Duke academians up in arms over Nixon library plans

A proposal to locate Richard Nixon's presidential archives and library at Duke University has run into formidable faculty and alumni opposition, rekindling campus passions rarely seen since Mr. Nixon's days in office.

On the face of it, the proposal by Duke president Terry Sanford seems innocuous enough. By donating land where an estimated 36 million pages of documents and 880 reels of tape from Nixon's six-year presidency could be housed , university scholars would gain access to a great wealth of research material. "Whether one approves or disapproves of Richard Nixon himself seems quite beside the point," said Duke history professor Robert Durden. The Nixon documents "are of critical importance for [the study of] the political and diplomatic history of the United States."

Yet most Duke history professors, as well as the entire faculty of the school's political science department -- those most likely to utilize the scholarly treasures -- have come out against acquisition of the collection under current circumstances.

Some object to the manner in which Mr. Sanford, a former North Carolina governor and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and 1976, entered into negotiations with Nixon earlier this summer without consulting the faculty and while school was not in session. Others are concerned that the $25 million building, to be run by the National Archives and Records Service and owned by the US government but built with private funds and subject to contributors' wishes, would inevitably become a "shrine" to the only US president to resign from office in the face of imminent impeachment.

There are seven presidential libraries -- the Herbert Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa; the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y.; the Harry Truman Library in Abilene, Kan.; the John F. Kennedy Library in Dorchester, Mass.; the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas; and the Gerald Ford Library in Ann Arbor, Mich. (There is a separate Ford museum, scheduled to open Sept. 18 in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich.)

In addition to documents, all except the Ford library house memorabilia and displays that highlights the careers of the chief executives. Commonly, little mention is made of a president's more controversial actions.

Last year 1.7 million people visited the presidential libraries; only 1,933 researchers were among them.

Nixon himself reportedly told Duke officials that the museum and archival functions were to be inseparable at his library, a price too high to pay in the estimation of an overwhelming majority of speakers at an Aug. 31 Duke faculty meeting. One professor said the library would be a "public relations albatross" for the university. History professor Sidney Nathans said, "It is an archival 'Treasure of Sierra Madre.' We will possess it, but will it possess us?"

William Styron, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and 1947 Duke graduate, was even sharper in a letter to Sanford. "To establish any connection, no matter how informal or tenuous, with the works of a man who brought such disgrace to his high office," Mr. Styron wrote, "would be a smear on the image of the institution we all cherish and respect."

Nixon graduated from Duke's law school in 1937. He relationship with the university has long been a stormy one.

In 1954, then vice-president Nixon was slated to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree and to deliver Duke's commencement address. But the faculty voted against honoring Nixon, recently associated with the Mccarthy hearings. Nixon cancelled his address. When the faculty voted to offer Nixon a similar honor in 1961, he declined it.

During the Watergate era, Nixon's portrait was removed from the Duke Law School and stored in a vault, where it still resides.

University officials claim they are not surprised at the vociferous opposition the Nixon library has engendered. Even if the faculty council votes to oppose acquiring the facility, a nine-member executive board of the university's trustees is expected to approve it at a meeting Sept. 4.

A more serious stumbling block to establishing a Nixon library at Duke may be the disposition of his tapes and documents, now under General Services Administration control in Washington and the subject of litigation over their ownership. Nixon wants title to the materials. But in 1974 Congress gave the US government title, lest Nixon carry out threats to destroy the materials. It would take an act of Congress to change the arrangement.

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