Universities’ boards of regents are charged with ensuring campuses maintain academic freedom and excellence, yet often board members fall short in their oversight duties – and that’s where the American Council of Trustees and Alumni comes in.
ACTA is an independent nonprofit that combines research and activism to encourage boards to rein in wayward universities, and as Dr. Michael Poliakoff takes over as president, he said now more than ever college leaders must correct course.
“It was once said that American higher education is ‘the envy of the world,’” Poliakoff said. “ACTA wants to ensure that we live up to that and that we are not sliding so as to lose this distinction.”
This month, Poliakoff became president of the 21-year-old group, a step up from his role as vice president of policy. In a telephone interview with The College Fix, he said he plans to continue to focus on ACTA’s “three As”: academic freedom, academic excellence and accountability.
“These are all connected,” he said. “There is no such thing as academic excellence without academic freedom or accountability. The moment a school stops providing any of them, it is no longer pursuing truth in an objective way.”
The group communicates with a network of 21,000 trustees at 1,100 different schools. It works with alumni, donors and trustees, monitoring academic standards and working to protect the free exchange of ideas on campus.
As The College Fix reported in April, “ACTA’s influence on higher education has risen so much that its critics accuse it of promoting … ‘adversarial’ relationships between trustees and presidents, whose main concerns seem to be fundraising and rankings – not whether students emerge intellectually enriched.”
But the group continues to gain clout among a variety of campus stakeholders, from trustees to educators, as its work remains in the headlines. In January, it made national news when results of a survey it conducted found 10 percent of college grads think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court. Just last month, the group published a survey showing that fewer than one-third of the nation’s leading universities require history majors to take a single course in U.S. history, promoting a wide variety of news coverage.
“If we spot a violation of academic freedom, we call directly on boards in their role as fiduciaries to counteract that violation,” Poliakoff said. “We then share that information with the media to let America know that colleges are not being run to serve students, parents and taxpayers.”
As president, Poliakoff said he plans to ramp up the organization’s focus on campus narrow-mindedness and repression through research and advocacy to media and trustees.
In the recent past, ACTA has released notable reports such as “The Cost of Chaos in the Curriculum” and “The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile 2015” with Poliakoff’s help. He has also overseen ACTA’s signature What Will They Learn? project, which grades more than 1,100 institutions around the country based on whether or not they require their students to take courses in what ACTA believes are seven key areas of knowledge: composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. history, economics, mathematics and science.
Poliakoff added that ACTA not only uses the stick on institutions, but also the carrot.
“There are reassuring signs of good things happening in higher education and we like to give positive reinforcements when we see something done well,” Poliakoff said. “Purdue is doing well under the leadership of Mitch Daniels — he has frozen tuition for four years, lowered the cost of attendance through good administration, spoken out about what free-exchange of ideas really means and how saying ‘I’m offended’ is not enough to end a conversation.”
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