The mission of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, published on their website, is as “a nonprofit educational organization committed to academic freedom, excellence and accountability on college and university campuses. It supports programs and policies that encourage high academic standards, strong curricula, and the free exchange of ideas.” (1) Yet this free exchange of ideas does not extend to criticism of the United States history or its foreign policy. Nor to any studies that are not that of western civilization.
ACTA on paper encourages colleges and universities to adopt strong, liberal arts based core curricula. Their writings encourage the teaching of American history and Western civilization. It claims that instruction in Western Civilization has suffered due to the increased influence of multiculturalism. In their Defending Civilization report and other writings, they also bemoan the increase in courses after 9/11 on Islam. Their view is a precursor to the Islamophobia that became prevalent after the attacks, blaming Islam itself for it. To bring a better understanding of the religion that many Americans were ignorant about and see it in an objective way did not feed into the hate that ACTA promoted against Muslims. It would seem for an organization that would promote better standards in education, they would be in favor of educated people having more knowledge of many cultures not their own. Of course ACTA’s and the American Right’s bigotry was contrasted to the mood in general in American society as a whole. The bestseller lists became stacked with book titles about Islam itself and the situation in Central Asia. It is also good to reflect on ones own culture and society, point out the wrong in it, and work to make it right. ACTA does not only want Western civilization taught but to have it emphasized as superior.But yet ACTA’s agenda was to preach the superiority and blind acceptance of their version of Western Civilization. It also wants the histories of non-white peoples erased too.
ACTA, in its McCarthyist state of mind, sees its academic foes as internal enemies within the United States to fight. They state “…the threat to academic freedom comes from within. The barbarians are not at the gates; they are inside the walls.” (2)
It brought up the bogeyman of political correctness on college campuses, and states “ACTA is working to engage alumni and donors, trustees and state leaders in this fight,” further explaining “[T]rustees set policy and have a fiduciary obligation for the academic, as well as financial, well-being of their institutions.” (2) So while it warns about decline of standards, it accepts the hierarchical model of the corporate university, where trustees use their power to bring the rest of the campus in line.
If their ideology is the promotion of the superiority of Western civilization, the strategy is using the undemocratic means of university governance for their own aims. ACTA is in favor of trustees taking a more active role in university governance, including on things like curricula and core requirements. They have the power to but usually do not. ACTA wants to use trustees to shape its reactionary agenda for education.
Their own writings show that ACTA accepts the model of the corporate university. In their statement on Higher Education Accountability they state:
“The president of a college or university, as the chief executive officer, has two principal duties: to ensure that the institutions product is a good one, namely a strong education for the students, and to manage the institutions resources as effectively as possible. Trustees, as the board of directors, cannot take for granted that these results are being achieved. They must hold the administration accountable for results, thus answering to the shareholders of the higher education enterprise – students, parents, alumni, and taxpayers who deserve the best possible education at the lowest possible cost.” (3)
For this, ACTA has set up programs specifically for university trustees. With the problems of higher education being internal, ACTA believes that outside help is necessary in solving them, and their organization is it. They state, “[T]rustees are the key. Exercising final responsibility, trustees are in a position to provide a fresh perspective, a healthy balance, and an openness to new solutions.”(4). Thus, ACTA offered many resources to trustees in American universities, hoping to spread right wing power in these institutions. They include the following:
*Institute for Effective Governance: launched in 2001, IEG is an alternative membership organization for active trustees, operating under the auspices of ACTA. A quote from their founding statement gives their pro-corporate stance:
“In recent years corporate boards have become less beholden to management. By demanding increased accountability, productivity and efficiency these trustees have helped spur America’s renewed competitiveness in the world economy. The time is ripe for a similar revolution in higher education governance.” (5)
*ATHENA Roundtable: standing for Alumni and Trustees for Higher Education Accountability. They hosted a conference in Washington DC titled “Can This Nation Long Endure: Strengthening History and the Core Curriculum.” They see a threat to the United States itself from a lack of Western Civilization taught in education.
*Trustees for Better Teachers: set up to have trustees influence teacher education “so that teachers receive an education that is content-based, grounded in the liberal arts, and emphasizes knowledge and learning rather than ideology and attitude manipulation.”
As stated before, ACTA conducts trainings for trustees, before in New York, and then in Florida. In 2001, ACTA was chosen by then governor Jeb Bush (then-President George W. Bush’s brother) to train 145 of his newly appointed college and university trustees in that state. There are 11 universities in the state of Florida, and the new laws made each school’s board of trustees autonomous, with a seven-member “superboard”, which would oversee all state education from kindergarten to grad school, “and requires a governance system that enforces system-wide accountability.” Training for new trustees was mandated, and ACTA was chosen to do that. (6) The ramifications of the change, which many observers termed both unnecessary and unwarranted, was not yet felt then, it was feared it would when contracts would come up between university employees and their Boards of Trustees. The new system would force unions on campus to bargain with each autonomous Board of Trustees separately, undermining their bargaining power.
ACTA’s calls for “accountability” in terms of curriculum and governance was only to serve to cut access and redesign curriculum along right wing and corporate lines. Along with their recent attacks on dissent of the Bush Administration and academic freedom more broadly, their final goals were to be the reconstruction of universities to further roll back democracy on campus.
As Annette Fuentes states in The Nation in 1998,
“With the authority to hire and fire chancellors and college presidents, as well as to set educational policy, the boards wield enormous power. Across the country, conservative Republican governos 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.” (7)
The problems with campus governance were not limited to the right wing takeovers of their governing boards. It was part of the system of university governance itself, which I have written about here extensively. With a governance system that rests all important decision-making power in Boards of Regents and Trustees that are unelected and unaccountable to the people it governs, it feeds the strategy of groups like ACTA to regress higher education. This is why many pushed for campus democracy before.
- http://www.goacta.org/freedom.htm (accessed December 1, 2001)
- http://www.goacta.org/accountability.htm (accessed December 1, 2001)
- http://www.goacta.org/trusteeprograms.htm (accessed December 1, 2001)
- Founders, Institute for Effective Governance, quote from http://www.goacta.org/accountability.htm
- “Florida Joins Accountability Movement.” Inside Academe (ACTA Newsletter). Spring/Summer 2001. Vol. VI, No. 3.
- Fuentes, Annette. “Trustees of the Right’s Agenda.” The Nation. October 5, 1998.