The Forum | Freedom of Expression

ACTA President Discusses Recent Forbes Piece

December 4, 2019 by Michael B. Poliakoff

ACTA President Michael Poliakoff wrote an op-ed in Forbes titled "Can Storied Williams College Be Saved From Itself?" which commented on the erosion of reasoned discourse at the elite liberal arts college. An individual reached out with thoughtful questions about the piece, and agreed to let ACTA anonymously publish their email exchange with Dr. Poliakoff. Below is their discussion, which elaborates on many of ACTA's core tenets.  

I agree that too quickly we “boil down” the human experience to identity but what serves as a replacement to connecting diverse students? In what ways can a college create common experience without feeding off identity or ideology? 

The simplest answer is to re-ground civic education in our own country’s history. Traditionally, a sense of shared purpose has been the best antidote to partisanship. It is the best way for a people to learn the stories that tie them together, and by which a nation learns and remembers its identity and purpose. A shared and fact-based understanding of our country’s history and principles fosters informed deliberation by establishing boundaries for a reasoned and reasonable debate. This enables the citizenry to build a more perfect union—that is, to acknowledge the injustices that have existed in American society, and those that remain, while working to live up to the country’s principles. Where Americans lack a basic understanding of their history and political system, it is easier to adopt extreme positions—positions that are often fueled by emotion more than by reason.

Politicians and academics were once keenly aware that our political system relies on broad civic understanding. Thomas Jefferson, in planning the University of Virginia, considered it imperative that a public university “form the statesmen, legislators, and judges on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.” Colleges and universities should “expound the principles and structure of government.”

This requires teaching students something about what citizens have in common—about our national heroes and triumphs, and about the injustices that remain for posterity to resolve. Unfortunately, too few schools give their responsibility for civic education the gravity and attention it deserves. Indeed, far from requiring careful examination of our country’s guiding principles and development, 82% of colleges and universities do not even require a single survey course in either U.S. government or history with enough chronological breadth to expose students to the sweep of American history and institutions.

The leniency of course majors especially in the arts and social sciences has been a problem expressed by some students. You are concerned that this along with distribution requirements allow students to not take the “core classes” but your curriculum suggestions from “Restoring a Core” seem restrictive, taking up nearly half of all the classes for a four-year student. Whose responsibility is it to ensure students take the courses that will benefit them in life? The students? Administration? 

The core curriculum that ACTA recommends would take up only about one quarter of a student’s total credit requirements (nine courses, generally 27 of 120 hours, if one assumes three semesters of language instruction). Many accreditors already require universities to establish general education programs of roughly this length. ACTA advocates for a robust core curriculum, recognizing that while the faculty is ultimately responsible for developing an institution’s curriculum, the board and senior leadership set the mission of a university (preferably with broad consultation from stakeholders). An institution’s curriculum should be developed to advance its mission. (I.e., A university that aims to foster citizenship should offer and require students to take courses that develop civic competency; likewise, there is no better way to help students develop a global perspective or appreciation for diversity than to require a foreign language.) These considerations should also inform hiring decisions and a university’s thinking about the program portfolio it will establish and maintain. And so, while faculty rightly lead the curriculum process, the board and administration should play an oversight role to ensure that an institution’s academic programs (and perhaps especially its core) align with the institution’s mission.

Distribution requirements—a system in which students select one or more courses from broad academic areas like “Humanities,” “Quantitative Reasoning,” or “Arts and Culture”—may seem like an appealing idea on paper. Distribution requirements appear to combine the virtues of a core while giving students more room for choice, but in practice, they usually allow students to graduate with only a thin and patchy education. Within each subject area, it is not uncommon for students to have dozens or even hundreds of courses from which to choose—many of them narrow or niche. At Pennsylvania State University, for example, students can choose from over 480 different classes to fulfill their “United States Cultures” requirement, including “The History of Rock and Roll – Punk Rock” and “Introduction to Video Game Culture.”

