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The Ace Study

In response to:

The Ace Menace from the October 9, 1969 issue

To the Editors:

While it would probably be fruitless to attempt a point-by-point rebuttal of Paul Lauter’s recent letter about the American Council on Education study of campus unrest, your readers might be interested in knowing some of the facts about the project.

We initiated a large-scale study of student development at ACE four years ago, primarily because it seemed to us at the time that college administrators had for too long been avoiding the question of how students were really being affected by their decisions, and that students had for too long been choosing their colleges on the basis of an untested body of folk-lore. Our principal goals were thus to confront the professional educators with some hard facts about the effects of their practices on students, and to provide students with a better basis both for choosing an appropriate college and for bringing about meaningful changes in existing educational practices. Our belief was—and still is—that ignorance concerning the effects of colleges on students represents one of the biggest obstacles to the improvement of higher education.

We feel that some of the research from this program is already beginning to pay off. To cite just one example: We recently found convincing evidence to suggest that most colleges—including those that are highly selective—could greatly increase their enrollments of black or other minority group students without materially affecting their dropout rates. These and other empirical findings suggest to me, in fact, that the entire practice of college admissions needs to be reexamined, and that colleges, in the interests of putting the concept of “equality of educational opportunity” into practice, might want to consider abandoning altogether the use of grades and tests in admissions, and instituting instead a lottery system for choosing among their applicants. While this idea may be distasteful to many administrators, faculty, and students, a few institutions—including some highly selective ones—are already considering such a change in their admissions procedures, primarily as a consequence of our research findings.

Since the study of campus unrest is actually part of the larger longitudinal study, one of our major research objectives is to find out how the typical student is being affected by campus unrest—a topic which has been largely ignored by social scientists in their preoccupation with the characteristics of the radical left, the dynamics of confrontation, and the tactics of administrative response. It is both ironic and exasperating that critics who claim to be “protecting” our students are—perhaps unwittingly—attacking a research project that offers some real hope ultimately of giving the student a better shake in his college experience.

It is unfortunate that most of the criticism to date of the campus unrest study is based largely on ignorance and misinformation. Critics such as Mr. Lauter have apparently not taken the trouble to find out what our research goals actually are, how our studies have been designed and are carried out, how we plan to disseminate the findings, how the security of the data is protected, or even what kind of people we are. All that one needs to know, apparently, is that we work for ACE, that some of the support comes from the Federal government, that we are studying campus unrest, and—ipso facto—we are engaged in some kind of conspiracy against student radicals, or conducting “counter-insurgency” research, or compiling extensive “dossiers” on protest leaders. This is rubbish. While student radicals represent one of the groups being studied, the research is focused much more on other students—protestors and nonprotestors alike—and is concerned with their needs and desires for higher education and with how they are affected by campus unrest. In this regard, the ACE research staff is not a “commission” that has been assigned the task of producing a report which attributes blame to various parties to the “problem.” As researchers we have not taken the view that campus unrest is a “problem” in need of a “solution.” Nor have we assumed that it represents a panacea for the ills of higher education. We claim no special expertise in making such value judgments. What we do claim to be expert in is the objective empirical study of higher education, and we assume that our findings will provide a better basis in fact for others to make such judgments.

As for the matter of compiling “dossiers,” we have gone to extraordinary lengths to protect the anonymity of all students, faculty, administrators, and institutions that provide us with data. All identifying information from our personal interviews has been destroyed. In addition, our longitudinal survey data on individuals are not accessible to any governmental agency, other institution, or individual. Recently we have instituted a data protection system which makes it virtually impossible for anyone (including myself or any other member of the ACE research staff) to obtain access to data on any individual, even by means of a court order of Congressional subpoena. Although this new system makes it very unlikely that we should ever be forced to do so, we are prepared to go to jail, if necessary, to make good on our promise of anonymity.

Alexander W. Astin


American Council on Education

Washington, D.C.

Paul Lauter replies:

Mr. Astin is considerably less than candid in outlining the political history and objectives of the ACE study of student unrest. It grew, as I initially wrote, from a manifesto, quoted in ACE’s grant proposal to the National Institute of Mental Health, written by a group of fellows, including Astin, then at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. That manifesto explicitly regards student unrest as a problem; indeed, it describes any form of student disruption as “violence,” which it condemns. It presents the study it is proposing, and which Astin shortly produced, as one means to “deal with” the problem. I have shown at greater length elsewhere (in the forthcoming issue of the Antioch Review) how the ACE has tried to translate its opposition to student activism into programs designed to control unrest. It is, to use Mr. Astin’s language, “rubbish” to talk of a research program wholly insulated from the political objectives of the organizations and people funding, housing, and conceiving it.

The study’s design reinforces this history—and contradicts Astin’s picture of its benign, empirical objectivity. Doubts about the study arose from close examination, made by a number of people in the New University Conference, of the grant proposal, of all the questionnaires and instructions to interviewers used in the in-depth studies of campus rebellions, of past and present freshman questionnaires, and of correspondence relating to prior controversy over ACE research on students. We found, for instance, that among other questions to be addressed by the proposed research was “To what extent can the student’s subsequent participation in protests be predicted from information available at the time of matriculation?” Of what possible use, we wondered, could such information be except to help deans already, as we knew, devising means to exclude or supervise such students? The broad range of other questions addressed; the detailed information sought about students’ backgrounds, attitudes, personalities, values, daily and protest activities; the use of “the student as a unit of analysis”—all suggested that the study was, if not simply a groundwork for repressive control, at best a fishing expedition aimed at figuring out what makes students tick.

And while students were thus to be subject to extremely detailed scrutiny, Astin’s grant proposal spelled out only the grossest standards concerning the universities themselves—such as size, selectivity, religious affiliation—and hinted vaguely at some examination of administrative practice. But nowhere do ACE researchers show any awareness that it might be more pertinent to explore possible correlations of student unrest with university war contracts, or with trustee exploitation of the university for private profit, or with how universities discriminate against blacks and women. Certainly, they aren’t drumming up half-a-million-dollar grants to study university complicity in the war or institutional racism. In short, Astin and his colleagues do make basic value judgments: in particular, that the important subjects for study are students’ backgrounds and “maladjustments,” not the inadequacy of educational institutions or their oppressive treatment of students.

It is in this political context that questions of research security must be viewed. I applaud—as I did in my original letter—efforts to tighten the study’s security, though I must point out that it was the study’s advisory board, not its director, which insisted upon changes. The point, however, is not privacy, but to whom such a study is useful and for what. I find Mr. Astin’s assertion about the importance of his research in changing admissions standards and grading as distressing as his obtuseness about the values implicit in his study. I would suggest to him that a variety of factors have been the primary influences on college deans to give up their assumptions that having more black students increases the flunk-out rate, among them the free university movement; reports like those of the Hazen foundation; research like that done by Patricia Cayo Sexton correlating grades with social class and income; pamphlets like NUC’s “Degrading Education”—all these given urgency by the student movement’s pressure. I confess that the more Mr. Astin writes, the more I feel his research, far from contributing to this movement for change, will simply prove one more obstacle to it.

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