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American Council of Trustees and Alumni is finally calling the shots, ‘cordial’ or not

One fear of academic freedom groups like the American Association of University Professors is that “civility” will become a bludgeon to silence anyone with unpopular views – or who challenges the authority of a college administration.

For the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the subject of a fascinating (and sadly, paywall-only) profile in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the feared term might be “cordial.”

ACTA’s influence on higher education has risen so much that its critics accuse it of promoting – gasp – “adversarial” relationships between trustees and presidents, whose main concerns seem to be fundraising and rankings – not whether students emerge intellectually enriched.



The group’s long-ignored warnings – 21 years in the making this spring – now seem prescient, as retiring President Anne Neal says:

“We were concerned about rising costs. We were concerned about declining quality. We were concerned about political correctness, and we were concerned that trustees really were not engaging in a way that was necessary given this billion-dollar industry and given its impact on basically training our next leaders,” Ms. Neal says. “Frankly, 20 years ago, when we said that, we were a lone voice in the wilderness.” …

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Her ideal is a trustee who forcefully interrogates a college’s curriculum, assessing whether its emphasis on Western civilization, particularly the founding principles of the United States, is sufficient. This trustee would demand data, denounce perceived obfuscations from presidents, rein in administrative bloat, refuse to rubber-stamp tenure decisions, and not back down to charges of micromanagement.


The Chronicle notes that ACTA’s pillars are now embraced by mainstream education leaders including the president of Arizona State University and the incoming dean of the University of California-Irvine’s education school. Also this guy:

Clayton M. Christensen, whose writings on disruption are considered by many to be foundational texts for 21st-century higher education, has distributed a letter through the council’s network. Mr. Christensen, who described many challenges to colleges as “of their own making,” encouraged trustees to reduce research spending in favor of teaching; to cut “academically weak” programs and “moneylosing” sports; and to advocate for a core curriculum “more practical from the standpoint of making a living and contributing to the community.”

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Why don’t some college professionals like ACTA? They want “collaboration,” which is a soothing way of saying “don’t question my authority”; they think students should be free to study useless programs that will only turn them into resentful, debt-ridden adults; and they don’t want anyone telling them how to spend money, which is often provided by the “deep-pocketed donors” who are chosen as trustees.

But people who actually care how colleges are run are grateful for ACTA’s advice. Like Rick Trachok, who chairs the Nevada System of Higher Education’s Board of Regents:

The council’s “10 Questions Trustees Should Ask,” which includes prompts about administrative salaries, building utilization, and faculty teaching loads, struck Mr. Trachok as worthy boilerplate for his own board. “It helped sharpen the focus in the discussion,” he says.

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The system’s eight campus presidents came before the board one by one to answer the council’s prescribed queries. Ever since, Mr. Trachok says, the board has asked the university’s campuses to present plans for reallocating administrative expenses to classroom instruction. The system has also consolidated two campus police forces, saving more than $475,000 a year through layoffs and shared services, he says.

There’s an older group that in a sense competes with ACTA, but it relies on college presidents to pay member dues – the very essence of regulatory capture:

In a characteristically colorful tone, Ms. Neal once accused the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges of advocating for a “potty-trained trustee,” who “cuts a few big checks and doesn’t meddle in university affairs.”

Did I mention Neal started as a First Amendment lawyer? I love her!

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I first remember hearing about ACTA when my own alumni association tried to completely junk voting by alumni, calling that huge change “housekeeping.” Its work has also proven useful to me in co-developing a TV show/Web series about clashes at an evangelical university with a smooth-talking, steamrolling president and a rubber-stamp board.

It’s a credit to ACTA that the worst The Chronicle can find about it is that it takes money from conservative foundations.

The horror!

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Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.