An Interview with Michael Poliakoff of ACTA 


To increase the intellectual pluralism at the University of Connecticut, I have actively tried to use my column to interview those who aren’t well-represented on campus. In the past, I’ve interviewed Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs, a socialist magazine, and Nathan Cofnas, a controversial philosopher, and I plan to continue publishing interviews that provoke thought and consideration. Recently, I sat down with Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, to discuss his organization’s plans to improve academia. In the interest of transparency, I previously interned at ACTA, and I volunteer for the Braver Angels division of their work. 

ACTA’s mission is as follows: “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 an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.” 

We talked about the role of a trustee, whether academic freedom and freedom of expression are the same and the ethics of hoaxing. Is ACTA a disingenuous right-wing organization devoted to undermining academia, an important corrective to college orthodoxy or something else? You decide. 

I have edited Poliakoff’s responses for clarity. 

As president of ACTA, what does ACTA strive to do? 

ACTA sees the free exchange of ideas as the lifeblood of education, especially education in the liberal arts. There’s no such thing as a full understanding of an idea when people aren’t free to investigate and think independently.   

Universities hold a special place in society. The Woodward Report of 1974 is as true today as it was when it was written, explaining, “The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.”  

Human progress is best represented by people who’ve spoken out against the prevailing norms to change society for the better. For example, a scientist who is honest will always try to prove him or herself wrong. They’ll try to falsify their hypothesis after creating it in order to create a push-and-pull. Taking away disconfirmation makes a mockery of education. An indispensable part of intellectual life is freedom of expression and the responsibility of maintaining it. 

Tell me a little more about ACTA’s Founding. When and why was it created? 

In 1995, our founders Anne Neil and Gerry Martin recognized higher education was on a collision course that would take a system of higher education often referred to as the envy of the world and destroy its greatest aspects, such as high standards, the unfettered exchange of ideas and the responsible use of funding.  

They worried the escalation of tuition costs would quickly become ungovernable, creating a barrier to higher education. The encroachment on the free exchange of ideas was also becoming a real danger to higher education. We were troubled by the breakdown of academic standards. Repeatedly, the boards of trustees were not living up to their fiduciary duties of ensuring their campuses remained affordable places of free and rigorous academic inquiry. 

Why boards of trustees? 

Ultimately, the duty and responsibility for everything that happens on campus rests on the board [of trustees], which delegates those functions to faculty and the administration. The responsibility remains with them for the policy of the university. 

Whether it’s fiscal or academic quality or student life, trustees remain the fiduciaries whose duty it is to create and correct the course when things are not going as they should. They are obligated to create policies that ensure the best education at lowest cost.  

ACTA’s primary mission is to encourage trustees to embrace that role, and to be informed and engaged stewards as opposed to being timid or retiring. Trustees are positioned to ask tough questions and take tough actions. They are not beholden to any constituency and have a duty to serve the nation. Almost every institution takes taxpayer money through Title IV. Universities receive heaps of taxpayer money to say nothing of federal and state grants. The trustees’ duty is to the public, and they serve the public through the institution. 

What are the best practices of the board of trustees? 

Probably most important is being engaged and highly informed, which means taking the time to get the data sets they need to successfully do their jobs. Some data doesn’t automatically make its way onto the board book. It also requires asking questions like “Do we have a way of ensuring that we aren’t building before using resources we have?” or “What is our ratio of expenditure on administration versus instruction?” 

One way ACTA helps trustees is by creatingtools to help understand spending on student services versus instruction. Trustees should look at every expenditure as if it comes out of their own pockets, because money either comes from students or the backs of the taxpayer. 

They need to be absolutely certain what they spend is worth it and should be good stewards because the university relies on them. They need to look outside their own institutions because the best practices around the nation aren’t simply “this is the way we do it.” Why is it that Purdue can keep tuition frozen while other institutions don’t? Why do other institutions have administrators with tears rolling down their faces explaining why tuition needs to get raised? Successful models of administration come from around the nation.  

This should also mean being proactive, rather than reactive. Trustees should not wait, but should instead create policies about campus substance use, deplatformings and sexual exploitation. Ultimately, this means never being hesitant to ask questions and insisting upon full and candid answers. 

What policies are the most obvious solutions, and why aren’t trustees enacting them? 

