Academic Bashing


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 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
and the New York Times, seemed on the face of it downright

  • 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
  • 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.

Money Talks

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
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.


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.”

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.

Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.