Who are we? Where did we come from? What are the foundations of our civilization and how can we sustain them? These are questions that have inspired and motivated since the beginning.
They underscore a belief that a shared understanding, a shared knowledge, helps unify and advance civilization. Indeed, the American system is uniquely premised on the need for an educated citizenry. Embarking on the experiment of a democratic republic, the Founders viewed public education as central to the ability to sustain a participatory form of government. In recent years, however, there has been a breakdown in the belief that shared learning is important. Higher education has tended to focus more on a long list of electives than a common core of learning.
"Our scheme of government and of life can succeed only if ... men and women will engage in careful, enthusiastic, and guided study of common values, common dangers, and common opportunities."
— Alexander Meiklejohn (1872-1964)
America's colleges and universities educate almost two-thirds of our citizens, including all of our school teachers, lawyers, doctors, journalists, and public leaders. They set the admissions and curricular requirements that signal to students, teachers, parents, and the public what every educated citizen in a democracy must know. If colleges and universities no longer require comprehensive curricula that introduce students to the major areas of study, we are all in danger of losing a common frame of reference that has sustained our free society for generations.
WHAT WE ARE DOING
Understanding the Problem
ACTA's 2012-13 What Will They Learn? report evaluated 1,070 colleges and universities, public and private, and found a staggering 86%, in this age of globalization, do not require intermediate-level foreign language study of their baccalaureate graduates. 82% do not require a basic course in U.S. history and institutions that prepare students for informed citizenship. At 38% of the institutions, students can graduate without taking a college-level mathematics course, and at 97%, students can leave without study in one of the most urgent topics of contemporary life—Economics.
ACTA's 2007 report, Vanishing Shakespeare, surveyed English curricula at 70 top universities and found that only 15 required their English majors to take a course on Shakespeare. Instead, they are offering electives on children's books, food, film, and sex. In 2000, ACTA released its eye-opening report, Losing America’s Memory, which revealed 81% of seniors from the top 55 U.S. colleges and universities failed a high school level history exam, and that none of the institutions surveyed required a course in American history. Three-quarters required no history at all. Do students know these subjects already? In a Roper survey commissioned by ACTA in the fall of 2012, regrettably college students proved they have immense gaps in their understanding of history and civics.
ACTA is dedicated to urging colleges and universities to adopt strong, liberal-arts-based core curricula. A solid core curriculum ensures that every student receives a basic grounding in the major fields of human knowledge. It directs the energy of the institution to sound educational values: on knowledge of content, great books and major achievements, and on teaching what students need to know. And it enables students to live thoughtful lives informed by such study. ACTA has worked successfully to support programs and policies that encourage high academic standards and strong curricula. ACTA opposes practices that threaten or undermine academic standards and believes that the mission of higher education is teaching, learning, and the pursuit of truth.
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According to data from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States spends more money per pupil in higher education than any other industrialized nation, but with inferior results.
The outlay for children’s education is the second largest family expense—second only to buying a house. And student loan debt now surpasses credit card debt. Meanwhile, our graduation rates are below those of almost every other OECD nation..
While families are paying more, they are receiving less, with survey after survey showing troubling declines in adult literacy and skills. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that the majority of college-educated American adults cannot understand texts such as newspaper editorials or do the calculations necessary to understand the cost per ounce of food items. Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their groundbreaking work, Academically Adrift, found that nearly half of students had little or no cognitive gain in their first two years of college; over a third (38%) had little or no learning gains in four years.
A recent poll by Public Agenda found that the public’s confidence in higher education is rapidly eroding. Nearly 80% of Americans believe students have to incur too much debt for college, and only 44% believe students get their money’s worth. Nearly half said that public higher education should be “fundamentally overhauled.”
"ACTA [is] the most important and creative organization in higher education, one that supports high academic standards ... and institutional accountability. There is a great need for a national organization that oversees this field."
– Benno Schmidt, chairman, CUNY Board of Trustees
ACTA has been at the forefront of a long-overdue accountability revolution in higher education. Parents and citizens are asking hard questions about quality and costs. The public and their elected officials are looking for better information about educational results. They want to ensure that higher education is getting the “biggest bang for the buck” in meeting their state’s needs and they want trustees to do a better job of representing the interests of students, parents, and taxpayers.
What We Are Doing
ACTA is demanding accountability—and is reaching out to parents, taxpayers, alumni, donors, policymakers and trustees to ensure excellence and affordability around the country.
Informing the Public
Colleges and universities must explain what they are doing and document that they are doing it well. Greater information and disclosure enable parents, students, alumni, and taxpayers to evaluate colleges’ performance. ACTA’s What Will They Learn?™ project gives college-bound students, their parents, along with high school guidance counselors, key data on the academic quality of over 1,070 colleges and universities including evaluation of the core curricular requirements, graduation rates, tuition costs, and use of nationally normed assessments of academic progress for each institution.
Informing and Engaging Trustees
Through publications and seminars, ACTA provides trustees with the independent information they need to be effective fiduciaries of their institutions with final authority for the fiscal, academic, and social well-being of the campuses they oversee. ACTA's series of trustee guides from our Institute for Effective Governance focus on such issues as identifying and eliminating outdated or low enrollment courses; employing new technologies; using the campus year-round; utilizing buildings efficiently and scheduling classes when students need them; identifying incentives for faculty to teach more courses; controlling growth in administrative costs; monitoring academic standards and stopping grade inflation; and developing effective policies to control alcohol and substance abuse on campus. ACTA’s seminars for trustees, jointly directed with the Aspen Institute, help trustees understand and contextualize their duties within the historical tradition of academic excellence.