Too often, boards are lulled into thinking speech protection is the duty of the faculty and administration, and that as trustees, they are not in the position to develop policies on such matters. That’s wrong. They must never allow their campus to be intolerant of the exchange of ideas. When the board hears about a shout-down, a cancellation or a deplatforming, they need to respond quickly and demand these things don’t happen again.  

If the school hasn’t adopted the Chicago Statement, they ought to demand the school do as such. They need to have a hard look at it to make sure when students act barbarically, such as at Middlebury or Evergreen, there are clear sanctions applied to discourage a repeat of the past. They cannot allow these injustices to quietly be swept under the rug, allowing students to continue this behavior. 

Trustees also need to take a hard look at the core curriculum; it’s not okay for students to graduate without the skills necessary to be engaged and informed citizens. They are not interfering with anyone’s academic freedom to say, “Do it.”  Instead, they are setting a policy where students are not able to graduate with a degree when they haven’t had adequate instruction in the core documents and structures of the nation in which we live. That is simply a policy matter that the board needs to supervise.  

It is not okay for anyone to graduate without taking a rigorous course in expository writing and composition. It’s not okay for the school to spout multiculturalism and diversity but not require at least an intermediate level of a foreign language. If you talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk. Don’t use multiculturalism as a cliché on the cheap. 

Trustees should see to it these policies happen, focusing on comparing administrative versus teaching expenditures to those of similar institutions. If they spend significantly more per student, there needs to be an interrogation as to why the spending is increasing. Boards are in a privileged position to exercise this essential leadership and need to look at the well-being of the whole of the institution, not simply one constituency. 

Talk to me more about academic freedom. What does that mean in practice?   

Freedom exists when students and faculty are fearless in their pursuit of the truth. They do not self-censor, nor do they censor each other. They have an ethic of civil exchange — civility is very important — but are uncompromising in their willingness to hear ideas that they disagree with, that they find disturbing. That shake them out of whatever system of beliefs they might have. They need to be willing to come back and argue. Mitch Daniels put that well in a commencement address, saying, “No one has a right not to be defended. Everyone has a right to come back with better data and better arguments.”  

The campus should be a place where people are habituated with disagreement on policy issues or scientific beliefs, whatever it may be. Through that process of questioning and arguing, we get better access to the truth. Academic freedom is a privilege given to the campus. It’s a privilege that higher education shouldn’t devalue and or ever debase. 

Let’s touch on academic freedom a little more. Is there a difference between academic freedom and freedom of speech? 

You cannot have academic freedom without freedom of speech. When we say freedom of speech, we recognize there is a category of speech that is not protected and shouldn’t be. Speech that aims at slander or libel. There are very clear categories in American law. Put that to one side. 

The freedom to express thoughts, ideas and opinions is essential to academic freedom. Academic freedom goes a little farther by claiming a person’s status in the academy will not be compromised, nor will they be subjected to sanction, if they responsibly ask unorthodox and disturbing questions.  

Elaborate a little more. What is responsible? Take something extremely controversial, like “race science.” Is that irresponsible? Take Charles Murray, someone commonly viewed as evil inside the academy. Is that the sort of irresponsibility what you are talking about? 

The idea of deplatforming Charles Murray is outrageous. If students or faculty want to argue with his data and conclusions, he’s willing to take that on. That’s what should happen. However, irresponsibility has little to do with the arguments being presented. Instead, it is how the arguments are made. Misusing and misreporting data should not be protected. Similarly, research misconduct should not be protected because it is well outside the bounds of academic freedom. Falsifying a lab book or plagiarizing should not happen. Being able to ask questions and follow the thread … why not? What are we afraid of?  

You mentioned misrepresenting data. Is that always wrong? Think of an example like the Sokal affair or the Grievance Studies affair hoaxes. Would, or should, they also be protected? 

I put misrepresenting data into the category of investigative journalism. It’s absolutely permissible to expose the weaknesses of institutions. If they had kept their information buried or had done it for some type of personal advancement on their resumes, it would have been unethical. However, hoaxes are a way of showing there are institutions within the academy that are intellectually bankrupt. That strikes me as a service to the academy. It was kind of a stress-test. The academy must test each publication. There’s an implicit belief that something that came out in an academic journal automatically has value. Doing that kind of stress-test of the journal actually helps the academy to strengthen its procedures. 

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