By Aaron Reiss
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SMU, both in and out of court, forcefully maintains that it has done nothing wrong. John McElhaney, of counsel with the Dallas-based law firm of Locke Liddell, which represents SMU, says the school looked at the University Gardens site "at a fairly early stage" as a possible location for a presidential library, along with other school uses. But the university didn't hatch a stealth plan to steal people's homes; it merely followed the complex's own rules, which allowed the school to take over the condos once it owned a super-majority of units.
"SMU definitely wanted the property," he says. "What's false is this accusation that there was this evil plot to get it for the library. That's just baloney."
For SMU, a university that lacks a stellar academic reputation outside of Texas, the presidential center could raise its national profile for generations. The library would be ground zero for any historian wanting to learn more about the seminal events that highlighted, if not plagued, Bush's presidency. And those historians won't care one bit about how that library came into being.
On February 22, 2008, SMU landed the presidential library complex with its accompanying Freedom Institute think tank. Its efforts to generate real estate options for the library paid off handsomely. All but two residents at University Gardens sold their homes to SMU, which would demolish the complex in 2007.
But the two who held out, Vodicka and Tafel, have made life miserable for the image-conscious university. In August 2005, Vodicka filed a lawsuit against SMU (Tafel would sign on later) that has resulted in the discovery of thousands of confidential documents which show just how desperately SMU wanted the presidential center and what its administrators were willing to do to get it. More recently, the plaintiffs convinced State District Judge Martin Hoffman to order the deposition of George W. Bush — an unprecedented inconvenience for an ex-president — so that the plaintiffs can discover what the university was telling the president about its plans.
Vodicka and Tafel don't make the most sympathetic plaintiffs. Tafel, who owns a thriving dental practice in Euless, between Dallas and Fort Worth, once rankled some of his fellow residents in a meeting by bragging about his personal wealth. Vodicka, who represents himself, had been mired in a contentious lawsuit with his brother over the mortgage of his own condominium until they recently agreed to a settlement. Friends and foes often remark how obsessed he is with defeating, if not humiliating, SMU in court.
The university, meanwhile, has employed a team of high-powered attorneys, who have savagely attacked the plaintiffs' character; in March, SMU's lead trial lawyer, Mark Lanier from Houston, told The Dallas Morning News: "SMU has been overly generous. You don't negotiate with terrorists, and you don't give in to a shakedown."
That comment came after the plaintiffs rejected SMU's settlement offer of $1 million each.
"They tried to accuse me of being greedy when they stole dozens of people's homes from them — if not over a hundred — solely for the purpose of saving tens of millions of dollars," Vodicka says. "I ask you who is greedy."
Just why SMU would want the Bush library may have as much to do with its past as its future. Given its handsome campus and location in a big city teeming with high-dollar patrons, SMU should be among the best schools in the country, a complaint many professors are quick to repeat. In fact, in the latest U.S. News & World Report ranking of the country's best universities, SMU came in 66th, two spots behind Texas A&M. SMU simply isn't that selective in its application process.
"I think the board has a parochial view," says former SMU anthropology professor David Freidel, who was a critic of the Bush library complex before joining the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis in 2007. "They want SMU to be a place for their children to attend if they don't go to Stanford or Vanderbilt or Duke; they want a good school in their neighborhood."
Freidel, who speaks fondly of his former students and colleagues, says that while SMU has little trouble raising money, its backers tend to funnel it into showy new buildings and monuments, including a new football stadium. Even the Bush library complex, which will be paid for by private donations, will likely take away contributions that could have gone to elevating SMU's academic standing.
But for a university still widely known for a generations-old football scandal, a presidential library might provide a new platform for global exposure. And yet the pay-for-play scandal still pops up in debates over the library, notable not just because its particular brand of cheating was approved by then-Board president Bill Clements, who was between terms as governor, but also because the NCAA decided to institute an unprecedented "death penalty" against SMU, which canceled the next two seasons and destroyed its football program.
The man who came to SMU's rescue was Ray Hunt, the pragmatic son of legendary oilman H.L. Hunt. In the wake of Clements's departure, Ray became the president of the school's Board of Trustees. He recruited a new university president to replace Donald Shields, who knew about the cash payments to players but didn't stop them. Hunt and the new board tapped Kenneth Pye, a well-respected legal scholar and administrator from Duke, who quickly garnered the respect of the faculty for his emphasis on academics.