Tag Archives: ACTA

The Downgrading of American History

A little more than a decade ago, I commented on the “re-visioning” of American history—the transformation of “traditional” sub-disciplines such as U.S. political, diplomatic, or military history to have them focus on the themes of race, class, and gender (and, now, ethnicity) that have come to dominate the field. A more recent development, documented by a 2016 ACTA report, has been the elimination of any required courses in U.S. history—even of the “re-visioned” variety. Only 23 of the nation’s 76 leading colleges and universities have such a requirement for History majors.

ACTA’s report is important not merely because of its impressive collection of hard-to-gather data, but because it has led some university History departments to publicly explain why they believe it’s fine for a U.S. university to graduate a History major who hasn’t taken a single course in U.S. history.

According to George Washington’s History Department, the elimination of a U.S. history requirement was purely market-driven—the number of majors had declined, and the department decided that eliminating a U.S. requirement would attract majors. Yet the department kept a far more onerous requirement (a pre-1750 course).

And a comment last month from the department’s director of undergraduate studies—“American history is so dominant at GW that it’s almost unnecessary to tell students that they have to take it. It’s what our students overwhelmingly do”— contradicted the suggestion that the unpopularity of U.S. history explained the decision to eliminate the requirement.

If George Washington’s seemingly illogical explanation for its removal of the U.S. history requirement, the response of the Duke History Department provided a clearer rationale for the problem the ACTA report exposed. Professor Bruce Hall, director of undergraduate studies in Duke’s History Department, asserted that “our goal is to have our students to develop the kind of critical skills that we think are really important for them”—implying that the actual content of History courses is irrelevant to Duke history professors.

Of course, the vast majority of History courses at Duke (or any other university) consist not of the instructor spending dozens of hours talking about “skills,” but of the professor providing information about the past. The “skills” emphasis (a favorite of the AAC&U, among others) provides a way to divert the public’s attention from what actually is being taught in university classrooms.

In the event, a Ph.D. student in the Duke program, Jessica Malitoris, gave the game away, indicating her “worry about the politics of privileging American history.” (Malitoris’ Duke profile affiliates her with the institution’s gender, sexuality, and feminist studies program.) Hall appeared to agree: “We don’t try to communicate an American ideological notion about citizenship—that’s not our goal.”

At least Malitoris was candid in why the department might have eliminated the requirement for U.S. history. (How that line would work with Duke donors, on the other hand, is a different question.) Hall’s remark, meanwhile, is difficult to square with his department’s own mission statement, which proclaims that “we study history for instrumental reasons, to redress the pervasive ‘history deficit’ in political discourse and policy formation.”

(The department’s website doesn’t indicate the nationality of its majors, but it seems safe to assume that the majority, and probably the overwhelming majority, are U.S. citizens, linking the department’s concern with “the pervasive ‘history deficit’ in political discourse and policy formation” to U.S. history.) And Duke University’s own mission statement, as articulated by the Board of Trustees, speaks of providing students with “a sense of the obligations and rewards of citizenship” that Hall appeared to disparage.

Only pressure from trustees is likely to achieve any kind of progress on this issue. As the responses of the Duke and George Washington departments illustrated, and as ACTA’s study documented, it appears that a majority of History professors nationally now believe that it’s OK for a university to graduate History majors who have never taken a course in U.S. history.

A Big Campus Trend: Ignorance of U.S. History

This is an excerpt from the new ACTA report, No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States out of the Major. It reveals that fewer than 1/3 of the nation’s leading colleges and universities require students pursuing a degree in history to take a single course in American history. Read the full report is here.

Although it is reasonable to assume that at America’s top-ranked colleges and universities, education for meaningful citizenship would be a priority, that is a false assumption. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has delved into the requirements and course offerings in history departments at 76 of the nation’s leading colleges and universities to see how U.S. history fits into their programs. Only 23 undergraduate history programs at the U.S. News & World Report’s top 25 national universities, top 25 public institutions, and top 25 liberal arts colleges require a single U.S. history class.

The overwhelming majority of America’s most prestigious institutions do not require even the students who major in history to take a single course on United States history or government. Disregard for the importance of United States history in the undergraduate history major is matched by the overall disappearance of United States history requirements from general education, the core curriculum that should be part of every student’s education. ACTA’s annual “What Will They Learn?” survey shows that only 18% of the over 1,100 four-year colleges and universities in the study, public and private, require a foundational course in United States history or United States government.

Related: What’s American about American History?