In ACTA’s view, where does practical job training intersect the intellectual pursuits of college? I mean this in terms of distributional requirement and free though that allows a student to become an educated citizen but also in terms of student production. For example, I find myself being assessed solely through tests and essays but where do oral presentations or group projects fit in. You briefly mention this in Bold Leadership Real Reform but I was hoping you could expand. 

A well-designed core prepares students for rewarding and successful careers, informed citizenship, and meaningful engagement with their communities. The criteria we use to evaluate general education programs were established by members of our Council of Scholars 10 years ago. ACTA’s research in the years since has confirmed our belief that increasing employer dissatisfaction with college graduates’ career readiness, as well as the decline in civic competency and civility in the public square, are attributable to an overall deterioration of general education programs on college campuses. 

We have also taken note of several near-consensus findings in the large body of academic research that examines how college affects students. Scholars have noted that the effort students expend in their courses translates to increased competence, whether measured in terms of tests for cognitive gain or students’ self-reported gains. Similarly, large-n surveys of alumni have found that students who “strongly agree” that they were challenged academically in college are 3.6 times more likely to answer that college prepared them for the workforce, and 2.4 times more likely to answer that their college education was worth the price. Employers frequently emphasize how important it is that employees have a desire (and capacity) for learning in our rapidly-changing labor market. Here, the research shows that liberal arts experiences in college affect students’ inclination to acquire a lifelong learning orientation. 

The other 75% of the student’s education can and should be devoted to intellectual pursuits. College is not intended to be over in four years, but to help develop students develop a passion for lifelong learning. As Winston Churchill argued, “The privilege of a university education is a great one; the more widely it is extended, the better for any country. It should not be looked upon as something to end with youth, but as a key to open many doors of thought and knowledge.” What is more, ACTA strongly encourages universities to incentivize mentored research and (well-designed) group research projects throughout a student’s academic program (in the major and general education). Surveys of alumni satisfaction and studies of students’ self-reported learning gains confirms the value of these high-impact practices. The problem is that this kind of education requires a significant investment of faculty time. One way that ACTA is working to help more students have these opportunities is by encouraging institutions to adopt hiring practices, and tenure and promotion policies, that create strong incentives (and strong rewards) for teaching excellence. Too often, in prioritizing academic research, colleges and universities nudge faculty to spend less time, and put less energy toward, educating students.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “individuals born from 1957 to 1964 held an average of 11.9 jobs from ages 18 to 50.” While technical degrees prepare you for a specific skill, the liberal arts teach you how to think and make you more versatile in order to prepare you for those job changes. A recent survey shows that “those who take more than half of their course work in subjects unrelated to their majors (a characteristic of liberal arts colleges but not professionally oriented colleges) are 31 to 72 percent more likely than others to have higher-level positions and to be earning more than $100,000 than are others.”

The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ Job Outlook 2018 survey found that employers are looking for well-rounded students with the following skills, all of which can be found in a liberal arts education:

  • 72.6% seek candidates with good leadership skills.
  • 82.9% want graduates with the ability to work in a team.
  • 80.3% need employees with good written communication skills.
  • 82.9% look for workers with good problem-solving skills.
  • 67.5% prioritize employees with excellent verbal communication skills.

Your Free to Teach, Free to Learn action items appear to contradict pieces of your article. For example, colleges should protect non-tenured faculty, produce research free of strings, and encourage department diversity. One of the largest issues with the English Department was there lack of protections for Assistant professors. Additionally, you praise Professor Maroja but her article on speech was funded by the Charles Koch Foundations which notoriously limit academic freedom. Do you the Free to Teach, Free to Learn literature contrasting some of the points you make in support of stricter distribution requirements or am I misunderstanding how these work in conjunction with each other? 

