Is This Curriculum for Sale?

By Richie Zweigenhaft

In June 2009, North Carolina’s Guilford College, a small liberal arts college with strong Quaker origins and a decidedly progressive image, announced that it had accepted a large grant from the BB&T Charitable Foundation—$500,000 over a ten-year period. As has been the case at some, but not all, of the colleges and universities that in recent years have received grants from the BB&T Foundation, the money came with specific curricular and extracurricular strings attached. Those strings all connected to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a lengthy, polemical novel that endorses individualism, justifies selfishness, and idealizes capitalism.

John Allison, former CEO and former chair of the board at BB&T, is “the most vocal proponent of Ms. Rand’s ideas and of the dangers of government meddling in the markets,” according to a 2009 New York Times profile. The BB&T Foundation, established by Allison, remains closely affiliated with BB&T, a regional banking powerhouse that Allison helped build over the past few decades into the eleventh largest bank in the country, with assets of more than $150 billion.

The Guilford grant comes with specific obligations. It commits the college to offering an upper-level interdisciplinary course sympathetically titled “The Moral Foundations of Capitalism” once a year for the next ten years. Other readings in the course may vary, but each time the course is taught, it must include the assignment of Atlas Shrugged. In the cover letter that he sent to the college’s president confirming the grant, Allison pointedly noted his understanding that “Atlas Shrugged, in its entirety, will be required reading in the IDS 400: The Moral Foundations of Capitalism course.” It will also be one of the required readings for those students who have been designated “Ethics of Capitalism Scholars” (the grant includes scholarship money for two to three such students a year). In addition to these curricular commitments, there is a co-curricular commitment: the college agreed (until the year 2019) to provide a copy of Atlas Shrugged to every student who majors either in business or in economics when that student enters his or her junior year.

“A corporation crosses a line and a university is complicit in crossing the line if it accepts money” and accedes to a request to assign specific books, Jonathan Knight, then head of the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance, told Bloomberg News in 2008. I believe he was correct: BB&T crossed a line and Guilford College was complicit.

Guilford is far from alone in embracing both BB&T’s money and its requirements. The BB&T Foundation of North Carolina (there is also a BB&T West Virginia Foundation) gave eighteen grants totaling more than $1.3 million to the Ayn Rand Institute of California between 2003 and 2008, according to the Foundation Grants Index. During that time, it also gave 119 grants totaling nearly $9.2 million to more than fifty colleges and universities across the country. Two of the most recent were awarded to High Point University and the University of Maryland in February and March of this year.

In accepting the ten-year grant for $500,000, Guilford College has signed on to a multimillion-dollar effort to promote the ideas of Ayn Rand and to require some of its students to read Atlas Shrugged. BB&T has persuaded Guilford College to showcase Rand’s ideas about capitalism as if they were among the seminal perspectives in the academic fields of business and economics.

How did this happen? Where was the faculty?

The grant was announced in a press release in late June to the local newspaper. An announcement also was published in the college’s electronic newsletter. Just two faculty members were involved in the writing of the grant (one an administrator with adjunct faculty status, the other a tenure-track faculty member). The business department (which has nine full-time faculty members, only five of whom are tenure track and only two of whom are tenured) met in February 2009 to discuss the grant. But the grant’s announcement as a done deal came as a total surprise to most of the 120 full-time faculty members at the college, including the twenty-five members of the college’s AAUP chapter. Our chapter had, for about three years, been well aware of BB&T’s controversial grants to other North Carolina colleges. The announcement was also a surprise to the faculty members of the subcommittee on educational policies, whose approval, according to the Guilford College handbook, is required before a course can become part of the regular curriculum. And the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Guilford’s accrediting agency, makes clear that “the institution places primary responsibility for the content, quality, and effectiveness of the curriculum with its faculty.” Thus many of us on the faculty assumed that any tenyear commitment that included curricular requirements (especially the unprecedented requirement that a specific book be assigned) would, at the least, require approval of the subcommittee, and, more likely, would require some serious discussion at one of the monthly meetings of the entire faculty. How wrong we were.

What are our students likely to conclude about Guilford’s endorsement of Atlas Shrugged as the only book now required in our entire curriculum and as a work worthy of being included as one of three books given to every business and economics major?

As a psychology professor, I know that if our department were asked to choose three seminal books that we were going to require in a regularly offered psychology course and that we were also going to provide to all of our majors in their junior year, we would have some lively debates. Piaget? Skinner? Freud? Jung? Erikson? Milgram? Whomever we selected, the message to our students would be quite different if they knew that we had chosen one of the books because it was stipulated in a grant that we had received.

