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|September 17 - 23, 2009
Who is pulling the strings at CU?
by Jefferson Dodge
During the Ward Churchill trial last spring, there was a witness who traveled all the way from California to testify on behalf of the fired University of Colorado professor of ethnic studies, but the judge sided with CU attorneys’ arguments and prohibited the witness from answering questions.
The subject of his testimony was to be the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), an organization formed in 1995 to work 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,” according to its website.
It’s motherhood and apple pie — who could disagree with those goals, right?
But some say ACTA and similar organizations have been pulling behind-the-scenes political strings at CU on several fronts in recent years, from the firing of Churchill to claims of infringement on the faculty’s purview over what gets taught in the classroom.
ACTA is a right-wing organization that, among other things, coaches trustees of colleges and universities on how to enact reforms that are part of the conservative agenda, and it has had strong ties to the state of Colorado and CU since its inception in 1995.
Former CU President Betsy Hoffman, in a deposition given on Feb. 23 for the Churchill trial, listed ACTA among the organizations and people she was referring to when she used the term “new McCarthyism” at a March 2005 Boulder Faculty Assembly meeting to describe the Churchill situation. (She resigned less than a week later, after her comments were reported by newspapers and at least one legislator called for her resignation.)
Also in that deposition, Hoffman said that after doing some online research during the Churchill controversy, she learned that former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown (who succeeded Hoffman as CU president) were founding members of ACTA at the state level. “I learned that they were engaged in the same kind of activities of targeting left-wing faculty members around the country,” Hoffman testified. “I was very concerned… that they were recruiting board members to take a very activist role in reducing left-wing bias, as they saw it, of universities.”
When asked by Churchill attorney David Lane whether she believed Owens would “unleash his alternate plan” by “firing up ACTA to go after you and Ward Churchill” if the professor was not fired, Hoffman replied, “I have to assume that that was the case.”
While she said Brown was not “visibly active” in the assault on Churchill, Hoffman said ACTA articles about the controversial professor were part of an organized assault on Churchill. Asked whether ACTA becoming involved with the right-wing media was “to make Churchill sort of a test-run poster boy of what’s wrong with American academia,” Hoffman replied, “That was my feeling at the time.”
CU attorney Patrick O’Rourke questioned Hoffman about whether Brown ever wrote or said anything against her or Churchill, and Hoffman conceded that he did not.
The California witness
On March 16, Alan P. Jones, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., was invited to the stand by Churchill’s attorneys as an expert on ACTA, since he had published research and spoken at conferences about the organization. CU attorney Patrick O’Rourke argued that Jones’ academic specialties are psychology and neuroscience, not ACTA, and Chief Judge Larry Naves sided with CU, ruling that Jones was not an expert on the group, so the witness was excused from the courtroom. In fact, repeatedly throughout the trial, Naves agreed with CU attorneys’ pleas to preclude discussion of ACTA, saying it was not relevant to Churchill’s case.
Why did CU want to avoid public testimony about ACTA?
O’Rourke told Boulder Weekly Tuesday that the rules of evidence not only preclude the admission of evidence that is not relevant, but they allow judges to rule out tangentially relevant evidence that would be overly confusing to a jury or would waste the jury’s time. He said Brown had not been involved in ACTA for years and had not read any of ACTA’s writings on Churchill, so the alleged connection was “conspiracy theory.”
“I didn’t think it would be damaging to our case, because there was no evidence to support it,” he said.
Robert Bruce, the Churchill attorney who was set to question Jones, said he would have asked the witness about the rise of ACTA and the organization’s ties to Owens, Brown and other top CU officials. Bruce said he would have discussed Brown’s hiring of Michael Poliakoff, who had ACTA ties, as the vice president for academic affairs and research. (Poliakoff’s position was eliminated as part of budget cuts earlier this year.)
The attorney said he also planned to raise questions around the timing of ACTA publishing its piece “How Many Ward Churchills?” the same week that a faculty committee released its report about claims of falsification, fabrication and plagiarism in Churchill’s work.
