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by Bill Berkowitz - WorkingForChange
Friday, Nov. 23, 2001 at 1:28 AM
Campus protests against the war on terrorism are bothering the heck out of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), founded in 1995 by Lynne Cheney and Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman. ACTA wants conservative trustees and alumni to exercise a greater say over the entire university governance process, and it recently published an incendiary report claiming that "colleges and university faculty have been the weak link in America's response to the attack" of September 11.
Lynne Cheney's campus crusade
Bill Berkowitz - WorkingForChange
11.19.01 - Have campus protests against the war on terrorism annoyed you? Has the handful of professors speaking out against the bombing of Afghanistan and raising questions about the roots of the crisis gotten on your nerves? They're bothering the heck out of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a Washington DC-based group dedicated to countering "political correctness," keeping its eye on campus "radicals," and changing the way universities throughout the country govern themselves.
ACTA, originally founded in 1995 as the National Alumni Forum by Lynne Cheney and Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, recently published an incendiary report claiming that "colleges and university faculty have been the weak link in America's response to the attack" of September 11.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, ACTA's report documents 117 incidents since September 11 that reflect "a shocking divide between academe and the public at large." And while the report titled "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America, and What Can Be Done About It," affirms the right of professors to academic freedom, at the same time maintains that this freedom does not make academics immune to criticism.
And criticize the report does. "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.
The subtext of the report is ACTA's longtime assertion that when universities stopped requiring students to take American History and Western Civilization courses, the 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 Ms. Cheney -- the former chairwoman of ACTA -- has been promoting for years.
Some of the incidents cited in the report, as described by the Chronicle of Higher Education, seem downright innocuous:
* 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 them."
* 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, that "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. Gusterson 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."
Although Cheney was not responsible for writing the report, it does contain many of her comments. 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 a report in the Boston Globe by Patrick Healy, Anne Neal, a co-author of the report and an ACTA official, said that many professors and students that support the U.S. government are 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 it aims to expand the dialogue on campus, the report appears to draws the line at what speech is permissible by criticizing anyone who dares speak out against the president's war on terrorism. Is open debate okay only on issues that ACTA deems appropriate?
Money doesn't walk, it talks
According to its web site, members of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni contributed .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. To paraphrase a late-night radio advertisement from the 1960s, "money doesn't walk, it talks."
The Right Guide, published by the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Economics America, documents that 99 percent of ACTA's nearly 0,000 in operating revenue came from contributions and grants from conservative foundations in 1997. Included were grants of 0,000 from the John M. Olin Foundation, ,000 from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and ,000 from the Earhart Foundation.
The organization's mission: In order to "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. Too many American students are not only woefully uniformed about their own history, they have little to no idea about what goes on elsewhere in the world. There is probably no more glaring example of this than the general lack of knowledge about who we are currently fighting and why. America is engaged in a war against international terrorism yet most Americans know little about the roots of terrorism. ACTA wants history to be taught but only its sanitized version.
Cheney has been fighting for control over curriculum for many years. You might remember her crusade against the National History Standards a few years back. This was a project that was originally commissioned by the National Endowment for the Humanities when she was at the helm from 1986 to 1993. When the Standards weren't to her liking, she went on a standards-bashing crusade.
ACTA is fundamentally interested in having conservative trustees and alumni exercise a greater say over the entire university governance process. An October 5, 1998 article in The Nation by Annette Fuentes titled "Trustees of the Right's Agenda -- Conservative Appointees Hold Increasing Sway Over Public Higher Education," spells out ACTA's goals pretty clearly: "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 was on the job working with Governor Jeb Bush as he initiated sweeping changes in the way the state's university system is organized and run. Gov. Bush abolished the Board of Regents, which had governed the university system, and replaced it with 12-member boards of trustees at each university. 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, President of ACTA, of "Defending Civilization."
Neal informed the new trustees they have power over their schools' budgets and academic standards and will also be able to select their schools' presidents. "That's the easy part," she said. She pointed out that the problematic task will 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.
Opposing affirmative action, multiculturalism, and countering "political correctness" have been some of the longtime core activities that Cheney and Lieberman's ACTA is involved in. Add to that list, bashing academics that dare to speak out against, or raise questions about, President Bush's war on terrorism. However, it appears that ACTA's biggest prize will come when other college and university systems throughout the country begin adopting the full scope of the Florida model.
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