Who is ACTA?
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni was one of the leading conservative groups waging attacks on the universities. It had ties to powerful right wing ideologues and funded by their foundations. With their money and power built up in the years before 9/11, they were in an opportune spot to take advantage of the tragedy to further their attacks on higher education.
The main figure in ACTA was Lynne Cheney. Wife of Dick Cheney, who before becoming vice president was secretary of defense and a congressperson in the 1980’s. Lynne Cheney was appointed to the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1986 under the Reagan administration, and stayed there through the Bush administration, resigning in 1993. She used her position to lead the right wing assault against the broad Left and ”perfected a method of attack that depends more on hyperbole than accuracy.” The Nation magazine described her as a “right wing warrior who used her post at the NEH to fight the Republican culture wars of the eighties.” (1). Cheney was an ideological warrior for the right, with William Bennett, who served before her in the NEH, saying she would be “hard to muzzle.” She resigned after Clinton’s election, served at the American Enterprise Institute, where she wrote op-ed hit pieces and later co-hosted on the defunct CNN show Crossfire Sunday (she on the right). In 1994 she led the attack against the National History Standards, which would have given more emphasis on history that was often overlooked in the patriotic correctness of before, even got the Senate to vote to defund the project 99 to 1. This was a model of what her attacks on education would bring in the future.
In 1995, through the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the National Alumni Forum was founded, with the help of Cheney and Jerry Martin (who worked in the NEH with Cheney, and became acting chairman when she left in 1993, through 1995). The mission of the NAF was to “organize alumni support for academic freedom and challenge practices and policies that threaten intellectual freedom and undermine academic standards.” (2) Its purpose was to organize conservative alumni to influence university agendas and curriculum through their donations to their alma maters. They had a model in Lee Bass, who withdrew a $20 million gift from Yale University in 1995 when it did not expand its Western Civilization curriculum as he wanted.
In 1998 the NAF changed its name to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. ACTA’s founders also included many conservative Democrats like Joe Lieberman and former Colorado governor Richard Lamm, but it’s board consisted of a who’s who of right wing intellectuals and activists. (3) It continued to attempt to get alumni to influence university policies, and published materials to help them in that. (4) But as its name change showed, they also realized the power of trustees to wield power on universities. They wanted trustees to insert themselves more into the political affairs of campus, and Mr. Martin initiated a training program for activist trustees in 20 states. (5) They had much success in New York, where they got a conservative governor to appoint conservative trustees, who used their positions to promote right wing agendas. That state suffered attacks at CUNY and SUNY by the chapter of ACTA there. (6). Annette Fuentes, an adjunct professor at Columbia University School of Journalism , said at the time “conservative appointees hold increasing sway over public higher education.” This model spread to other states too, who had similar means of appointing trustees through the state governor. In Virginia, Gordon Davies, the director of the state Council on Higher Education from 1977 to 1997, said that appointments got more ideological under governor George Allen, with more ultra right and religious right appointments. This was part of the broader right wing attacks on higher education. Ward Connerly appointed by Republican governor Pete Wilson in California to the Board of Regents, led the campaign to abolish affirmative action in the state universities there in 1995. Connerly sat on the ACTA board in 1998.
The rise of ACTA was the result not just of its people with power and ideology, but of the money from well-funded network of right wing foundations dedicated to transforming the political climate of the United States. There has been many studies done in the late 90’s by progressive researchers on the right wing foundations and their influence in public policy. (7)
After the 1960’s the right wing realized that their movement would be a war of ideas, and they mobilized their resources accordingly, using their foundation networks to pour millions of dollars into a broad range of conservative political organizations. Their sheer size and concentration, and their willingness to promote a highly politicized agenda, are remarkable, and far surpass comparable funding from liberal and progressive foundation, especially since the latter funding is less toward ideological battles. Funding is especially focused on battles in education, as the organizations they fund have long promoted the “political correctness” hysteria as a cover for their attacks on democratic education.
