not relevant to our affiliation with it.
While the University has neither indicated its support for a unified bid nor explicitly stated that it will be making an individual bid for the library, it has expressed interest in fostering an academic relationship with the library, according to the FAQ on the University’s news website. Thus, what constitutes “affiliation” in terms of the University’s relationship with the library is the most important issue at hand. “Affiliation” constitutes an academic, legal, and financial relationship, and presidential libraries have a history of financial affiliation with universities. Other universities that host presidential libraries, such as Southern Methodist University, which supports the Bush library, have endowments dedicated to supporting programs and exhibitions at the institution—an idea Zimmer floated in the press release—and funds to help with construction and operations of the institution.
Because of the way presidential libraries are funded and operated, they have distinctly shifted away from their original goal as repositories and toward their role as museums, due both to federal budget cuts for these libraries and generally lower funding levels: After the construction of the library, the museum portion is funded jointly by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the corresponding Presidential Library Foundation. According to a report complied by the Congressional Research Service, “[P]rivate foundations often pay for the exhibits that are displayed in the presidential libraries and their accompanying museums. Private funding, therefore, supports the research and design of the exhibits that may inhabit areas that are owned and run by the federal government.”
The result is increased private influence in the libraries. As Larry Hackman, the former director of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, has said: “[T]here are hidden and in some cases there are some odious strings that come with [private] money that keep the library directors, no matter how well-intentioned they are, from developing certain exhibitions or programs.” So the claim that libraries are unbiased retrospectives of a president’s term is true only insofar as the powerful and well-connected allow them to be. NARA itself, though charged with presenting information dispassionately, has little control over the museum component of each library. As Hackman has also noted: “Most of all, [NARA] may fear that a more formal and extensive policy on exhibits would create high tension with influential individuals interested in such exhibits….” (emphasis mine). Because of this dynamic, presidential libraries have increasingly become, as Benjamin Hufbauer, author of Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory, notes, a “huge, glitzy, glamorous museum of spin—a giant campaign commercial in museum form,” that do not provide “sufficient oversight and impartial decisions.”
The University has a precedent for avoiding affiliation with such partial institutions. On November 11, 1967, the University of Chicago adopted an official University policy of neutrality with regard to political issues. The Kalven Report, named after the Law School professor Harry Kalven, Jr., held that “[t]o perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain its independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.” The Kalven Report should serve as a guide in determining both if and to what degree affiliation is acceptable—and affiliation with the Obama library would violate it.
So Zimmer’s claim that “[t]he University’s involvement would be independent of politics or ideology” skirts the issue. There exists a difference between the University claiming an explicit position on an issue and the more nuanced, implicit, principled intellectual environment that is affected by the University affiliating itself with a political and ideological institution. It is quite obvious that a University can maintain an explicitly neutral position on an issue while simultaneously involving itself with an institution or holding investments reeking of political passions and pressures. When the Milton Friedman Institute was announced, faculty responded in a manner similar to the way one who is opposed to the Obama presidential library would respond: “When the University of Chicago invests so heavily in culturally and politically conservative thought we wonder about its commitment to strong intellectual diversity in the tradition of the Kalven Report….Some colleagues are disturbed by the specter of the University of Chicago becoming another Stanford, with the Milton Friedman Institute taking on the imposing campus presence of the Hoover Institution,” a group letter from over 100 faculty members said.
Claiming that we need to bring the Obama presidential library to the University of Chicago because its scholarly and academic value is too good to pass up creates a false choice. The inherent value of the documents in the library is not contingent upon their affiliation with the University, nor would the scholarly benefits of the Obama library evaporate if it were located in the greater Hyde Park area or surrounding community. Rather, the University’s affiliation with the Obama presidential library would connect us with an institution that evokes strong partisan, political passions—one that attempts to make history rather than report it, and which highlights those things which private money has deemed important. With this in mind, would all of those who advocate for the University’s affiliation with the Obama library be as enthusiastic in their support if we were talking about the George W. Bush library instead?
Andrew Young is a first-year in the College.