The consequences of these weak academic standards are clear. ACTA’s surveys of college graduates reveal year after year deep and widespread ignorance of United States history and government. In 2012, 2014, and 2015, ACTA commissioned the research firm GfK to survey college graduates’ knowledge of American history. ACTA sees the same dispiriting results each time:

  • Less than 20% could accurately identify—in a multiple-choice survey—the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • Less than half could identify George Washington as the American general at Yorktown.
  • Only 42% placed the Battle of the Bulge in the history of World War II.
  • One-third of college graduates were unaware that FDR introduced the New Deal.
  • Nearly half did not know that Teddy Roosevelt played a major role in constructing the Panama Canal

. • Over one-third of the college graduates surveyed could not place the American Civil War in its correct 20-year time frame.

  • Nearly half of the college graduates could not identify correctly the term lengths of U.S. senators and representatives. Reputation and high tuition are no guarantee that students will know the history of their nation.

When ACTA commissioned a Roper survey of seniors at the “Top 50” colleges and universities, those holding the most prestigious positions in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, it found that only 29% could identify—in a multiple-choice survey—the definition of “Reconstruction.” Little more than half could identify the purpose of the Federalist Papers. Only 23% could name James Madison as the Father of the Constitution. And only 22% could match the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” with the Gettysburg Address.

Bottom line: No college or university can assume that students have even an elementary grasp of the important moments in United States history in the absence of a requirement for its study.

Related: “Big History’ Kicks U.S. History to the Back of the Class

Given what we know about the historical illiteracy of young Americans, it would seem irresponsible not to make the study of our history and government mandatory for all students. Not to require students majoring in history to take, at a minimum, a course with reasonable chronological and thematic breadth on the history of the United States would be a truly breathtaking abandonment of intellectual standards and professional judgment. We find in our study of the top 25 liberal arts colleges, the top 25 national universities, and the top 25 public institutions that only 23 programs out of 76 require a course on our nation’s history. That’s less than one-third.

Why top undergraduate departments behave this way is unclear. Perhaps it is from fear of seeming to endorse “American exceptionalism.” Or perhaps it comes from a naïve belief that American students already have a firm grasp of their nation’s history. Either way, the damage is real. Virtually all institutions offer comprehensive courses on America’s past, but the overwhelming majority do not take the vitally important next step of ensuring that all graduating majors have taken one of these courses.

Look at What Yale Does

This only-if-you-want-to approach will undoubtedly lead scores of history majors to graduate without ever taking a course on United States history beyond the high-school level. Yale University exemplifies this desire to maximize student choice at the cost of essential requirements.

It recently implemented a “specialist track” that allows history majors beginning with the class of 2017 to forgo a requirement in U.S. history whereas previous students were required to take at least two courses in the history of the United States or Canada. According to the department’s website, this new option was “created in response to students’ desire to focus in particular areas of interest earlier in the History major.” Likewise, Rice University required students who matriculated before fall 2014 to take one course in United States history, but their new set of requirements makes it merely optional.

It is not the case that history departments refuse to set any requirements for the major. Although a large majority of schools fail to require even a single course in U.S. history, as noted above, many do have geographical-distribution requirements excluding the United States.

Higher education leadership needs to face the problem squarely and take action. Our colleges and universities, whether in the name of “inclusion” or globalism or a debased hope that they will attract more students by eliminating requirements, have created a vicious circle of historical illiteracy and the civic illiteracy that accompanies it. This illiteracy extends to the troubling way that students view fundamental aspects of our nation’s structure of law and government.

A 2016 Gallup poll showed that 27% of college students supported “restricting the expression of political views that upset or offend certain groups.” Another 49% believed it is right to prevent reporters from covering protests held on college campuses if they believe the reporting will be “unfair.” Those who do not know the history of the nation are, of course, much more likely to view its constitutional freedoms with nonchalance.

What Students Need

If our colleges and universities seek to retain public support of their work, they must understand that a high-quality curriculum comes from informed choices, developed through the reason, professional training, and good sense of faculty and college leadership. Faculties have the right to pursue personal intellectual interests, but they also have an obligation to address what students need to learn.

Trustees and administrators should insist that departments articulate with far greater clarity what students should know. Until a college comes together as an academic institution and addresses the question of what it means to be a college-educated individual, the curriculum will continue its expensive, chaotic expansion to the detriment of students’ intellectual development. It is totally appropriate for trustees to insist upon a requirement for every undergraduate to study the history of the United States and its institutions.

In reviewing the history program, trustees and administrators should not hesitate to ask the provost and the chairman of the history department to explain the department’s rationale for what it does and does not require of history majors. While respecting academic freedom, good academic governance prioritizes the needs of students to have a meaningful and coherent curriculum. And that means ensuring that United States history is part of the history major’s program. If ever there were an educational imperative that should claim the interest of alumni and donors, it is ensuring that college graduates understand our nation.

Alumni outcry over deficiencies in the curricula of their institutions can be a powerful force for change. Donors, as individuals or as a consortium, can create initiatives with incentives to add core requirements. In other words, their funding can be used to build the capacity to add sections of essential courses in American history and government, with the institution’s agreement that the result would be a firm requirement for history majors to study the history of the United States, enhanced with new faculty resources. That requirement should quickly extend to every student pursuing a liberal arts degree. Such donations would be a contribution not only to the alma mater but also to the nation as a whole.

