August 3, 2005

Liars at ACTA

This morning's Inside Higher Ed has an op-ed by Anne D. Neal, executive director of the American Council of Trustees & Alumni, who complains that the American Council on Education's Statement on Academic Rights and Responsibilities is vague, paying only lip service to ideals of academic freedom and intellectual diversity. I won't rehearse ACTA's hypocrisy on this point, the November 2001 report claiming that faculty are the "weak link" in American patriotism—there are plenty of online discussions about that execrable document that ACTA's staff then tried to whitewash.

Instead, I want to point out that, while criticizing the statement endorsed by ACE and others for its vacuity, Neal did not once propose anything concrete. As John K. Wilson points out in his comments (at the end of the column, not on his own site), Neal is at least as vacuous as the statement she decries, except perhaps she adds a bit of gratuitous bile. The point of the op-ed column is not to convince anyone reading IHE. Neal recites the hoary cliches about a monolithic campus culture and says little new or responsive. Instead, she is playing the time-honored tactic of an advocacy organization, invented along with the oldest profession and well before modern politics: playing to one's base.

Through 2003, ACTA received about $2 million in grants from conservative foundations, including Olin and Scaife. I should state up front that I have no problems with advocacy organizations receiving funding from anyone they choose to. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education receives funding (and employs staff) from across the political spectrum, and the origins of their funding doesn't prevent them from defending students and faculty whom their staff concludes have been denied their rights. So I am not surprised that despite the inclusion of several moderates in its founding group, ACTA's politics align with their funding (or, rather, those who fund ACTA's activities do so because they are comfortable with ACTA's politics). But let's take a closer look at the mission of ACTA:

ACTA is the only national organization that is dedicated to working with alumni, donors, trustees and education leaders across the country to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives a philosophically-balanced, open-minded, high-quality education at an affordable price.

So far, so clear (whether or not you agree with this). Given this statement, I wouldn't be surprised at some of ACTA's activities, such as the call for a general-education curriculum that isn't a smorgasbord of courses. One can have a productive debate over what a general-ed curriculum should look like, and that's not my focus today—and, again, I'm skipping that small problem of hypocrisy with academic freedom and instead focusing on the nuts and bolts of that first claim, to support liberal arts education.

As an historian, I'd love some solid support of liberal arts education, especially as I teach within a college of education. (I'm one of six liberal-arts faculty in my department of twenty-some colleagues.) But while ACTA talks a good game about the importance of liberal arts, and they take in money from folks for talking the talk (and for training trustees), what has ACTA done about the fairly hard conditions of liberal arts education in the country?

  1. The reliance on contingent faculty for teaching liberal-arts courses, especially introductory courses in composition and math
  2. Lower salaries in liberal arts
  3. The proliferation of vocational majors with little academic content, such as "hospitality management"
  4. The corruption of education through big-campus athletics

I have never seen ACTA address any of these issues (please correct me if I'm wrong!) and have seen ACTA turn a blind eye to the violations of its principles by supposed friends. For a case in point, I use Florida's state universities, whose trustees were all appointed by Governor Bush after the breakup of the old Board of Regents and then trained by ACTA. So does ACTA claim any responsibility for these trustees who turned around and gave exorbitant salaries to presidents, who created programs like hospitality management and tried to create a school of chiropractic, and who have taken no steps that I've seen to raise the status of liberal arts? I will have a lot more respect for ACTA when it does more than pay lip service to liberal-arts education.

And if you're a supporter of ACTA, you might want to ask its staff what it's doing with your money. Trust me, the title for this entry isn't about Neal lying to me or the general public.

(P.S. I'm aware that Erin O'Connor is writing for the ACTA blog. She seems to be a pretty thoughtful conservative on her own blog, and I'm surprised she's willing to blog for ACTA, given its record. In this case, the blog is better than the organization.)

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Posted in Academic freedom on August 3, 2005 10:48 AM |