• Email
  • Print

The Ace Menace

In response to:

A Special Supplement: Technology: The Opiate of the Intellectuals from the July 31, 1969 issue

To the Editors:

In The Opiate of the Intellectuals [NYR, July 31], John McDermott suggests that the universities are among the areas of American life which technocratic elites wish to rationalize and control. Not surprisingly, therefore, American social scientists have, in the past year or so, increasingly turned their talents toward scrutinizing their own campuses, and particularly their own students. The studies have multiplied, but they have in common the desire to understand the roots and nature of student unrest in order to control it. A brief look at these studies helps to illustrate McDermott’s hypothesis about the conservative character of technology—and also offers the opportunity of proposing a small step toward combatting it.

Of all the studies, none is more ambitious or better financed than that being conducted by the American Council on Education (ACE). The ACE is primarily a trade association of the managers of the higher education industry—its Board includes Presidents Kingman Brewster (Yale), Kenneth Pitzer (Stanford), James Hester (NYU), and Grayson Kirk. Among other recent enterprises, ACE led such associations in issuing a strong condemnation of student disruption of “normal” college processes—like ROTC and military research. “There has developed among some of the young a cult of irrationality and incivility which severely strains attempts to maintain sensible and decent human communication,” it said loftily at the time of the Harvard bust. ACE has also appointed a committee composed of members of the educational establishment to write a “self-policing” code for universities presumably acceptable to angry Congressmen. And it is circulating to its members what amounts to a tactical memo on when, why, and how to use court injunctions to combat campus insurgency. In short, ACE behaves rather like the Petroleum Institute in protecting the interests of its members.

The ACE study of student unrest grew out of a manifesto published in Science magazine by a group of fellows from the Stanford Center for the Advanced Study of Behavioral Sciences. The manifesto places the study it proposes in the context of opposition to student rebellions:

It is clear from the increasing number and intensity of demonstrations on campuses in the United States and abroad that we do not understand how best to deal with these crises when they occur and certainly do not have the knowledge to prevent them from occurring in the first place…. In using words like deal with and prevent…there is an implicit assumption that violent or destructive behavior, in itself, is undesirable and self-defeating. We believe this to be true.

Two of the initiators and signatories of the manifesto were Eli A. Rubinstein and Alexander W. Astin. Rubinstein, as Assistant Director for Extramural Programs, helped to get support for the research proposal from the National Institute of Mental Health, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare; and Astin, as Research Director for ACE, became the study’s chief investigator. Part of the work was later subcontracted to the Bureau of Social Science Research (BSSR), where it came under the jurisdiction of Mrs. Astin. Rubinstein made clear his own opposition to campus disorders in remarks at the San Francisco meeting of the American Psychological Association. While Mr. Astin suggested to reporters that the results of the study might be used to construct a profile of “protest-prone students” so admissions directors could keep them off campus if they wished.

The study consists of many surveys, elaborately computerized (in part, it would appear, by a subsidiary of Litton Industries). Among them is an in-depth examination of 22 campuses, including Columbia, North Carolina, American, Northwestern, and the University of California at Irvine. The questionnaire—administered to selected radical and black student leaders as well as to random students, faculty, and administrators—asks potentially incriminating questions about participation in disruption and drug use. It also asks about “outsiders” and their roles in demonstrations, about political attitudes of students and their parents, about professors who have been particularly influential. Researchers were also asked to compile a scenario of the biggest recent protest, including the main actors, photographs, tapes, statements, etc.

So dangerous did this part of the ACE enterprise seem that two colleges, Oberlin and Swarthmore, refused to participate. And the Advisory Committee of the study felt compelled to establish a set of guidelines, printed once again in Science (together with two news articles about the controversy surrounding the study). This theoretically committed the Committee and the staff to go to jail rather than to release possibly compromising material even to the courts or investigative committees. It spoke against use of the study for political repression, like the screening of activist students—but it made clear that there was little the Committee could do if colleges chose to use the data for such ends. And it insisted that the study was not shaped by the political purposes of its organizational home, the ACE, nor its financer, the US government.

Such sentiments are, to be sure, like the additional security precautions recently taken, commendable in themselves. But the attempt to deny the political purpose of the study is, at best, disingenuous. The statement says that computerized data is available to all for a small users fee. But as McDermott has suggested, computerized knowledge is not useful to all. What could SDS or the National Student Association do with those tapes if they had them—apart from burning them?

Moreover, the study’s political objective is built right into its design. As the Committee’s statement says, “the study is not a comprehensive investigation of the causes of campus unrest, since it necessarily neglects the role of social, political, economic, and historic factors.” Imagine! Although the study is costing taxpayers half a million dollars, it is not examining the underlying reasons why American universities are functioning so badly. Nor is it considering the structure of privilege in America. It will not examine the self-interest of trustees, administrators, faculty or researchers, nor the central role of universities in the knowledge industry. It is addressed to the student behavior it wishes to control. In one sense, the best defense against such studies is the simple-mindedness of the researchers.

But that, alas, can’t always be counted on. This fall and winter the ACE will, once again, be out gathering data: from questionnaires given to freshmen, from followups of former freshmen who filled out previous questionnaires, from a cross-section of some 200,000 undergraduates (particularly about protest behavior and issues), and from still gullible faculty. These and other parts of the study seem more or less innocent in themselves. But taken in the decidedly political context in which ACE operates, and in which its actions place its study, they are anything but.

New York Review readers, especially those on campus, have an opportunity to prevent this exercise in social control in the guise of social science from continuing. At its June convention the New University Conference voted to urge people to refuse to fill out such questionnaires, to organize others to refuse, and to use the opportunity of opposing this study to educate ourselves, our colleagues, and our students about the growth of repressive mechanisms and the use of technology and scientism in America. I repeat this invitation to action and suggest that those interested in further information contact NUC at 622 West Diversey Parkway, Chicago, III. 60614.

I also want to add a short-term political footnote to McDermott’s longer-range contradictions. One of the ways by which managerial elites control conduct is to define what is and isn’t appropriate, “religious,” “decent,” or—the bureaucrats’ favorite—“professional.” Thus, the SDS guy who first revealed what the ACE and the BSSR were up to was fired from his BSSR job for “unprofessional conduct.” In fact, however, sidestepping professional rules by leaking information or horror stories about, say, hospitals has been a key to the process by which individuals free themselves from these managerial traps. In this instance, I think, we must deny the legitimacy of “research” and reject the cant equation of interference with management-as-usual and “violence.” For one step toward building a movement for political change is desanctifying the casuistry that keeps us enthralled.

Paul Lauter

Baltimore, Maryland

  • Email
  • Print