The U. of Chicago’s Flawed Support for Freedom of Expression

In January 2015 the University of Chicago Committee on Freedom of Expression issued a brief report which eloquently made a case for the importance of free speech as “an essential element of the University’s culture.”  I commented at the time in an approving manner.  Over the ensuing months, the Chicago statement has gathered more and more approval.  In April the faculty of Princeton University incorporated much of the Chicago statement into a statement of their own.   On September 28, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) launched a national campaign asking colleges and universities to adopt the statement. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has also urged over 19,000 trustees to embrace it.

In an era when student activists on many campuses are attempting to silence expression of views they disagree with, the University of Chicago statement is a welcome counter-measure.  It is easy to see why principled scholars and organizations concerned about the integrity of the university are drawn to it.

Not the Whole Loaf

But I urge caution.  The Chicago statement is, in effect, half a loaf.  And sometimes half a loaf can be worse than none.  The basic problem with the statement is that it presents a context-free defense of freedom of expression. It does not offer any reason why such freedom is important and, in the absence of such a reason, it amounts to an endorsement of much of what is currently wrong with our colleges and universities.

To be sure, there is much in the statement that is attractive and endorsing it makes sense as a tactical move against “social justice warriors” who want to preempt important debates.  If the Chicago statement were to be understood as mainly a call for the university to respect the rights of outside speakers to have their say, regardless of viewpoint, it would be welcome without any serious reservations. But the statement does not contextualize itself to outside speakers and appears to apply equally to speech within the university.  The differences between outside speakers and speech within the university, however, are profoundly important.  The latter involve considerations that the Chicago committee ought to address but did not.

Four Flaws

In that light the statement has some serious flaws as an enunciation of general principles.  It is easy to imagine new circumstances where the positions laid forth in the Chicago statement would themselves become impediments to good education.  Indeed, some of these circumstances are already here.

There are four flaws. The statement ignores the need for true speech, wrongly elevates free speech over teaching, fails to say why free speech is important on college campuses, and is conducive to the further trivialization of the university.

First, the statement says “freedom of expression,” “freedom of inquiry,” and “freedom to debate” are “fundamental” to the university.  Surely they are.  The trouble is that other principles are no less fundamental.  One might think of the pursuit of truth; the obligation to distinguish the important from the trivial; integrity in research; respect for freedoms besides academic freedom; and genuine care for the welfare and educational prospects of students.

 The Pursuit of Truth

I grant that most of these do not spring readily to mind for faculty members who are not at the moment faced with a conflict, say, between freedom of expression and the pursuit of truth.  But such conflicts are never far off.  People lie, frequently.  Freedom of expression permits lies and misrepresentations and, up to a point, protects the liar in his exercise of the right.  The “fundamental” regard of the university for freedom of expression, however, is in direct tension with the fundamental regard the university must also have for the truth.  How does the Chicago statement handle this?  It is silent on the matter.  The statement does indeed say that “freedom to debate and discuss” is not absolute.  That freedom must bend in some cases:

The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.

Defamation, threats, harassment, and violations of privacy are out.  But on matters such as fabrication of data, perjury, deliberate historical misrepresentation, suppression of discrepant evidence, false testimony, plagiarism, and the like, the statement says nothing.

I would not infer from this that the University of Chicago Committee on Free Expression regards these as inconsequential matters.  Rather, it was charged with addressing the principle of freedom of expression and it did so, leaving various complications aside.

A Dangerous Mistake

Perhaps the University of Chicago is a community so well ordered that it could trust itself to deal with “freedom of expression” as an isolate—a fundamental that need not be considered in the company of other fundamentals.  Be that as it may, I think it is a dangerous mistake for colleges and universities across the country to adopt this statement as is, without creating a conceptual context in which other fundamentals are given due consideration and weight.

Let me acknowledge that extending the discussion in the direction of other such fundamentals may well prove difficult and frustrating.  A simple statement of principle—that freedom of expression is fundamental for a university—can be pure and inspiring.  Recognition of counterbalancing and sometimes contradictory principles that must somehow be made to mesh is less an occasion for rhetorical triumph.  But it returns us to the real world of higher education where flawed men and women struggle for achievement in a special kind of community.

Where’s the Word ‘Curriculum’?

Second, the Chicago statement treats freedom of expression as something unmoored by the curriculum.  Indeed the words “curriculum” and “course” (in the sense of an academic course) never appear in the statement.  The only example of freedom of expression that is cited is a Communist Party candidate invited to speak on campus by a student organization.  All of the other statements on academic freedom are hortatory declarations of the abstract principle.  But the reality is that colleges and universities must make practical choices to teach this subject, and not that one.