“The timing was a bit too coincidental,” Bruce said. “Do I think there was a big conspiracy? No, I think ACTA is opportunistic. They don’t seem to like thought-provoking faculty.”
Lane credits ACTA with a larger role. “The entire campaign to get rid of Ward Churchill was orchestrated by ACTA,” he said. “I think
Churchill was the test case for getting rid of a faculty member you don’t like, and thanks to Judge Naves, you can.”
In July, Naves vacated a jury decision in favor of Churchill, ruling that the Board of Regents had governmental immunity from the former professor’s claims of retaliation for the exercise of free speech. That free speech was Churchill’s now-infamous essay, written just after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, but not publicized widely until 2005.
“I don’t think that essay was so controversial,” Lane said, “and absent the outcry from right-wing media, it would have continued to go unnoticed.”
Republican Regent Tom Lucero, who has ties to ACTA and other conservative groups seeking reform in higher education, said ACTA was not the instigator of the Churchill flap. “The Churchill thing didn’t need an additional triggering mechanism to explode any more than it did,” Lucero said Monday. “ACTA was riding that wave, not generating that wave.”
History of ACTA
According to its website, the organization was founded in 1995 under the name National Alumni Forum.
It labels itself as nonpartisan, listing then-Democratic U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman and former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm among its founders. But according to an Aug. 24, 2000, article in The New York Times, its agenda is usually associated with conservatives like Lynne Cheney, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Jerry Martin, who served as president of the organization during its first eight years and then as chairman of the group’s board of directors until this year, was a philosophy professor at CU from 1967 to 1982. He went on to work with Brown as an Andrew W. Mellon Congressional Fellow from 1982 to 1987, and with Poliakoff at NEH in the early 1990s, according to the CU faculty/staff newspaper Silver & Gold Record. (Editor’s note: Jefferson Dodge is the former editor of the Silver & Gold Record.)
CU President Bruce Benson, who also knew Poliakoff when Benson was a Senate-confirmed public member of the NEH from 1990 to 1997, said Tuesday that he got involved with the NEH after Martin encouraged him to meet with Cheney. Benson also said that he served on an ACTA advisory board, although he said he couldn’t recall when or for how many years. “I’ve never gone to a meeting of ACTA,” he said.
Benson said he agrees with many of ACTA’s goals, such as increased accountability, strengthening the core curriculum, hiring more conservative faculty and outcomes assessment. “But it’s both sides of the aisle, it’s not some right-wing conspiracy,” he said of ACTA. “If anything, there is a vast left-wing conspiracy.”
When a group of CU faculty ran a newspaper ad in May 2007 spotlighting the possible conflicts of interest that CU officials with ACTA ties would have in overseeing, and, in the case of Brown and Lucero, making decisions on, Churchill’s fate, Brown tried to distance himself from the organization. Michele McKinney, a Brown spokesperson, told Silver & Gold Record that Brown was no longer involved with the group and had resigned from ACTA’s National Council in December 1997. But in 2006, an ACTA publication called Inside Academe referred to Brown as a co-founder of ACTA who had recently attended a dinner event with ACTA donors.
In the May 2006 piece “How Many Ward Churchills?” ACTA published the results of a study examining university websites, syllabi and faculty web pages. The report declared that the “extremist rhetoric and tendentious opinion for which Churchill is infamous can be found on campuses across America. In published course descriptions and online course materials, professors are openly and unapologetically declaring that they use their positions to push political agendas in the name of teaching students to think critically.”
Brown and ACTA President Anne Neal did not return calls by press time.
A guide for trustees
A July 2008 guide for trustees of colleges and universities, “Asking Questions, Getting Answers,” contains advice from ACTA’s Institute for Effective Government.
It gives insight into the sometimes contentious relationship between the regents, who have pet agendas that often involve curricular changes, and the faculty, who defend their purview over academic matters at the university so that they remain insulated from the whims of politically appointed — or, as in the case of the regents, elected — officials.