ACTA works with governors and legislators throughout the nation, providing information through our series of state reports and guides outlining careful practices for cost and effectiveness. ACTA staff have given testimony and presentations on cost control and challenges facing American higher education at conferences sponsored by governors and high-level state education officials in Indiana, Virginia, South Carolina, Maine, Texas, and Colorado. ACTA has also developed publications to help policymakers understand changes in the Higher Education Act and the recommendations of the Spellings Commission in order to stay abreast of accountability issues at the national level.
Encouraging Intelligent Donors and Engaged Alumni
Alumni and donors can let administrators and faculty know that they support high academic standards, cost-effective academic management, and intellectual diversity. They can advocate change through concerned alumni groups and can provide targeted gifts that are designed to provide students with rich educational options they would not have otherwise. ACTA’s Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving helps prospective donor make such informed choices, and has won praise from the Philanthropy Roundtable.
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The ideals of academic freedom and free speech are at the core of the American academic tradition. Teachers must be free to teach, students must be free to learn, and freedom in research is essential to the advancement of truth.
Today the greatest threat to academic freedom comes from within the academy. Students report feeling intimidated by professors and fellow students if they question politically correct ideas. In some cases, students have been subject to official sanctions for speaking their minds in class. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education finds that hundreds of colleges have adopted speech codes or sensitivity requirements that threaten free speech and academic freedom. Professors have been removed and punished for violating the norms of political correctness.
"What universities can and must resist are deliberate, overt attempts to impose orthodoxy and suppress dissent. ... In recent years, the threat of orthodoxy has come primarily from within rather than from outside the university."
— Derek Bok, former president of Harvard
ACTA believes this internal threat to academic freedom must be challenged. At the practical level, we must find ways to defend those professors, as well as students, whose academic freedom is threatened by those who disagree with their views. ACTA’s publications argue for a return to our intellectual moorings, the time-tested understanding of intellectual freedom. No fanaticism, no ideology, no political passion has the right to suppress free minds in the pursuit of truth, which is the lifeblood of the academy. ACTA is working to engage alumni and donors, trustees, and state leaders in this fight.
WHAT WE ARE DOING
Defending Freedom of Speech on Campus
ACTA is quick to intervene when colleges and universities jeopardize the academic freedom of faculty or students. Our correspondence with governing boards and press statements include the University of Wyoming, Hamilton College, Butler University, the University of Connecticut, St. Cloud University, the University of Texas, Columbia University, Ohio University, and many others. ACTA upholds First Amendment rights on campus without regard to belief or position, including the controversial and unpopular.
ACTA took a leading role in persuading CUNY to reverse the blatantly political denial of tenure to the distinguished historian Robert “KC” Johnson. We work closely with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to intervene when free speech is threatened. ACTA’s report on California, Best Laid Plans, incorporates FIRE’s findings on campus speech codes. From its earliest days, ACTA has spoken out to protect the freedom of student newspapers to write and publish without harassment. And ACTA regularly participates in conferences of the American Association of University Professors, advocating greater faculty responsibility for enforcement of the professional standards that ensure intellectual diversity and campus-wide academic freedom.
ACTA provides trustees with the tools they need to understand academic freedom and to take positive actions to protect and foster it. In April 2013, ACTA held a conference on academic freedom for trustees at the historic Union League in New York City. With the guidance of Benno Schmidt, chairman of the CUNY Board of Trustees, law professors Donald Downs of the University of Wisconsin, Philip Hamburger of Columbia University, and Neil Hamilton of the University of St. Thomas, trustees and policymakers examined relevant case studies, gaining the skills and knowledge to protect intellectual diversity and academic freedom on their own campuses. ACTA published an extensive companion guide to the conference, Free to Teach, Free to Learn, with detailed commentary by contributors including former president of Harvard University Larry Summers, co-founders of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate, United State Circuit Court Judge José Cabranes, and the several legal scholars who led sessions at the academic freedom conference.
ACTA's 2005 report Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action, raises awareness of the principles and longstanding American tradition of academic freedom and the assaults it now faces. ACTA’s 2009 publication, Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas: How Trustees Can Advance Intellectual Diversity on Campus, gives governing boards ideas drawn from current best practices of how to foster and advance academic freedom. ACTA has counseled trustees to be vigilant in protecting students from residential life programs that include intrusive and inappropriate interrogation of their sexual, religious, and political values. ACTA has also provided trustees with technical advice on the recent Supreme Court decision CLS v. Martinez that could affect the prerogatives of campus student associations.
Informing the Public and Policymakers
ACTA carefully surveys students on issues of academic freedom and intellectual diversity using highly reliable polling organizations. These studies, on both a national and state level, show an alarmingly high percentage of students who believe they must agree with their professors to get a good grade and who find the classroom a place of political indoctrination. Results have been sent to trustees, state legislators, and members of the higher education committees of the U.S. Congress. ACTA staff have given testimony in a number of states, including Pennsylvania, Missouri, Montana, Georgia, and South Dakota, often on pending legislative initiatives.
Restoring ROTC and Student Opportunities
For over a decade, ACTA has called for the restoration of ROTC to college and university campuses, arguing that not only does ROTC serve the nation, but it also enriches the curriculum and discourse of higher education. A campus chapter of ROTC means students will have exposure to the varied careers in national defense and security that military service has to offer. ACTA has also raised awareness of the concurrent disappearance of teaching and research in military and diplomatic history, especially at elite universities, restricting the intellectual horizons of both students and faculty. ACTA has communicated with the governing boards of Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Tufts, Brown and Stanford and achieved real results, as each of these institutions has taken significant steps toward the full restoration of ROTC on campus.