If they have—as the University of Chicago has—a core curriculum, they must decide which disciplines should be represented, and which not.  No university is so large that it can encompass every subject.  It must makes choices, just as the individual faculty member must makes exclusionary decisions in every syllabus and every time a class meets.  The license to make these choices is part of academic freedom but it is a particularly fraught aspect of academic freedom because it presents the question:  Who decides?

One approach maximizes the autonomy of the individual faculty member to teach what he wants to teach.  But even the university that leans far in this direction reserves the key power to approve a course or not.  And the best colleges and universities devote great care to the work of shaping their academic programs.

In short, the “fundamental” right of free expression is dramatically limited in the single most important context of higher education:  the college or university’s decisions about what should be taught.

What Should Be Taught

The Chicago statement in this regard sounds like a dream of faculty members reveling in the idea that free expression can be upheld as the governing principle of an institution that is in fact ruled by a dramatically contrary principle:  the need to provide students with a coherent education.

Third, the assertion of the “fundamental” value of freedom of expression sidesteps the underlying rationale for free expression.  The statement treats free expression as so integral to the university that no explanation is needed; just assertion.  Perhaps this reflects disagreement among the committee members on what the rationale for free expression should be, but the omission is odd.  In my view what makes free expression fundamental is that it prevents sleepwalking.

It treats every idea as open in principle to challenge, which means even the best ideas must be maintained by alert, intelligent, and informed people who are ready with good arguments and robust evidence, and who are also ready to put in the necessary time and effort to defend them.  Free expression exists as the antidote to intellectual complacency and the slumber of settled propositions.  It does not allow “consensus” or appeal to the authority of either the crowd or the expert to settle a dispute.

But if I am right about this rationale, free expression should lean towards these ends.  Free expression should not itself be a cover for mob rule (“consensus”), mere doctrine, or efforts to shut the door to further inquiry.  The rise of “studies” departments that are little more than ideological satrapies on campus does not jibe with free expression.  To hold a legitimate place in the community of higher education, a field of study must be willing to treat even its most basic ideas as hypotheses that are open in principle to challenge, not as matters of settled belief.

Chicago vs. Yale

The Chicago statement veers away from any such understanding of freedom of expression.  As far as the statement goes, all expressions enjoy the same title to “freedom of expression.”  That’s a view that comports pretty well with the First Amendment, but comports very poorly with the reasons why higher education values freedom of expression.

As it happens, the Chicago statement can be usefully contrasted with an earlier statement of freedom of expression issued in December 1974 by Yale, as the result of the deliberations of a committee appointed by President Kingman Brewster.  The Yale statement is every bit as vigorous in its support for freedom of expression as the Chicago statement, but at 31 pages, it is longer than the Chicago statement (3 pages), more in-depth, and attentive to complications that the Chicago statement ignores.  Perhaps most importantly, the Yale statement explains why freedom of expression should matter to a university.  Its first sentence declares: “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching.”  There is nothing comparable to this in the Chicago statement.

Fourth, the Chicago statement rests easily with the post-modern and (ironically) the anti-foundationalist condition of the contemporary university.  In treating free expression as an end in itself and divorcing it from any concern about the processes that establish and dis-establish intellectual authority, the statement gives license to the forces that have brought on the regime of triviality, curricular incoherence, narcissistic teaching, and intellectual aimlessness that have beset so many colleges and universities.  Again, these conditions may not prevail at the University of Chicago, but when other colleges and universities emulate or adopt the Chicago statement, they are also giving their imprimatur to an education that endorses formless exploration over purposeful inquiry.

An Unmoored Freedom

These four flaws in the Chicago statement have a kindred character.  All four have to do with the superficiality of the statement, which leaves out essential things:  other fundamentals; the shaping of the curriculum which is necessarily guided by principles above and beyond freedom of expression; the purpose of the college to which freedom of expression is necessarily subordinate; and the tendency of an unmoored freedom of expression to perpetuate the intellectual weaknesses of the contemporary university.

There are, of course, competing views about the purposes of higher education, an institution that must somehow blend discovering new knowledge, transmitting existing knowledge, sustaining the legacy of civilization, shaping character, preparing students for productive lives, and teaching students how to live responsibly in freedom.   Free expression is a vital component of several of these ends, and none more so than the last.  We uphold freedom of expression in large part to teach students to become citizens who can govern themselves wisely in our representative democracy.  But that requires that we understand this freedom not as an end in itself but as purposeful—which in turn means that we must pay attention to its purposes.

I’d recommend that the University of Chicago continue the work of the committee that wrote the statement by asking and answering the follow-up questions:  Why is freedom of expression important?  How does it advance the education of students?

