Crib Sheet: The American Council of Trustees and Alumni
How their “Intellectual Diversity” agenda is advocating censorship.
By Craig Smith, Mar. 27, 2007
How their “Intellectual Diversity” agenda is advocating censorship.
By Craig Smith
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has assumed a leading role in the last five years—particularly during the last two legislative cycles—in the attempt to restrict the free exchange of ideas at colleges and universities. With president Anne Neal as its lead spokesperson, ACTA has joined David Horowitz in launching an ideological attack on higher education, painting U.S. colleges and universities as biased institutions where naïve students are indoctrinated by liberal professors who shun opposing views.
While Horowitz has been promoting his so-called academic bill of rights, ACTA has been selling a legislative alternative that has the stated goal of ensuring “intellectual diversity.” Both pieces of model legislation rely on innocuous-sounding language, but are really attempts to legislate the educational environment on college campuses. The real impact of these initiatives will be to restrict the free exchange of ideas on campus, and to distract states and institutions from addressing real issues facing students and colleges.
What Is ACTA?
ACTA was founded in 1995, originally as the National Alumni Forum (NAF), by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), with seed money from the Bradley and Olin Foundations. The stated mission of NAF was to “organize alumni support for academic freedom and challenge practices and policies that threaten intellectual freedom and undermine academic standards.” NAF changed its name to ACTA in 1998, and articulated four goals:
- To ensure responsible management of higher education resources;
- To end grade inflation;
- To establish a solid core curriculum; and
- To restore intellectual diversity on campus.
ACTA’s most prominent founding members were National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Chair Lynne Cheney (the wife of Vice-President Dick Cheney) and Sen. Joe Lieberman. But after the release of the 2001 ACTA report, Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It, Sen. Lieberman wrote a letter to ACTA to “set the record straight about my disapproval of this report, which I consider unfair and inconsistent for an organization devoted to promoting academic freedom.” He also requested that his name be removed from any ACTA correspondence suggesting he was a co-founder of ACTA after the release of the report.
The reality is that ACTA’s leadership occupies a clear ideological position on the political spectrum. Its National Council includes notable, outspoken conservatives such as Irving Kristol, William Bennett and Laurence Silberman. Its Trustees Advisory Council includes individuals such as Ward Connerly and Candace de Russy. ACTA may claim to be seeking a diversity of viewpoints, but its history and its leadership suggest otherwise. Its goals and viewpoints are uniformly oriented to advancing a far-right political agenda rather than promoting diversity and education reform.
ACTA’s Reports and Its “Intellectual Diversity” Agenda
ACTA has released a number of reports over the last five years on the perceived problems with intellectual diversity in higher education.
Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It (2001):
This report has been “updated,” according to the ACTA Web site, although unlike other ACTA reports, it is not offered electronically on the ACTA site. The report claims that “College and university faculty have been the weak link in America’s response to the [9/11] attack” and supports this with comments made on campuses across the country immediately following 9/11. In its original release, the report named over 40 faculty members and at least one college president who, according to ACTA’s judgment, made “blame America first” statements in response to the 9/11 attacks. The names were subsequently removed, after considerable negative media about identifying faculty in this fashion. ACTA claims that “intellectual diversity” is the goal, but this report is tantamount to blacklisting anyone who questions mainstream thinking during any given historical period.
Intellectual Diversity: A Time for Action (2005):
This report claims not only that faculty are overwhelmingly liberal, but that their liberalism results in an unbalanced experience for students. The report states, “Many of our campuses have become, as one observer put it, islands of oppression in a sea of freedom. ... The lack of intellectual diversity is depriving an entire generation of the kind of education they deserve.” Unfortunately, these serious accusations rely on faulty research. The report’s conclusions are based on a survey conducted at the 50 top colleges and universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. This sample is not representative of the diverse system of higher education in this country. It doesn’t include any community colleges or regional four-year institutions. In fact, the sample includes virtually none of the schools that would be affected by recent legislative efforts in the states. Furthermore, the survey, which was conducted in the two months prior to the 2004 presidential election, and the resulting report do not hold up under any real scrutiny in the first place. As higher education researcher John Lee reveals in his analysis of this report, the authors of the study used vague questions and definitions, failed to rule out alternative explanations and generally “did not follow standards that guide quality research” (13).
How Many Ward Churchills? (2006):
Following in the footsteps of David Horowitz and his book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, ACTA attempts to demonstrate that the extraordinary case of Ward Churchill is only the tip of the iceberg and “that the extremist rhetoric and tendentious opinions for which Churchill is infamous can be found on campuses across America.” This report is perhaps the worst of a series of reports that purport to be research. As Professor Timothy Burke of Swarthmore points out, the method of this report amounts to nothing more than “a casual, lazy, cherry-picking survey of whatever materials the author(s) were able to access on the web.” The report examines course descriptions from elite four-year institutions and finds examples of courses that they believe fit a problematic profile and represent a systemic problem. However, as with previous ACTA reports, the sample does not reflect the whole of our higher education system, and offers no real analysis of what actually occurs in the courses they include as evidence.
