Between the Lines: May/June 2011


Thirty years ago, the campus was consumed with a planned presidential library, a project that would document (or embellish) the legacy of Richard Nixon LL.B. ’37. Duke’s new opening to China—perhaps a rough parallel to Nixon’s dramatic opening to China—stirs campus conversation today: Critics of Duke’s plans in Kunshan have questioned the consultative process, the funding model, the site chosen, and the assurances of academic freedom. Still, today’s China-centered conversation departs from the tone of correspondence to campus leaders in 1981.

As this issue’s cover story suggests, a Nixon archive without pegged-on, non-scholarly features—such as celebratory museum exhibitions—might have won acceptance on campus. But there seemed little chance of such a deal from Nixon’s side. And in the wake of Watergate, faculty emotions were raw.

There was the political scientist who compared Duke to “some sandlot seminary, with a weak faculty and a marauding president and yahoo board.” There was the law-school colleague who couldn’t bear the thought of “teaching law students in the shadow of a monument honoring the man who said, ‘Perjury is a hard rap to prove.’ ” And there were the four anthropology professors who feared a misrepresentation of history: “We know…reformulation of the past to be quite common, as when Polynesian usurpers reconstruct their genealogies to show a more chiefly pedigree or when Untouchable castes in India validate claims to higher status by spurious histories.”

As observers of the academy are quick to note, gather a dozen faculty members in a room, and you’ll get at least thirteen opinions. In the midst of that heated debate in the summer and fall of 1981, one religion professor argued that “it would be mean, narrow, and short-sighted” to deprive Duke of a presidential archive—particularly “if we have no better reason than the prevailing disenchantment with Nixon as a person, understandable as that might be.”

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