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When the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) published its recent report claiming college and university faculty were “the weak link in America's response to the attack” of September 11, it brought that conservative organization into the public spotlight for the first time. Many newspaper editorials quickly condemned the report's overheated rhetoric and overstated conclusions. Some commentators branded it an incredibly shoddy piece of scholarship. According to the New York Times, Hugh Gusterson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a target of the report, suggested that it had “a little of the whiff of McCarthyism” to it.
ACTA's report documented the statements made by a handful of academics that questioned the bombing of Afghanistan and the president's war on terrorism at teach-ins and campus protests across the country. These academics bothered the heck out of the Washington DC-based group founded by Lynne Cheney and Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman as the National Alumni Forum in 1995. However overzealous ACTA's report may have been, it accurately reflects several aspects of the organization's mission, especially its fevered opposition to “political correctness” and its desire to keep an eye on campus “radicals.”
However, the key aspect of ACTA's agenda is its ongoing attempts to influence the way universities throughout the country are organized and governed.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, ACTA's report documented 117 incidents since September 11 that reflected “a shocking divide between academe and the public at large.” Although the report, titled “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America, and What Can Be Done About It,” affirmed the right of professors to academic freedom, it also maintained that this freedom does not make academics immune from criticism. “We learn from history that when a nation's intellectuals are unwilling to defend its civilization, they give comfort to its adversaries,” the report declares. It names more than 40 academics out of line with American public opinion on the war on terrorism (see www.goacta.org/Reports/defciv. pdf).
The subtext of the report is ACTA's longtime assertion that when universities stopped requiring students to take American History and Western Civilization courses, these institutions fell victim to the twin evils of moral relativism and multiculturalism. “Expressions of pervasive moral relativism are a staple of academic life in this country and an apparent symptom of an educational system that has increasingly suggested that Western civilization is the primary source of the world's ills—even though it gave us the ideals of democracy, human rights, individual liberty, and mutual tolerance,” the report says. These are themes that Lynn Cheney has been promoting for years.
Many of the incidents cited in the report, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times, seemed on the face of it downright innocuous:
- At a campus teach-in on the evening of the attacks Michael Rothschild, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, commented that there is a “terrible and understandable desire to find and punish” the perpetrators. He also warned “It's very important for Americans to think about our own history, what we did in World War II to Japanese citizens by interning them.”
- Walter Daum, a professor of mathematics at the City University of New York's City College, was surprised that the report used a quote from him as an example of academe's response. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “most of his colleagues in academe, he notes, disagree with his emphatic critiques of U.S. policy.” The report cites a comment originally quoted in the New York Post, “the ultimate responsibility lies with the rulers of this country, the capitalist ruling class of this country.” He has since repeatedly clarified his statements saying he wasn't trying to justify the attacks but to explain them.
- At a September 20 teach-in, Hugh Gusterson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said, “At this particular moment in time, it seems there is a crying need to understand the culture and history of the people who attacked us.” The report also cites a quote by him from a September 20 campus peace rally: “Imagine the real suffering and grief of people in other countries. The best way to begin a war on terrorism might be to look in the mirror.” A professor of anthropology and science-and-technology studies, Mr. Guster- son said it is not anti-American to know about the rest of the world. “What anthropology is supposed to do is try to get people to get out of their own skins.”
- Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Stanford University said: “If Osama bin Laden is confirmed to be behind the attacks, the United States should bring him before an international tribunal on crimes against humanity.”
Although Cheney was not responsible for writing the report, it contained many of her comments. For example, in 1995 Cheney said, “The main threat to academic freedom today is from political intolerance on campus. Alumni and trustees must make sure our colleges and universities remain forums for open debate. They want to support their colleges, but they are often shut out of the discussion. This organization will serve as a voice for interested and concerned alums.”
According to Patrick Healy, reporting for the Boston Globe, Anne Neal, a co-author of the report and an ACTA official, said that many professors and students that support the U.S. government were afraid that if they speak out liberal colleagues might shout them down. “For the most part, public comments in academia were equivocal and often pointing the finger at America rather than the terrorists,” Neal said. “It's hard for non-tenured professors [who support current policies] to speak up when there's such a chorus on the other side.”