For example, the guide says, “To be sure, many in the academy will tell you that trustees intrude on faculty prerogatives when they take an interest in academic affairs. Others will insist that the role of the trustee is to go along to get along — no questions asked. But don’t be fooled. Post-Enron, nonprofit governance is coming under increasing scrutiny. Students, parents, alumni and the public are raising concerns about costs, quality and ethics… ”
This call for regents to take more control over academics at their institution continues later in the document: “Trustees are made to feel unsure about the oversight of academic affairs. And this is deliberate. Many in the academy believe trustees should remain hands off when it comes to academic affairs; according to them, academic matters are solely the prerogative of the faculty. Be assured: Nothing could be further from the truth. Colleges and universities are above all academic institutions, charged with educating the next generation of citizens. In order to be responsible fiduciaries, trustees must ensure the quality of the educational enterprise — after all, education is the prime purpose of the institution for which you are responsible.”
The ACTA guide reads like a playbook for many of the initiatives and discussions led by conservative members of the Republican-dominated Board of Regents over the past decade.
The guide advises trustees to ask about what have become regular regent agenda items, such as the selectivity of admissions standards, keeping tuition low, the extent to which incoming students need remediation, graduation rates and whether courses and programs are eliminated when new ones are added.
The guide also tells board members to look into grade inflation by comparing current average grades to those 10 or 20 years ago, and if there is a problem, it suggests imposing a mandatory grade point average that faculty may not exceed — or adding the median class grade to each student’s transcript.
In 2006, after calling grade inflation a “scandal” in a Rocky Mountain News column, Brown spearheaded an examination of the issue at CU, and among his suggestions was that class rank be added to students’ transcripts to give a more accurate snapshot of how they really stack up.
“Asking Questions, Getting Answers” also coaches trustees to ensure that none of their school’s policies limit freedom of speech, which some say is code for keeping liberal faculty from intimidating a conservative student into suppressing his or her views. The guide also discusses “intellectual diversity,” which is often construed as an effort to have a more politically diverse faculty — i.e., fewer liberals and more conservatives. Board members are advised to examine the political leanings of guest speakers brought onto campus, a topic that has fueled the Board of Regents’ annual budget discussions about the political balance of campus speakers funded by student fees.
In addition, the guide describes the importance of having sound processes for hiring, reviewing and promoting faculty, which was the focus of a yearlong CU study and overhaul of tenure procedures prompted by the Churchill controversy.
The guide also encourages trustees to examine what coursework is required at their university, citing evidence that students are graduating without enough exposure to core areas like American history, civics, economics, literature, science and Western civilization.
The latter subject proved to be a priority for Lucero in late 2006, when the regent proposed creating departments of Western civilization at CU’s three general campuses. Faculty leaders were surprised and balked at the idea of having a regent mandate the creation of specific academic departments, citing it as an intrusion into the faculty-controlled area of what should be taught at CU. Lucero ended up backing off on the proposal after meeting with CU’s top faculty leader at the time, R L Widmann, an associate professor of English.
In January 2007, Lucero and Widmann defused the issue by issuing a joint statement asking the regents to let Lucero’s resolution die, which it did. Their joint statement grew out of a meeting that Lucero and fellow Republican Regent Steve Bosley had with a faculty committee charged with making recommendations on educational policy and university standards. Widmann told Silver & Gold Record at the time that topics discussed with the regents at that meeting included academic rigor, grade inflation, the core curriculum and the skills CU graduates should have.
Christian Kopff, who teaches in the Honors Program and who sits on the Boulder Faculty Assembly, worked with Lucero on the Western civilization effort, since he was active in creating a center for that field. Kopff said much of ACTA’s research on deficiencies in the liberal arts education is sound, as evidenced by similar conclusions reached by non-ACTA scholars, including former Harvard University President Derek Bok.
Politically, Kopff said there is no doubt that ACTA’s “intellectual diversity” term is code for “hiring more conservatives.” Kopff said he is not in favor of the regents attempting to create departments, as that is the faculty’s realm, but he added that despite the broad-brush view that CU faculty are resistant to bolstering the core liberal-arts education, many professors would embrace such an effort.
Finally, the ACTA guide for trustees recommends asking how the institution measures student learning and general education competency.