Your question expresses strong admiration for academic freedom—we wholeheartedly agree! —but things get complicated quickly at the level of practice. To begin with, research is expensive. When granting agencies (including U.S. government agencies) fund research, they do so to advance specific missions and priorities. The principle of academic freedom does not require all research funding to be neutral in approach/subject matter/methodology, etc. (If that were the case, there would be very little research funding available.) For example, some grants in the sciences can have confidentiality requirements. But faculty must be free to seek funding opportunities according to their best academic judgment and to publish the results of rigorous scholarship wherever that research leads them. (It is not uncommon that granting agencies are displeased by the results.) The wealth and diversity of funding opportunities means that the most promising research projects will find the backing they need. But some, unfortunately, will not. Universities often try to remedy this by establishing internal funding programs for faculty who have not successfully secured external funding.

Similarly, academic departments rightly exert a good deal of influence in the tenure process. Typically, some or all of a department’s tenured faculty review a tenure candidate’s teaching, research, and service record at the beginning of the tenure process (which usually commences after six probationary years). The reason for this is that they are trying to decide whether the candidate will be a contributing member of the department for the next two, three, four, or even five decades. The process is not arbitrary but conducted in light of the department and the college/university’s guidelines for evaluating tenure track faculty, guidelines designed to tenure and promote the kind of professor who is committed to advancing the missions of the department/college/institution. (Academic departments often take upwards of a year when they revise their faculty evaluation plans and standards.) Institutions should also value outside evaluation to ensure candidates reviewed by someone who does not have a vested interest in the program and is free of accidental bias.

ACTA believes that departments are best served to weigh faculty teaching records heavily, and we certainly believe every effort should be made to provide an honest, unbiased, and good faith assessment of the candidate’s record. We also recognize that most departments do exactly this, in light of carefully designed standards. As such, it is very hard to question a department’s recommendation—expect in rare and egregious cases where there is clear evidence that the process was not followed.

Who is the desired audience of your article? The tone and specific lines have certainly created attention on campus, but are the students the people you are trying to influence? 

The intended audience is Williams’ administration and board, as well as college leaders, trustees, alumni, and philanthropists elsewhere. We harbor no ill-will toward students, even when they behave in ways that they themselves will think silly in 10 or 20 years. Students have always been prone to anti-establishment activities, and for the most noble of motives: a desire to advance the cause of justice, to right historical wrongs, and to improve the situation of the vulnerable. It is the responsibility of a college’s leadership to channel this wonderful energy and enthusiasm in productive directions. Sometimes, this means saying “no” to students—for students’ own good.  To this end the student’s own good is best perused when they are made to mingle with ideas, beliefs, and morals that do not align with their own. We DO object to those students who infringe on the free speech of others because they do not like to have their opinions challenged.

ACTA is a great friend to liberal arts education. We know that it cultivates the skills and abilities that employers are demanding better than any other course of study. But we also know that employers are watching what’s happening on liberal arts campuses. They are aware that the study of literature (and philosophy, history, and other disciplines) is being welded to political activism/ideology, and they are beginning to raise serious questions about the value of a liberal arts degree today. This will only continue to hurt liberal arts colleges, liberal arts disciplines, and liberal arts graduates if it is allowed to continue. 

The point is emphatically not that there isn’t a place for student social/political activism on campus. We champion free speech/expression, and we mean it, and we think student activism is healthy. However, student activism must be balanced against the educational-instructional mission of the college. Students go to college to learn, on the presumption that the faculty can teach something of value and that the academic leadership has crafted a worthwhile curriculum. When student activists purport to know better than their professors what should be taught on a college campus, that is when their activism moves from working to remediate a social or political injustice to trying to usurp the judgment of experts. Faculty have devoted their lives to research, teaching, and to refining their own pedagogy. Administrators must draw that line clearly to protect the integrity of their college. That is, students are best served when expert faculty are allowed to educate according to their best judgment. If you ask around, I believe you will find that most students—aside from a few militant activists—agree, and, in fact, long to learn from excellent teachers.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More