ACTA’s Legislative Agenda
Starting with the hearings of the Pennsylvania House Select Committee on Academic Freedom in 2005-2006, ACTA has moved its agenda into a full- scale effort to pass legislation that would pressure institutions into implementing a range of policies and procedures, and would mandate them to submit “intellectual diversity” reports to the legislature.
ACTA’s solution is to get legislators to implement the 14 recommendations set forth in the Intellectual Diversity report. ACTA argues that because it is trying to work through boards of trustees its efforts do not constitute legislative interference. Yet its proposed legislation requires institutions to report annually to their state higher education boards and recommends institutions create plans that cover teaching, program development, student evaluation, and hiring and promotion. It is hard to imagine how such legislation does not interfere in the day-to-day inner-workings of a college or university, including what goes on in the classroom. At its best, ACTA’s proposal is nothing more than a heavy-handed legislative threat intended to intimidate colleges and universities and their faculties. Perhaps that is why states continue to turn down the proposed legislation.
Promotes division and restriction rather than diversity and a free exchange of ideas.
The ACTA legislation would have institutions and states create artificial and arbitrary categories to ensure what they call “intellectual diversity,” measured by an accounting of perspectives at multiple levels to ensure “balance.” For example, the bills would require that institutions “Encourage a balanced variety of campus-wide panels and speakers and annually publish the names of panelists and speakers.” How would one ensure a “balanced variety of campus speakers”? Would all speakers have to be identified as politically leaning one way or another, with institutions being required to invite an equal number of speakers from each category? The idea of promoting balance by forcing people into categories simply creates, rather than eliminates, a sense of partisanship on campus.
Encourages external interference in the classroom.
Even worse, the ACTA legislation encourages institutions, boards and, ultimately, legislators to micromanage classrooms by pushing for “intellectual diversity guidelines” for teaching and program development. Who is to determine if a particular class or program is “intellectually diverse” enough? If a board or legislator feels that something is missing in a class, would they have the prerogative to insist institutions change the class or program to meet their definitions? In fact, what makes this legislation so worrisome is this very lack of definition about what constitutes “intellectual diversity.” By putting legislators in a position to weigh in on decisions about what and how to teach a particular issue in a particular discipline, the ACTA legislation would make faculty feel they are under a microscope and cause them to restrict their teaching.
Education thrives when there is free and open debate and a willingness to consider a broad set of perspectives. Faculty and students must be able to engage in a free exchange of ideas. Legislating that process in our colleges and universities will certainly stifle debate and create an environment of self-censoring rather than exploration.
Paints an inaccurate and harmful picture of our colleges and universities.
The ACTA legislation, as discussed above, is based on an assumption that there is a systemic problem of liberal faculty indoctrinating unsuspecting students. This claim simply is not backed up by evidence. The only evidence ACTA offers is shoddy research that comes to predetermined conclusions to support its point of view. To the contrary, when states look into these issues, as Florida, Montana, New York, Pennsylvania and many others have done, they find no serious problems in these areas. Can they find instances where a faculty member has done something inappropriate? Of course, those instances arise as they would in any profession. But in each of those instances, institutions demonstrated that they have policies in place to address problems and that those policies function effectively. ACTA’s campaign, just like David Horowitz’s campaign, is about creating a problem rather than solving one. In doing so, ACTA portrays our colleges and universities in an inaccurate and harmful light. We have one of the greatest systems of higher education in the world and we should be promoting that system rather than tearing it down for political gain.
Is fiscally irresponsible.
Furthermore, states are faced with an abundance of fiscal pressures and should not be appropriating money to implement legislation based on flawed research and no demonstrated need. The legislation proposed by ACTA consistently comes with a fiscal impact. For example:
- In Virginia in 2006, the Impact Statement attached to the bill was $130,000 per institution annually for any institution that does not have staff dedicated to the issues addressed in the bill.
- In Montana, the estimated cost was approximately $350,000 annually for the system.
This doesn’t account for the potential legal costs such legislation might promote. For instance, in 2005, Florida considered so-called academic bill of rights legislation that would have promoted an embattled environment similar to the environment created by the ACTA legislation, In that case, the state determined that the proposed legislation had “a potential total cost of $4.2 million, based on the cost of hiring one additional junior attorney, and associated costs of $109,503 total at each institution, multiplied by 39 institutions.”
Ultimately, the ACTA “intellectual diversity” bill, like David Horowitz’s so-called academic bill of rights campaign, is nothing more than an ideological attack on institutions of higher education and the faculty who work in these institutions. It breeds distrust in one of our country’s most valued enterprises and defames the work of dedicated professionals. And ultimately, it will harm the very important exchange of ideas that now occurs between college faculty and students. No state should seek the “honor” of being the first to enact this legislation.
Craig Smith is associate director of AFT Higher Education, a division of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO. A longer version of this article is posted on the Free Exchange on Campus website.