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U. of C. prof wants to shelve Obama library idea

University Chicago political science Professor Charles Lipsargues thBarack Obama's presidential library would be out place university thprides itself disinterested scholarship.

University of Chicago political science Professor Charles Lipson argues that Barack Obama's presidential library would be out of place at a university that prides itself on disinterested scholarship. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 25, 2012 6:16AM

A University of Chicago professor is raising red flags about the still-underground campaign to bring Barack Obama’s presidential library to the campus where Obama was a senior law lecturer.

“I want to raise the alarm because I think a presidential museum will inevitably become our university’s highest-profile institution on a national basis,” Political Science Professor Charles Lipson said. “It will not be a disinterested, scholarly institution. It will be advancing a political agenda, funded by President Obama’s political allies, including foreign donors who cannot give money to his presidential campaigns.”

The Reagan Library in California attracts conservative speakers and serves as a launching pad for Republican ideas, Lipson said. The Kennedy and Carter libraries in Boston and Atlanta attract liberal speakers and serve as staging grounds for liberal causes, he said.

The University of Chicago’s Kalven Report mandates that the university may not tie itself to political or partisan causes. Hitching the university to Obama’s legacy would do just that, Lipson said.

College Republicans President Jacob Rabinowitz agrees with Lipson that while presidential papers are appropriate for a university, “Presidential libraries have a consistent history of becoming bases for partisan think tanks and anonymous funding.”

Lipson has made his case to the university president, provost and his fellow professors — many of whom are Obama’s close friends, neighbors and donors. So far, Lipson admitted, he is a minority of one, unlikely to stop the inevitable library. “This thing is baked in the cake,” he said.

Obama scored high marks from his law students here, and his wife, Michelle, was a top administrator at the university hospital. The Obamas’ home is blocks from the campus.

For the past four years, U. of C. professors or administrators have dismissed questions about whether the campus should be home to Obama’s library with a wave of the hand and an admonition not to ask again until after the November election. Raising the issue now is seen as presumptuous. All discussion is going on under the table.

Biology Professor Michael LaBarbera serves on the faculty executive council. He disagrees with Lipson that a library would compromise the university’s political neutrality. He says the faculty should debate the library but not before an actual proposal surfaces.

Faculty divided

“The faculty, as near as I can tell, is divided,” LaBarbera said, though he estimates supporters far outnumber skeptics. “Hopefully, Obama will have another four years, and we won’t have to deal with this for at least five. I worry that if we get too obvious about disagreement here at the University of Chicago, it will wind up in Hawaii. I wouldn’t want to poison the well by having the discussion before its time.”

The University of Hawaii has waged a more public campaign to land Obama’s library. The state’s legislature passed a resolution encouraging Obama to put the library in the tropical paradise he called home for most of his first 18 years. Even the Chamber of Commerce is on board, said University of Hawaii Professor Robert Perkinson: “Obama is quite a beloved figure in Hawaii.”

U. of C. officials named a faculty committee headed by Law School Professor Geoffrey Stone, a friend and former colleague of Obama, to deal with Lipson’s concerns about whether his library might violate the Kalven principals.

Stone told the Chicago Sun-Times in an email it would be premature to discuss the library. “It’s much too soon to be thinking about that,” he wrote.

But hasn’t he been named to a committee to think about that?

“Only in the most general terms. Nothing concrete,” he wrote.

Calls to the university president and provost yield a similar wave-off from a university spokesman that “It is premature to discuss a presidential library.”

Have they gone so far as to scout potential locations, as the University of Hawaii has done?

“There is lots of available real estate on the south side of the Midway,” LaBarbera said. “The university has looked at a number of sites just south of the Midway for other projects — there’s an old AT&T building . . .”

Another option is the old USX site on the lakefront a few miles southeast of the campus. Or the old Pullman site where Obama used to organize.

Backers say the library could be an economic development engine for the South Side.

State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), who represents Hyde Park, said the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield has not become a partisan Republican institution, and an Obama library need not be partisan either.

“I share the concern that I don’t want it to become overly partisan,” said Daniel Comeaux, treasurer of the College Democrats at the U of C. “But I think it could be very valuable as an attraction and a source of scholarship. The documents reveal a lot about a presidency.”

Faculty who see the U. of C. as the perfect place for Obama’s library note that the school already hosts the Becker-Friedman Institute; the Paulson Institute and — brand new this year — Obama Senior Adviser David Axelrod’s Institute of Politics — all without apparently violating the Kalven Report.

But four years ago, when the university inaugurated the Friedman Institute, named for free-market guru Milton Friedman, who led the “Chicago School” of economists and won a Nobel prize, 100 faculty members signed a letter objecting to what they feared could become a “right-wing think tank.”

The controversy passed.

“David Axelrod’s Institute of Politics is meant to be a vehicle for students to get experience in political organizing through working on campaigns. You do have to wonder, given that it’s David Axelrod, just how nonpartisan it’s going to be,” LaBarbera said.

Axelrod invited Republican strategist Alex Castellanos and conservative columnist David Brooks, a fellow U. of C. alum, to the institute’s first event to ensure bipartisan flavor. Axelrod declined to comment on Lipson’s concerns about an Obama library.

The Paulson Institute was created last year to allow former George W. Bush Treasury secretary and Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson to direct study on the U.S.-China financial relationship.

The university’s reputation as more conservative than most has faded since Friedman’s days here.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia blasted the university’s law school three years ago as having gone liberal since he left the faculty. But earlier this year, Scalia reversed course and called it “an impressive place.” Lipson recognizes that he’s a lonely Republican voice on campus. In response to a suggestion by Lipson, the university’s trademark scavenger hunt offered five points to students who could find a card-carrying Republican humanities professor on campus. No one earned the five points.

When the university learned in recent years that former President Ronald Reagan spent a year of his childhood in an apartment building the university owns and plans to tear down, no movement emerged to preserve the structure a few blocks from the Becker-Friedman Institute.

If, as expected, the university forges ahead with plans for the library after Nov. 5, Lipson urges scrutiny of Obama’s fund-raising for the library — which typically starts in a president’s second term.

This story contains corrected information.

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