In October 2008, the regents took faculty by surprise again, calling for general education assessments to be implemented at each campus within a year. Faculty leaders immediately raised concerns, requesting more time to consider the cost of the assessments, to weigh the statistical significance of the proposed small sample size and to ensure that the tests are able to measure proficiency in the variety of fields taught at CU. The regents declined to delay the mandate, and it went into effect for this fall.
The regents’ vote required the CU campuses to use one of three measurements in a “Voluntary System of Accountability” (VSA) from the American Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. “It seems curious to force people to join a voluntary system,” quipped Kopff. He said that one reason the regents give for joining the VSA is that “everyone is doing it,” which he said is not a valid argument, especially when one considers, say, binge drinking.
“Administrators’ first job is to get along with the board,” Kopff said, adding that upholding faculty rights comes in second, at best. Campus officials’ decision to sign up for the VSA was done “because it made the regents happy,” he said.
Some say ACTA shouldn’t get the credit — or blame — for the learning assessment initiative, partly because Democratic Regent Stephen Ludwig was a co-sponsor of the measure.
One CU official, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said the constant flow of inquiries and requests from the regents trickles down not just from ACTA, but other organizations as well. Still, when the regents are told that a particular matter is the faculty’s purview, “they don’t seem to listen to that, they keep coming back,” the official said. “Then all hell breaks loose, and it’s not a pretty sight.”
When asked about conspiracy theories associated with ACTA, Lucero also said Monday that ACTA may be getting too much credit (and blame) for the aforementioned reforms. He said David Horowitz (whose “academic bill of rights” made waves on campuses in 2003), the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy and the Young America’s Foundation perform similar roles. He said he has traveled around the country to be a guest speaker for most of them, including ACTA, but added that he doesn’t get paid to do so, other than having his expenses covered. “ACTA is by no means the only 501(c)3 advocating for reforms in higher ed,” Lucero said. “And no one’s going to accuse Derek Bok of being part of a right-wing cabal.”
Lucero, who served on the search committee that yielded Poliakoff as vice president, said ACTA had nothing to do with his effort to create departments of Western civilization. He acknowledged that, coming from the 4th Congressional District, he campaigned for regent on the platform of bringing more political balance to the faculty. But Lucero said that should be accomplished not by some sort of affirmative action for Republicans, but by creating an environment that makes conservatives feel welcome, such as having centers for Western civilization. When Benson was asked about improving “intellectual diversity” among the faculty, he suggested that CU could “look at their point of view when you’re hiring.”
Lucero said his viewpoints were more influenced by his own college experience at CU-Denver than anything ACTA has produced. He said he had an economics professor who advocated for the redistribution of wealth without giving any opposing views, and that he had a political science professor who preached socialism in a one-sided way.
He said that faculty have primary purview over academic matters, but they receive that power because the Board of Regents delegates that to them in its laws and policies, and the regents should have a say on what areas are important to have in the curriculum. Lucero said, “For the faculty to push back and say, ‘That’s not your business,’ I think we have a responsibility to parents and citizens to say, ‘We’re teaching your students how to write.’”
For his part, board Chair Bosley said that while he is not active in ACTA, “I happen to like the work they do.” But he said he does not look to a particular political group for guidance on what agendas to push. “I read everything that comes across,” he said. Bosley, who chaired the search that yielded Benson as president, said Benson’s politics had nothing to do with his selection, and that if the finalist had been a Democrat, “it wouldn’t have mattered.”
Sources said there isn't really a corresponding ACTA-like group on the left, but some pointed to the American Association of University Professors; Lucero said the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges is left-leaning.
When asked for his opinion on ACTA, Democratic Regent Michael Carrigan said, “I don’t believe that all of ACTA’s agenda is bad, however I do think the University of Colorado faces much more important issues than the political leanings of a handful of professors. I wish ACTA would spend more time on public investment in higher education and less time on the ideology of members of the academy.”
Churchill told Boulder Weekly on Monday that he remains convinced that ACTA played a big role in the uproar over his essay, “which is probably why none of the testimony was allowed.”
Jones, the witness who traveled from California to take the stand, declined to comment for this story.
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