Five foundations stand out: the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Koch Family Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Scaife Family Foundation, and the Adolph Coors Foundation. The Bradley Foundation is the most influential and most ideological. With a half a billion dollars in assets, the Bradley Foundation is the richest right wing foundation in the country. While being the 51st largest foundation overall, it focused its funding specifically to right wing groups to transform the political agenda, especially in education. In Wisconsin, groups it funded succeeded in making the state a battleground over public education, attempting to turn the school to a voucher program to privatize education. (8)
For ACTA and the NAF before it, it got start-up money and general operating support from the Olin and Bradley Foundations. The Olin Foundation gave $100,000 to start up NAF in 1994, and gave a total of $450,000 to the NAF from 1994 to 1998. The Bradley Foundation contributed $50,000 each year to NAF each year from 1995 to 1997, $150,000 in total. After ACTA was formed, it got a total of $870,000 in grants from 1997 to 2000. (9).
The money and power that ACTA acquired was used to wage a war on higher education in the United States, and institutionalized it in the wake of 9/11 to wage an offensive against dissent. It’s policies were not changed after 9/11, only magnified. In the next post, I will explore ACTA’s ideology, especially in terms of campus governance.
- Wiener, John. “Hard to Muzzle: The Return of Lynne Cheney.” The Nation. October 2, 2000.
- In 2000, a presidential election year, it had the unique position of having connections to both parties in the race through Cheney and Vice Presidential candidate Lieberman.
- In 1998 they first published an instruction manual “The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving,” which gave instructions such as the following: Step 1, Define Your Goals; Step 7: State your instructions in no uncertain terms; and Step 12: Get what you paid for. It advised against long term gifts because donors would not be around to control them. They stated “If you spelled out clear conditions and the university does not abide by them, get your money back. You should be prepared to go to court if necessary,” and “The best protection is to make only short-term gifts.” They also quoted Yale Provost Frank Turner as saying, “The much-maligned ‘strings’ attached to restricted funds are in truth the lifelines that link colleges and universities to the marketplace of ideas within a democratic society.”
- Arenson, Karen W. “Group Fighting Political Correctness on Campus Delights in Ties to Both Parties.” New York Times. August 24, 2000.
- Fuentes, Annette. “Trustees of the Right’s Agenda.” The Nation. October 5, 1998.
- These include the following: Stefancic, Jean and Delgado, Richard. No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America’s Social Agenda. Temple University Press. Philadelphia. 1996. Campus Wars section pp. 108-135.; Covington, Sally. “How Conservative Philanthropies and Think Tanks Transform US Policy.” Covert Action Quarterly. Issue 63. Winter 1998. available at http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Democracy/ConservThinkTanks.html; Covington, Sally. Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations, prepared for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 2001 S Street, NW, Suite 620, Washington, DC 20009, 202/387-9177. It covers the three-year period from 1992-94. http://www.desmogblog.com/sites/beta.desmogblog.com/files/clearreport00004.pdf; and “Buying a Movement: Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics.” Executive Summary. People for the American Way. At http://www.pfaw.org/media-center/publications/buying-movement.
- “Anatomy of a Movement: Wisconsin Vouchers and the Bradley Foundation.” October 8, 1998. http://www.weac.org/resource/1998-99/nov98/anatomy.htm [accessed May 25, 2000]; and Wilayto, Phil. The Feeding Trough : the Bradley Foundation, “The Bell Curve” & the Real Story behind W-2, Wisconsin’s National Model for Welfare Reform : an Investigative Report. A Job Is a Right Campaign, Milwaukee, WI. 1997.
- from www.mediatransparency.org: Olin Foundation: $310,000 from 1997 to 2000; Bradley Foundation: $410,000 from 1997 to 2000; Sarah Scaife Foundation: $100,000 from 1999 to 2000; Earhart Foundation: $50,000 from 1999 to 2000