It is in the spirit of the Chicago statement to welcome debate.  As far as I can tell, there has been little or no debate over the statement itself.  I offer these four points for the consideration of any college or university that is considering FIRE’s invitation to endorse the Chicago statement.  And I offer them as well for the benefit of the University of Chicago, which would seem to welcome, to borrow President Robert M. Hutchins’ apercu, the kind of “free inquiry [that] is indispensable to the good life.”

The Perils of Student Choice

The release of SAT scores last week gives strong ammunition to proponents of a core curriculum. As reported in the Wall Street Journal , reading scores hit their lowest figure in four decades. Writing scores hit their lowest number since a writing component was added to the exam six years ago; in fact, writing scores have dropped every year except one, when they were flat.

The College Board, which administers the exam, attributes the decline to two factors. One, more second-language students are taking the exam; and two, not enough test-takers follow a core curriculum. James Montoya, vice president of College Board, is quoted to that effect in the story, and he states the case even more strongly in the College Board’s own report. In his opening remarks, Montoya asserts that “students who complete a rigorous core curriculum do better in high school; they do better on the SAT; and they are more prepared for college. This holds true across all socioeconomic and ethnic lines.”

What a contrast to the education establishment, which regards a core curriculum as narrow and authoritarian! Parents are inundated with this argument during campus tours, where backward-walking guides assure them that students have ample license in their coursework. The proliferation of choice complements trendy ideas of student empowerment and student-centered learning that caught on in the 1960s and drifted quickly up to higher education.

However, those who favor a core curriculum now have certified announcements by the College Board against a high-elective approach. They may also take heart from a survey released this week by American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Administered by Roper, the first question asked respondents if colleges and universities should force students to take classes in “core subjects” (writing, math, science, U.S. history, economics, foreign language). Fully 70 percent answered “Yes.” More than half (54 percent) of them agreed that they were “Very” or “Somewhat” surprised that many institutions do not have those requirements. Most respondents (57 percent) also said they believe schools do a “fair” or “poor” job preparing students for the job market, while 46 percent believed that institutions do not give student’s “their money’s worth.”

The combination of dissatisfaction with the overall product plus the endorsement of core curricula marks a timely opening for reformers.

The California College System under Scrutiny

A recent report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), entitled “Best Laid Plans: The Unfulfilled Promise of Public Higher Education,” explores a fair number of problems the California college system faces. However, I don’t think it covers them all.

The report states openly and rightly the problems that California’s public colleges face are not primarily a function of declining revenues. As it notes, “the real danger is a fundamental failure by today’s trustees and system leaders to apply the same creativity and thoughtfulness that informed the Master Plan to a new world of reduced resources and a shrinking tax base.”

This point is crucial. The behemoth California college system has been fed an enormous amount of money, but there is obviously a limit to how much more the citizens can provide. In just the last five years, tuition at the UC system has gone up nearly 75% and at the CSU system by nearly 85%. And California’s taxpayers already pay steep sales, property and income taxes–among the highest in the nation. It is hard to imagine that much more can be squeezed from either the students or the taxpayers.

The report documents in detail some of the dramatic problems the system faces, including:

  • Low graduation rates at the CSU system: only 17.2% of new full-time freshmen graduate within 4 years, and only 52.4% within 6 years.
  • The leaders of the California public college system have a severe Edifice Complex, looking constantly to increase the amount of buildings and other infrastructure, much of it unnecessary.
  • The leaders are also reluctant to close or consolidate low-enrollment programs, and too easily eager to add new ones.
  • There is considerable administrative bloat, with the compensation of the top administrators increasingly over-generous, even while the taxpayers and students are impoverished.

I would note some other major problems:

The California community colleges have a grotesquely high drop-out rate: only 20% of CCC students either got an AA degree or transfer to a regular college.

  • The CCC system also spends way too much on recreational courses (courses that are meant to provide recreational outlets to adults). While these courses are supposed to pay their own way, they utilize the system’s physical resources.
  • The whole CSU system has suffered endemic “mission creep” regarding remedial education. Under the wise original 1960 master plan, CSU would take only college-ready students, while those needing remedial education (in math and English) were supposed to go to the huge and inexpensive CCC system. Along the way, the CSU system developed a costly remediation system. Now, half of all incoming CSU take remedial math or English or both.
  • Professors and administrators of the CSU system have over the years pushed for more and more focus on research, with tenure-track professors expected to publish, leaving much of the teaching to adjuncts. It is unclear, to say the least, that this has really benefitted the citizens of the state.

The report calls upon the UC Regents and the CSU Trustees to reassert control and enact necessary reforms, including establishing clear measures of productivity; re-prioritizing the academic mission of the college, restoring core curricula; rewarding good teaching; cutting back on administrative bloat; and restoring academic freedom and true intellectual diversity.

