U of C Prof: Obama's Library Should Stay Away

University of Chicago professor Charles Lipson wants President Barack Obama to look someplace else for his presidential libraryLipson argues that presidential libraries are there to celebrate a president's term in office, not to foster serious discussion of a president's legacy. That has no place at an academic institution like the University of Chicago, which is committed to academic freedom and non-partisanship. 

"These museums become policy perches, partisan political enterprises," says Lipson, a political science professor. "You don’t expect the blue dress to be on display in Little Rock."

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Lipson discusses his views on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.

We also spoke with University of Rochester English professor Curt Smith, a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and author of Windows on the White House: The Story of Presidential Libraries. Here's what he had to say:

Do all presidential libraries become the "launching pads" for partisan policies that Professor Lipson claims?

I think it depends almost solely on how the former president sees his library. There are two adages that come to mind—the fish rots form the head, and great leadership bubbles down from the top. It becomes what the former president wants it to become. It is true that the Kennedy library in particular is infamous for being a breeding ground for liberalism and Democratic causes. And I suppose Democrats might say the same of the Reagan library.

I might be a little biased, but I can say without question that the George H.W. Bush library is apolitical, bipartisan and prides itself on being non-partisan. It has honored Teddy Kennedy and Bill Clinton. 

Do any academic institutions with presidential libraries have qualms about them?

Any college that has a chance to secure a presidential library would be out of its mind if it did not. It could be used for a launching pad, as he says, for political causes, but colleges are already being used for political causes by hosting various politicians and organizations. Colleges with libraries need to act as watchdogs and exert faculty influence to ensure they’re as fair as possible.

If win-win ever applies, it applies here. The library brands the college and gives it name identification, luring students. It helps the library in terms of gravitas--you’re thought of as more learned because of that. You have a certain depth, or you’re perceived as having a certain depth. And it makes it easier to lure political figures from all sides of the spectrum.

No schools have even remotely second-guessed the decision to host a presidential library. The only one I can think of is Duke University. President Nixon considered having his library at Duke, and visited the campus. But there was some backlash and faculty said they were opposed to the idea. So Nixon withdrew and never formally asked to bring his library there.

Professor Lipson says he's also concerned about the donations that could be made to a presidential library fund while the president is still in office, that those donations could influence the president. Has that been a concern for past libraries?

There’s already undue influence in both parties, for decades. That battle has already been lost.

When President Bush left office and returned to Houston and Kennebunkport, he had four or five schools that wanted to house his library. He was faced with the challenge of raising funds. A great deal of those funds came through giving public speeches, and I was part of that, helping write his speeches. I would be shocked if President Obama doesn’t make a lot of the money through speechmaking, opposed to having it funded mostly through donations.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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