Why ACTA May BE Fanning the Flames at UVA

 Photo composite from left to right:  Anne Neal, Teresa Sullivan, Helen Dragas.


The University of Virginia (UVA) Board  of Visitors (BOV) received widespread--and I'd guess unwanted--attention  when Regent Helen Dragas seemingly forced the resignation of UVA  President Teresa Sullivan on June 10, 2012 without a vote.  The conflict centered on money and mission.  Dragas criticized Sullivan for not moving quickly enough on reforms Sullivan said involved deep cuts in education.   Siva Vaidhyanathan (email, bio), a cultural historian and media scholar at the University described the events for Slate as "robber barons try[ing] to usurp control of established public universities to impose their will via comical management jargon and massive application of ego and hubris."
Attention might have faded after June 26, when the BOV voted unanimously to reinstate Sullivan. But UVA's accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) found that the BOV failed to include the faculty and issued  a warning on December 11.  On December 31, Anne Neal,  American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA),  complained to the Department of Education (DOE) that SACS acted without authority.  The Governor and General Assembly reappointed Dragas over protests.  Continuing tension surfaced March 1 when the Washington Post 's Jenna Johnson (email, blog, twitter) published a February email by Sullivan, ("made public without [her] consent or knowledge”) protesting that Dragas had issued goals which " set [her] up to fail."  The Faculty Senate responded that Dragas appears to have “not yet learned the governance lessons from last summer’s crisis. This kind of behavior must end.”

Giving new life to the controversy March 8,  ACTA wrote Education Secretary Arne Duncan appealing DOE's   February 11, 2013 determination that  SAC did not violate any federal laws.  ACTA promotes core courses in composition, U.S.  government or  history, economics, literature, college-level math, science and  intermediate-level foreign language.  It claims to support academic freedom, academic, greater transparency and accountability.  Not not exactly ends achieved by the UVA BOV in the forced resignation. Why, I wondered, is ACTA going to such lengths against SACS and, by extension, the UVA faculty?

One answer may lie in ACTA's founder, its funders and their political agenda. ACTA got its start 1995 from Lynn Cheney, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. One major funder is the conservative  Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Another,  before it zeroed out its endowment in 2005, was the John M. Olin Foundation, which disbursed over $370 million, primarily to conservative think tanks, media outlets, and law programs at influential universities.

ACTA has a long-going war with accreditation organizations   Doug Lederman (email), founding editor of Inside Higher Education described it as advocating for "more or less junking the current federal system of academic quality review," when writing about the Bush adminstration's appointment of ACTA co-founder Anne D. Neal to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.  While the current DOE letter to ACTA limits its oversight of SAC to matters of law, under Bush, according to Lederman,

Department officials have come to view accreditation, higher education's system of self-regulation and quality control, as an important pressure point for carrying out many of the recommendations of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. That's because accrediting agencies have influence over the vast majority of colleges and programs, and because the department, through the NACIQI panel, has the ability to judge the performance of accreditors. That approval is crucial, because without it, an accreditor’s stamp of approval of a college does not carry with it the all-important right for the institution’s students to receive federal financial aid...
 [At] a federal negotiating session... political leaders in the Education Department...sought to give NACIQI significantly more power to investigate accreditors, and to do so more regularly.
But there's a wider political agenda.  Emily Eakin (email), at the New York Times  wrote about  ACTA's November 23, 2001 publication  "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It," a report no long available on the ACTA's website.  In the guise of protecting free speech for students and faculty, ACTA , criticized other faculty for being "''the weak link in America's response to the (9/11 attack.'' Eakin described ACTA as "a conservative nonprofit group devoted to curbing liberal tendencies in academia." 

 One of those criticized, Joel Beinin (email, bio), Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University wrote about his experience in "The New American McCarthyism: policing thought about the Middle East," published in 2004:

"The first post-September 11 expression of the link between the neo-conservative political agenda and the attack on critical thinking about the Middle East was a report...maintain[ing] that criticism of the Bush administration’s war on Afghanistan on campuses across the country was tantamount to negligence in ‘defending civilization’ and proof that ‘our universities are failing America’. ACTA alleged that American universities were brought to this sorry state by inadequate teaching of western culture and American history. Consequently, students and faculty did not understand what was at stake in the fight against terrorism and were undermining the defence of civilization by asking too many questions...

"The original version of ‘Defending civilization’ named and quoted comments by 117 university faculty members, staff and students in reaction to the September 11 attacks. ACTA’s ire was aroused by my statement that, ‘If Usama bin Laden is confirmed to be behind the attacks, the United States should bring him before an international tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity.’ Other remarks in the report’s list of unacceptable speech included ‘Ignorance breeds hate’ and ‘[T]here needs to be an understanding of why this kind of suicidal violence could be undertaken against our country’."

And lest you think it stops there, Craig Smith (email), Director of Higher Education at American Federation of Teachers, critiqued ACTA's legislative agenda in 2007, saying its  “Intellectual Diversity” agenda advocated censorship.  The 2005  report on that agenda IS available on ACTA's site, as is a 2007 report on accreditation "reform."