I can’t help feeling that the report is an exercise in naiveté. The administrators and faculty are agents in an institution that suffers from the principal/agent problem. Because the real principals — taxpayers, students and parents — have little knowledge of and even less power over the workings of the colleges for which they pay, the agents (faculty and administrators) can run them for self-serving purposes. Until this problem is rectified by radical reform, I see little hope for change any time soon.

_____________________________________________________________________________

Gary Jason is a philosophy instructor and a senior editor of Liberty, and is the author of Dangerous Thoughts.

Higher Education’s ‘Obesity’ Problem

ACTA crowd.jpg

Open a marketing brochure for any college or university
in the United States and you’ll find an info-graphic touting the variety and
number of degree programs that the institution offers.  The more options, the rationale goes, the
more likely a student will find a desired specialty.  The distinction between programs can be
subtle, for instance “Music, General” versus “Musical Theatre,” or
Agricultural Engineering” versus “Agronomy and Crop
Science.”

But the dreary fact is: higher education is in the midst
of a major financial crisis. 
Institutions’ bond ratings are falling and resources are in short
supply.   Boards of trustees must  figure out how to do more and better with
less. While administrative costs have to be examined, they are only part of the
problem.  According to former president
of the University of Northern Colorado and co-founder of the Lumina Foundation
Robert C. Dickeson, “[t]he failure of governing boards to focus on academic
programs is arguably the single greatest cause of overspending.”

This month the American Council of Trustees and Alumni
(ACTA) is sending Dr. Dickeson’s guide,
Setting Academic Priorities: A Guide to
What Boards of Trustees Can Do
to ACTA’s network of more than 13,000
trustees around the country. It provides governing boards with a framework for
establishing academic program review policies that direct resources to
mission-critical areas of their institutions without neglecting students’ needs.
 Of course, achieving this goal must
entail consolidating some academic programs into larger, more cost-effective
units or eliminating them.  

Continue reading Higher Education’s ‘Obesity’ Problem

More On The Charlottesville Follies

Finally some defenses of the beleaguered University of Virginia Board of Visitors are beginning to appear. An editorial in the Washington Post half-heartedly and with notable lack of enthusiasm called for Teresa Sullivan’s reinstatement, but the next day it ran an OpEd piece by Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, noting that “[w]hile the university board’s opaque process in removing Sullivan is regrettable, the board is right to be concerned about the direction of the university” and that “[f]aculty and administrators are up in arms, but these same individuals have, for decades, resisted cutting costs and providing accountability.”

Continue reading More On The Charlottesville Follies

Why ACTA Is Needed

In a perfect world, the two most important organizations in higher education would have no need to exist. Since colleges and universities would respect academic freedom and the First Amendment rather than attempt to suppress unpleasant speech, FIRE could shut its doors. And since the professoriate would feature an impressive array of pedagogical and ideological diversity rather than operating amidst the stultifying effects of groupthink, trustees wouldn’t need to check and balance the tyranny of the faculty majority. The organization that most consistently has urged this role for trustees, ACTA, could then turn its attention to other matters.

Continue reading Why ACTA Is Needed

What Will They Learn? Maybe Not Much

Academically Adrift“, a study by two sociologists – Richard Arum of NYU and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia – demonstrated that 36
percent of our college students graduate with little or no measurable gains in
their core academic skills – areas like expository writing and analytical
reasoning.  Their diplomas are literally tickets to nowhere.  No, I
take that back.  With an average student debt of $25,250, they are tickets
to long-term financial crises that can curtail their opportunities for
decades. 

The higher education establishment assures us that this
poor showing is due to the underfunding of colleges. 
Not so.  The average per-pupil expenditure on higher education in America is
more than twice the average of other industrialized nations.  No, the
problem is not too little money.  It is too little attention to what
matters.  What do students learn during those expensive college years?

Continue reading What Will They Learn? Maybe Not Much

Penn State, Trustees, and a Lack of Transparency

Last week, the incomparable Anne Neal penned
a blistering op-ed
regarding how the Penn State trustees handled the
allegations against former football coach Jerry Sandusky. The ACTA head argued that
the unfolding events of the Penn State sports
scandal show a major university that has been more interested in protecting
itself than in educating students or serving the public. The institutional
reckoning must begin and end with the governing board. It is responsible for
the actions of university leaders, and its members owe taxpayers and students
accountability and transparency.”

Continue reading Penn State, Trustees, and a Lack of Transparency

What Will They Learn? Not That Much

The redoubtable Anne Neal, President of ACTA, has released a survey entitled “What Will They Learn?” – a sobering analysis of general education in the nation’s colleges and universities. The report covers major public and private institutions in all 50 states.

Each of the higher education institutions was assigned a letter grade from “A” to “F” based on the requirement seven core subjects: composition, U.S. government or history, economics, literature, math, science, and foreign languages. 