Despite ACTA's claims that its objective is to expand dialogue on campus, the report criticized anyone who dared speak out against the president's war on terrorism.
According to its web site, members of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni contributed $3.4 billion to colleges and universities last year, making the organization “the largest private source of support for higher education.” Large donors are frequently advised by ACTA staff as to what kind of influence their money can buy over courses and departments at colleges and universities.
The Right Guide, published by the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Economics America, documents that 99 percent of ACTA's nearly $500,000 in operating revenue came from contributions and grants from conservative foundations in 1997. Included were grants of $100,000 from the John M. Olin Foundation, $50,000 from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and $10,000 from the Earhart Foundation. Since 1998, according to mediatransparency. org, a web site tracking the money behind right wing politics, ACTA has received an additional $600,000 from the Bradley, Olin, Sarah Scaife, and Earhart foundations.
ACTA's mission statement reads: “…help meet the challenges facing higher education—from political intolerance and speech codes to declining academic standards and soaring tuitions—the Council is working to elevate public awareness of the status of higher education and to implement positive ways to reform it through several channels.” ACTA also aims to “challeng[e] policies and practices that threaten academic freedom and excellence”; develop “networks to help alumni have an impact on campus issues at their alma maters”; and offer assistance to alumni on how to target their donations.
What are ACTA's academic objectives? On the surface one of the things it wants is for students to be better informed about their history. But ACTA wants its sanitized version of history to be taught.
ACTA is fundamentally interested in having conservative trustees and alumni exercise a greater say over the entire university governance process. An October 5, 1998 article written for the Nation by Annette Fuentes spells out ACTA's goals. Titled “Trustees of the Right's Agenda—Conservative Appointees Hold Increasing Sway Over Public Higher Education,” Fuentes writes: “With the authority to hire and fire chancellors and college presidents, as well as to set educational policy, the boards [of trustees] wield enormous power. Across the country, conservative Republican governors have appointed trustees who are their political allies rather than independent advocates for the university system. These political proxies—often backed by the National Association of Scholars and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, groups that oppose affirmative action and multicultural studies—are enacting sweeping changes in the mission of public higher education to provide wide access.”
In Florida this past summer, ACTA worked with Governor Jeb Bush as he initiated a series of sweeping changes in the way the state's university system is organized. The governor's extensive restructuring initiative, a plan that many academic observers and Florida politicians, including Senator Graham, have termed both unnecessary and unwarranted, abolished the Board of Regents, which had governed the system and replaced it with 12-member boards of trustees for each of the colleges in the state university system.
According to the Naples Daily News, the orientation sessions for the new trustees was organized by the American Council of Trustees. One of the key speakers was Anne Neal, a vice president and lawyer for ACTA and co-author with Jerry L. Martin, the president of ACTA, of the “Defending Civilization” report.
Neal informed the incoming trustees that they now had the power over their schools' budgets and academic standards and would also be able to select their schools' presidents. “That's the easy part,” she said. She also pointed out that the more difficult task would be revising their schools' policies and examining their personal and business relationships to assure there isn't even the appearance of impropriety. Given all that's happened in Florida over the past year, it's hard to imagine she said all this with a straight face.
While the ramifications of the switch over has not yet been felt, it certainly will be a major issue when the contracts between the state's university employees and the now-defunct Board of Regents expire in the next year or so. The system, as designed by Governor Bush, forces the unions to bargain separately with each of the autonomous Boards of Trustees. As one professor, who preferred anonymity told me, “Putting such issues as tenure, pension plans, seniority, health care, and other benefits on the bargaining table could severely erode both the unions bargaining and political power.”
Opposing affirmative action and multiculturalism and countering “political correctness” on campus have been long-time core activities of ACTA. While its high profile and widely criticized report added bashing academics to its list of priorities, it appears that ACTA's biggest prize will come when other college and university systems across the country begin adopting the full scope of the Florida model. Z
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.