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Consultant with an Agenda

By THERESA KING & ELIZABETH WHITE

Executive Editors

(TEANECK) – Despite hopes for a November announcement of a reorganization plan, the provost’s advisory committee has yet to agree on one.

Enter ACTA.

President Chris Capuano and Provost Gillian Small told a Town Hall audience of more than 100 on Nov. 15 that they have entered into an agreement with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a controversial academic advising rm that receives funding from a variety of conservative not-for-profit organizations, including the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and Donors Capital Fund.

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ACTA was founded in the 1990s by Lynne Cheney, wife of George W. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, and then-Senator Joe Lieberman.

The City University of New York (CUNY) underwent a restructuring in 2008 based on recommendations from ACTA. Provost Small was an administrator at CUNY at the time, and was promoted to vice chancellor for research in that year.

Small tried to reassure the Town Hall audience comprised of mostly faculty.

“You don’t have to worry about ACTA as an organization,” Small said. “I’ve talked to many people in higher ed involved in these types of restructuring.”

“Many people referred me to the person who happens to be the president of ACTA,” Small said.

She described the president of ACTA, Michael Poliakoff, who she indicated will serve as the consultant to FDU, as “a real scholar” who is “steeped in higher ed” and has worked with many universities on restructuring.

Capuano also tried to reassure the audience.

“The consulting firm you hire is only as good as the person you get,” Capuano said. “The guy that is actually working for us, Michael [Poliakoff] from ACTA, he’s a former faculty member. I think he worked for GW [George Washington University].”

Capuano described the consultant arrangement.

“Any recommendations we get from them are simply that,” Capuano said. “recommendations.”

After concerns were raised by faculty, Capuano explained that “the work itself is not being done by ACTA, it’s being done by the one person.”

The CUNY restructuring along the ACTA guidelines pleased its trustees, but not necessarily its faculty. That was just fine with the trustees.

“Change in institutional strategy can only come from trustees,” Chairman of the CUNY Board of Trustees Benno Schmidt said when he accepted the Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education from ACTA in 2010. “The faculty cannot be given responsibility for strategy. The faculty is too compartmentalized, too divided, and too distracted to control strategic planning.”

He went on to explain why.

“Any change of significance will affect the interest of some faculty, and very small numbers of faculty can block any faculty action that threatens them,” Schmidt said. “Strategy must be the purview of the trustees. Reviewing an institution’s academic strategy and deciding whether change is called for is a trustee’s most important responsibility.”

A 2012 article from Inside Higher Ed took issue with the heavy trustee involvement in academic strategic planning favored by the organization. “ACTA is controversial in the higher education world because it pushes several ideas that lie outside general higher education norms, particularly that trustees should be more hands-on in university policymaking, including academics, which have traditionally been the purview of faculty in a shared-governance model,” the article said.

 

Some FDU faculty also expressed their concerns.
“I am concerned that ACTA espouses deeply partisan views which conflict with FDU’s values and educational philosophy,” said Dr. Jamie Zibulsky, associate professor in the School of Psychology. “This consultancy group is aligned with politicians and foundations that want to reduce access to higher education, teach a Western canon that implicitly rejects the multicultural perspectives and scholarship that FDU has always valued, and restructure universities so that it is more difficult for faculty to conduct good science.”

On its website, ACTA claims to be a champion of academic freedom.

“Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives a philosophically rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price,” their website states.

ACTA has come under re over the years from academic scholars and media outlets.

“That ‘commitment’ [to academic freedom] takes the form of mobilizing trustees and alumni in an effort to pressure colleges and universities to make changes in their curricula and requirements,” higher education scholar Stanley Fish wrote in The New York Times in 2009. “Academic institutions, the ACTA website declares, ‘need checks and balances’ because ‘internal constituencies’ — which means professors — cannot be trusted to be responsive to public concerns about the state of higher education.”

ACTA bills itself as a champion of the teaching of Western civilization and American history. The “western” raises some concerns among FDU faculty.

“I find this push for a western focus to be in stark contrast to the goals of our university,” said Dr. Ben Freer, associate professor in the School of Psychology, quoting from FDU’s Mission Statement, “as the mission of FDU is to function as, ‘a center of academic excellence dedicated to the preparation of world citizens through global education.’”

Dr. Francis Ingledew, an English Professor in the School of Humanities, also expressed his concerns with the consulting agency’s emphasis on western curriculum.

 

“It would be naive to think that they didn’t have this mission statement for a reason,” Ingledew said.

In 2001, The Times referred to ACTA as “a conservative nonprofit group devoted to curbing liberal tendencies in academia.”

President Capuano sought to allay those faculty fears in his comments in the Town Hall.

“I can assure you we’re not giving up our global education,” Capuano said. “One of my aspirations is to make this university truly global. Global is part of who we are. No consulting agency can tell us otherwise.”

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