“For most of American history, colleges viewed the cultivation of civic consciousness as centrally important to their mission,” argues American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) president Michael Poliakoff. “Not long ago, a university president would have been mortified to learn that graduates lacked even a basic understanding of U.S. political institutions.”
Though the success of the musical Hamilton attests to Americans’ hunger for history, a recent survey that ACTA commissioned shows that civic education in the United States is waning. Some 63 percent of those surveyed did not know the term lengths for U.S. representatives and senators, and only 15 percent identified James Madison as the “Father of the U.S. Constitution.” Poliakoff says that these results reflect a society that is “ill-equipped for representative democracy.”
Founded in 1995, ACTA works with alumni, donors, and trustees to promote liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard free inquiry on college and university campuses, and ensure college affordability.
“As the only organization that works directly with alumni, donors, and trustees,” Poliakoff notes that ACTA provides “the tools they need to tackle the serious challenges facing higher education,” such as “declining curricular standards” and “an unsustainable rise in the cost of a college education.”
A former professor of classics who has also served in numerous positions in government, Poliakoff contends that campus culture should be “characterized by the freedom of expression and the unfettered freedom of inquiry and research, and responsible stewardship of the resources for teaching and learning.”
ACTA’s materials can help stakeholders improve their colleges and universities.
Among its many initiatives, ACTA’s Covid-19 road map gives schools the ability to navigate the pandemic’s effects by implementing measures such as a 90-semester-hour baccalaureate degree and installing a core curriculum in place of often haphazard curriculum structures.
As part of its Heroes of Intellectual Freedom series, ACTA honors professors like Joshua T. Katz of Princeton University and Abigail Thompson of the University of California–Davis, who are working to ensure that robust intellectual debate exists on campuses. It has also launched efforts to increase historical literacy among college students
ACTA’s Higher Ed podcast explores the most pressing issues in higher education while its annual “What Will They Learn?” survey focuses on the state of core curricula in more than 1,100 public and private institutions. The Forum blog features regular posts on relevant topics, and the “Inside Academe” newsletter highlights ACTA’s latest work.
To ensure that trustees are poised for institutional success (ACTA’s network includes 23,000 university trustees representing more than 1,300 schools), ACTA offers a kit that includes a financial analysis tool that allows users to see how institutions of higher education spend their funds. “Governance for a New Era” is a “blueprint for higher education governance” that explores how colleges and universities can meet twenty-first century challenges. Trustees should also read “Resisting Cancel Culture,” a report by former American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen that looks at why increasing numbers of Americans feel the need to hide their beliefs.
To provide alumni continuing oversight of their colleges and universities, ACTA’s “The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving” gives them advice on how to “target their giving toward supporting or even creating truly meritorious campus programs and activities.” The “Oases of Excellence” initiative lists 70 civic institutions, such as The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, Ashbrook, and the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, that feature strong civic education programs.
Resources that can help policymakers craft worthwhile education policies in their states or the nation at large include “How State Policymakers Can Strengthen Higher Education,” which lists cutting-edge policies that can lead to better student outcomes. A must-read for any member of Congress are ACTA materials that detail how the accreditation process can be reformed.
For parents, What’s a Parent to Do?, a book by former ACTA president Anne Neal, gives families the tools to find the best college for their children. Students looking for help on how to evaluate a college have at their disposal a pamphlet featuring 10 questions that they should ask during campus visits.
Through its resources for alumni, donors, trustees, parents, and students, ACTA can help guide institutions of higher learning back to the principles and practices that made them an example to the world.
Mike Sabo is the editor of RealClear’s American Civics portal.