Presidential libraries can create excitement, or controversy, for campuses
Hosting a former president's collection could bring prestige if his term was considered successful
The Barack Obama Foundation recently announced Chicago's historic Jackson Park at the location for the Obama Presidential Center, a facility that will be among the nation’s most expansive presidential libraries and museums dedicated to the Obamas' eight years in Washington.
The University of Chicago, which became engaged as a strategic institutional partner when the city of Chicago was named as the location last May, secured the bid ahead of three other institutions — the University of Hawaii, Columbia University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The proposal process is aggressive, tenuous, and can divide cities along institutional lines; all to tell what some say is an incomplete accounting of American history.
Why Colleges Bid for Presidential Libraries
Presidential library construction dates back to 1939. President Franklin Roosevelt first commissioned a library to secure and showcase presidential papers and items which he thought should be considered as a part of the nation's archival history. The federal government has since legislated for these centers to be financed privately by outgoing presidents, and for operations to be turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration, with operational costs to be endowed through private fundraising.
Colleges and universities submit bids to foundations incorporated by former presidents or supporters, in order to secure the opportunity of associating with successful or popular presidential history, and to create immeasurable opportunities for outreach and promotion.
"For us, this is fundamentally continuing the deep engagement we have with the South Side community," University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer told the Washington Post in 2015. Zimmer also pointed out the impact the project would have economically and on the lives on young people in the city.
Former presidents Lyndon B. Johnson (University of Texas - Austin), Gerald Ford (University of Michigan), George H.W. Bush (Texas A&M University) and Bill Clinton (University of Arkansas System) are some of the prominent namesakes for campus-affiliated presidential centers, which commonly serve as headquarters for policy and research development, office space for the founding foundations or support organizations, campus and community lectures, and exhibits which are open to the public.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center, a three-story, 227,000 square foot facility on the Southern Methodist University campus, is the last constructed presidential library. SMU students have access to classroom space, electronic archival research, and according the center officials, its programming has attracted more than 700,000 visitors since 2013.
According to some estimates, the Bush Center is among the most expensive presidential centers, with a price tag of more than $500 million. But one expert says a presidential center's presence on a college campus isn't always an automatic assumption of affiliation or affinity.
Unspoken Costs and Controversy
The Bush Center would have seemingly been an ideal fit for Yale University, George W. Bush's undergraduate alma mater. But the controversial themes associated with Bush’s presidency may have affected the level of interest from Yale towards such a large scale, public project.
The presidential library "is usually a location the president is associated in some way," says University of Louisville Professor and presidential library expert Benjamin Hufbauer. "Bush was a Yale man, but Southern Methodist (alma mater of his wife Laura) was chosen for its prestige and had land available."
He also cites Richard Nixon, a Duke University School of Law graduate who wanted his presidential center to be located at the private North Carolina institution, but school officials rejected it because of multiple scandals during his tenure.
"Obama is pretty popular and had a successful presidency. Historians may look at him as a good president, and there's a lot of prestige there. For President Nixon, there wasn't so much prestige. Nixon graduated from Duke, and wanted his library to be there, but Duke said 'thanks but no thanks.' "
Hufbauer says that presidential libraries serve as the official archives of presidential raw materials, but function as museums constructed in testament to the more positive moments of a presidency.
"They basically serve as a giant infomercial in museum form. This is true for Democrats and Republicans, they don't usually want to acknowledge anything critical."
Hufbauer cites the controversy surrounding the Ronald Reagan Library, which for years did not feature an exhibit or coverage of the Iran-Contra arms scandal. Given the library's purpose as a learning resource first and its museum function as a secondary mission, he believes the centers should do more to present a balanced depiction.
For schools which may enter a partnership to support these centers through fundraising, and costs which can exceed more than $7 million annually, Hufbauer says the centers should act in the best interest of history and the public trust.
"It's kind of like a mini-Smithsonian, and when you go there, you normally you think you're going to get history and you're going to learn from them. If presidents want a museum of advertisement, don't turn it over to the federal government."