The results are troubling. Only 5 percent of those in the survey require economics. Slightly less than 20 percent require intermediate level foreign language. Moreover, cost is not correlated to quality. The higher the tuition, the more likely it is that students are left without guidance on general education subjects.

Continue reading What Will They Learn? Not That Much

ACTA Examines General Education Requirements

ACTA has published its 2011-2 edition of What Will They Learn?, a study that examines, in basic terms, what 1007 colleges and universities around the country require from their students. The entire study is worth reading–and features an easy-to-use website–but I consider two aspects of ACTA’s findings particularly significant.

First, military academies fare quite well in ACTA’s study. Army and Air Force both require courses in composition, literature, U.S. government or history, math, science, and economics; Navy requires all of these subjects except for economics. Somewhat surprisingly, given their mission, none of the three require foreign language study, but otherwise all three provide a quality liberal arts fare.

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Decoding Teacher Training

Thanks to the efforts of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—and a rare, if welcome, instance of Congress standing up for students’ rights in higher education—the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) abandoned its de facto “social justice” criterion. Yet while the development made it harder for Education schools to use “social justice” and “diversity” to demand ideological fidelity from students, the ideologues that populate such programs have hardly ceased their efforts. Only now they must take accountability for their actions.
A good example of the continuing problem is the renewed emphasis on “cultural competence”—a term, much like “dispositions,” which is meaningless to anyone outside the academy but has a specific, and ideologically charged, designation to those familiar with Education code. Take, for instance, the Education Department at the University of Minnesota whose activities were exposed by Katherine Kersten in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Kersten uncovered a report prepared as part of the Teacher Education Redesign Initiative, which is reorienting the U of M’s teacher-training curriculum.
The intellectual interests of the report’s authors not only preview the group’s recommendations but also give a sense of what passes for the ideological mainstream in Education departments on the nation’s college campuses. The work of Professor Tim Lensmire, who says that he uses the classroom to promote “radical democracy” through embracing “various progressive, feminist, and critical pedagogies,” sets the ideological tone: Lensmire notes that his “current research and writing focus on race and education, and especially on how white people learn to be white in our white supremacist society.” The report’s other authors include Bic Ngo, whose research examines “the ways in which the education of immigrant students are shaped by dynamic power relations as they play out at the intersection(s) of race, ethnicity, class and gender” using “critical, cultural and feminist theories” to explicate “the role(s) of critical multicultural education”; committee chair Michael Goh, whose research explores “multicultural counseling”; and two non-tenure track figures, Mary Beth Kelley and Carole Gupton.

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Another Award For Our Writer

Tomorrow KC Johnson will receive the fifth annual Phillip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The award honors honors “individuals who advance liberal arts education, core curricula, and the teaching of Western civilization and American history.” KC has undoubtedly advanced these goals. He follows distinguished honorees Donald Kagan, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Harvey Mansfield, and Robert George. Congratulations to KC.

Wonder How The Clout Scandal Happened?

ACTA’s latest publication, “For the People: A Report Card on Public Higher Education in Illinois” has unearthed more of the usual disappointments. In a series of rankings, General Education requirements earned an F, with only three public universities (out of eight) indicating a foreign language requirement “and not a single institution received credit for Literature U.S. Government or History, or Economics.” Rankings for intellectual diversity also came out with an F. ACTA commissioned a research group to conduct a student survey, and the results were less than encouraging. 61% of students responded in the affirmative to the assertion that “some courses have readings that present only one side of a controversial issue.” In response to the proposal “some professors frequently comment on politics in my class even though it has nothing to do with the course” 38.6% of respondents agreed.
The most striking survey findings, however, came in the areas of Governance and Cost and Effectiveness. In many key areas, the boards of the University of Illinois System and the Southern Illinois University System (I didn’t know they were separate until now either) seem to be living up to all the traditional responsibilities of a rubber stamp.
Both systems garnered another set of Fs in these rankings. The ACTA report points out that there are no listings by which the public may contact trustees directly (as is possible in other states). Aside from a one-day session of meetings there are additionally no efforts to appraise the trustees of their responsibilities or provide them with outside advice. There seem to be few meaningful committees to assess significant criteria of university operation.

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Restoring A Core

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has released a trustee guide Restoring a Core as a follow-up to What Will They Learn, their recent survey of core curricula (more about that here) Take a look at the “How Will A Core Benefit My Institution” section beginning on page 4 for some interesting examples from SUNY and Booklyn College and the following pages for practical advice on how to encourage the adoption of a core.

Wonder If There’s A Core Curriculum?

