American Council of Trustees and Alumni
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) is a conservative education group focused on the implementation of a broad general studies curriculum at American colleges and universities, expanded academic freedom and free speech rights on campus, and an active role for alumni, donors, and boards of trustees at post-secondary schools. ACTA projects include What Will They Learn, which ranks 1,100 schools nationwide on the strength of mandatory curriculum on seven core subjects.
Although ACTA claims a commitment to “academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America’s colleges,” scholar Stanley Fish explained in the New York Times that ACTA’s work “takes the form of mobilizing trustees and alumni in an effort to pressure colleges and universities to make changes in their curricula and requirements… because ‘internal constituencies’ – which means professors – cannot be trusted to be responsive to public concerns about the state of higher education.” In one example, ACTA’s What Will They Learn report does not credit universities for a mandatory literature course if that requirement can be filled with a class on the graphic novel. Fish writes, “Why should trustees and alumni have a say in determining whether the graphic novel … deserves to represent literature? This … is an effort to shape the discipline from the outside according to a political vision.”
The group, cofounded in 1995 by future Second Lady Lynne Cheney and Sen. Joe Lieberman and originally known as the National Alumni Forum, has been no stranger to controversy. At times, the organization’s devotion to “academic freedom” has seemed to mean increasing conservative voices on campus: the New York Times described them as “a conservative nonprofit group devoted to curbing liberal tendencies in academia.”
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ACTA published “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It.” The report called professors “the weak link in America’s response to the attack” and quoted by name more than 100 college administrators, faculty members, and students making statements that the report deemed insufficiently patriotic. The group insisted that it was defending free speech by publishing the list because “It is urgent that students and professors who support the war effort not be intimidated.”
Critics alleged that the report was essentially a “blacklist” or a new version of McCarthyism – a criticism that was tacitly acknowledged when ACTA republished the report without names accompanying the quotes. Examples of statements considered to be “failing America” by ACTA include: “Ignorance breeds hate,” and “The United States should bring [Osama Bin Laden] before an international tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity.” One professor was placed on the list for describing the mood on his campus as one of “skepticism about the administration’s policy of going to war.” After defending the report and arguing that more courses on American history and Western civilization were needed to combat academia’s growing anti-Americanism, ACTA eventually pulled the report.
Another ACTA controversy involved the attempted ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan. In 2012, two years into a five year term, the UVA board of trustees informed Sullivan that she could either resign or be fired. Immediate protests from students and faculty swept across the campus and Sullivan was re-hired with an apology from the board. It soon became clear that the Board’s head, Helen Dragas, was responsible for the seemingly arbitrary move to fire Sullivan.
According to The Hook, “One of the few people to publicly support Dragas for firing Sullivan was Anne Neal, president of ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The language Dragas used to justify firing Sullivan reads as if taken directly from ACTA’s position papers…” The Washington Post suggested that Dragas had been “groomed for activism” at an ACTA-sponsored orientation event for new trustees. Both The Hook and The Post suggest that there was an undercurrent of education privatization at play in ACTA’s role in the controversy; with the Post pointing to an op-ed by Neal arguing that “The old model of increasing budgets and raising tuition — without cutting costs — is unsustainable.”
More recently, ACTA criticized Brandeis University for revoking its plan to give an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Brandeis faced criticism due to Hirsi Ali’s past criticism of Islam– she once called the religion “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.” Although Hirsi Ali was still invited to speak at Brandeis, Neal said the decision “illustrated the depths of small-minded bigotry and intolerance that now represent the culture on many campuses.”
ACTA’s budget has expanded significantly in recent years, with revenue growing from roughly $700,000 in 2002 to more than $2,000,000 in 2012, the most recent year for which financial information is available. That revenue comes primarily from grants, typically from the usual suspects of donors backing conservative causes: The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Stuart Family Foundation, Donors Capital Fund, and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation have provided significant funding in recent years, with Donors Capital Fund, a donor advised fund, being the most generous contributor.