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has unveiled a new site, www.whatwilltheylearn.com, that provides a survey of core curriculum requirements at 100 American Universities. They evaluate the existence of requirements in 7 areas: Composition, Literature, Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Science. Suffice it to say that most colleges required don’t ask much of their students in any of these areas.
I took a look at a few colleges with core curricula of which I was aware. Columbia University, for one, included the notes that “No credit given for Mathematics because math courses are part of the Science course list but are not required” and that its “Core Curriculum offers students an integrated and rich curriculum.”
There’s a nicely detailed portrait also offered of the numerous schools (most on the list) that lack a core curriculum but do possess “distribution requirements” which range from the hopelessly vague to the fairly substantive. Here spring up numerous additional notes: at Johns Hopkins “No credit given for Composition because only writing-intensive topic courses in a range of disciplines are required” or at Harvard “No credit given for U.S. Government or History because the United States in the World requirement is made up of niche courses.”
The site’s certainly worth a look. Do wander over.

New ACTA Report

ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has just published a report on grade inflation. “Measuring Up: The Problem of Grade Inflation and What Trustees Can Do” can be read online at the ACTA site or purchased in hard copy for $5. Click here for more information.

Sure Advice For Trustees

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has just released a new report “Metrics For Effective Governance” offering eight simple metrics for gauging “institutional success in attaining agreed-upon goals.”
The key measures that ACTA suggests include:

1. Student Characteristics
2. Student Selectivity
3. Cost of Attendance and Financial Aid
4. Financial Resources and Performance
5. Alumni Giving Rate
6. Graduation and Retention Rates
7. Faculty Resources
8. Academic Quality

All of that might sound self-evident, but any attention to the state of college administration will reveal numerous schools which lack processes to evaluate or appriase trustees in some to many of these categories. It’s a strong primer on what matters – take a look.

Thanks, Hank!

In his brief tenure as president of the University of Colorado, former U.S. Senator and ACTA National Council member Hank Brown – who stepped down this past weekend – managed to leave an indelible mark on CU and higher education generally.

Taking the reins in the wake of a number of scandals, Brown established a national model for institutional responsibility. Under his leadership, CU vigorously stood up for academic excellence and accountability. And the steps taken – committing to intellectual diversity at the board level, tackling grade inflation, and performing a groundbreaking review of the tenure process – offer presidents and boards across the country an unmatched illustration of ways to ensure quality education for students and taxpayers.

In tackling the challenges before him, Brown also set an example for presidential leadership. CU’s handling of the investigation and subsequent firing of Professor Ward Churchill was praiseworthy in its focus on due process and its fundamental understanding that academic standards are best set and enforced by academics themselves. At the same time, Brown understood and acknowledged the urgent need for higher education to be accountable to those who support it – and the important role citizens and alumni can play in demanding that their alma maters live up to their highest ideals.
Indeed, Brown’s belief in the importance of outside input underscored his early support of outside input. It’s gratifying indeed to review the prescient Roll Call article he wrote back in 1995 – along with his Senate colleague Joe Lieberman – underscoring the importance of alumni and trustee voices and acknowledging that “[c]ampus political pressures often make it difficult for those on campus to defend academic freedom.”

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St. Andrews Runs Afoul Of Accreditors

ACTA comments on an accreditation tussle afflicting St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College. It seems that the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (there’s a mouthful) is less-than enthusiastic about the college’s current expansion plans – and has placed it on an accrediting probation. ACTA is skeptical as to whether the commission should be second-guessing the board-created development plan, and notes, prudently, that such doubts should not endanger a college’s academic credentials:

As ACTA shows in its recent policy paper, “Why Accreditation Doesn’t Work and What Policymakers Can Do About It”, accreditors routinely overstep the bounds of their authority, and, as long as federal student aid hangs in the balance, there isn’t a lot schools can do to resist them. The system urgently needs reform, and the first step is to break the corrupting link between accreditation and federal student aid.

St. Andrews is a perfect case in point: an accreditor micromanaging financial matters that are best left to the board while ignoring the issue that should be its primary and determining concern, educational quality. St. Andrews has been singled out by U.S. News & World Report, the Washington Monthly, the Princeton Review, by Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, and many others for its innovative and effective curriculum. Even more to the point, SACS itself has praised the caliber of the college’s programs. By SACS’ own lights, St. Andrews is succeeding in its educational mission.

And yet, St. Andrews’ future is uncertain because the overweening bureaucrats at SACS have decided to involve themselves in fiduciary matters and to second guess the trustees who are legally responsible for the institution. St. Andrews’ financial plan may be wise – or not. But that’s something for its trustees to decide, not its accreditor.

If federal student aid weren’t tied to accreditation, St. Andrews could simply forego accreditation and forge ahead on its own. But as things stand, St. Andrews will lose everything it has worked for if it loses accreditation. Without accreditation, students who need federal aid will not be able to attend the school; they will go elsewhere, and the student body will decline in both numbers and economic diversity. SACS has St. Andrews in a stranglehold – one that arguably benefits no one but itself.