The message that students in business and economics will get at Guilford until 2019 is this: for those ten years, some faculty members will assign Atlas Shrugged, a novel that has never previously been assigned at Guilford College in its entirety, so that we can receive $50,000 a year. At a faculty meeting, one of my colleagues suggested, probably facetiously, that for those courses that require students to read Ayn Rand, the syllabi should acknowledge the role of the BB&T grant in the assignment—maybe something along the lines of “this assignment was brought to you by the BB&T Foundation.”

I believe she was kidding, but maybe she wasn’t. I think she is right that we should be honest with our students about why we assign what we do, although I fear that many students would see such a disclaimer as unsurprising. They are used to product placement and sponsorship. Guilford is already a Coke school (maybe it’s Pepsi). Now we’re an Ayn Rand school. Everything, they might rightly conclude, is for sale, even the college curriculum.

I learned of this grant in summer 2009, and throughout the fall semester, I communicated with many of my colleagues about it. One, an AAUP member, urged our faculty executive committee to bring it to the entire faculty for discussion. Although there was resistance in the committee, in November and December we had two lengthy discussions at faculty meetings about possible guidelines for future gifts to the college with curricular components (nonetheless, the committee discouraged the faculty from discussing the BB&T grant itself). The faculty was unable to reach consensus on two proposed guidelines, even one that stated, quite simply, “The acceptance of all gifts that involve the creation of new courses and/or academic programs is provisional pending the completion of the normal approval procedures.”

For those of us who consider the grant to be an egregious example of the college’s having simply sold a chunk of the curriculum, and having done so without faculty approval, the lack of consensus was, to say the least, disappointing.

Some tenured faculty members spoke up, but few of the untenured felt secure enough to raise questions that might imply that the administration behaved badly in the handling of the Ayn Rand grant, to say nothing of stating more declaratively that this was the case.

More and more people in and out of academe question whether or not tenure is still relevant in higher education. I contend that Guilford’s BB&T Ayn Rand grant provides a case study of why tenure still matters. Without the protection of tenure, I do not believe there would have been any public discussion in faculty meetings about the many important issues related to this grant. The faculty has not, as yet, agreed on a policy to address similar gifts in the future, but we have, we hope, raised concerns about faculty control of the curriculum and academic integrity both in the faculty and in the administration.

Not only do we need the protection that tenure provides (as the AAUP has asserted since 1915), but we AAUP members need to be more active on issues like this one. In retrospect, it is clear that those of us in the AAUP should have raised the issue of gifts with strings attached both to the administration and to the entire faculty well before the announcement of Guilford’s Ayn Rand grant took us by surprise. Our college administration, like most others, uses self-promotional claims of transparency, and we need to pressure it to be more transparent before as well as after the fact when it comes to major decisions affecting the college, especially those that affect the curriculum.

The funding of the first year of the grant (2009–10) was allocated for planning. The second year (2010–11) will see the grant’s implementation. Therefore, this coming year some faculty members will have to teach Atlas Shrugged (in its entirety), and some students will be asked to read it (in its entirety). Perhaps these faculty members and students will help those of us who have been troubled by the conditions of this grant to raise, once again, some serious questions about the selling of the curriculum.

Richie Zweigenhaft, Charles A. Dana Professor of Psychology at Guilford College, is the co-author (with G. William Domhoff) of a series of books about the American power elite. The most recent book in the series, Diversity in the Power Elite, was published in 2006, and the next book, The New CEOs: Women, African American, Latino, and Asian-American Leaders of Fortune 500 Companies, will be published in spring 2011. His e-mail address is rzweigen@guilford.edu.

 


Comments:

I am an alumnus of Guilford College graduating in 1966.  Because of the impression Guilford made on me when I was a student, I went on to teach at two Quaker schools in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, and although I'm not a Quaker myself, I have always had a great deal of respect for the Quakers and their values as upheld in these institutions. Therefore, I am appalled to learn of its selling out to Ayan Rand's philosophy for any money at all.  It is during times like these, when we have an economic crisis throughout the world, that Quaker philosophy should be at its strongest.

Not that I have made a lot of money as a school teacher, but what I have, I have considered leaving to Guilford because of its influence on my life. However, now I am rethinking this idea.  Certainly, I will not support an institution that in any way supports the philosophy of Ayan Rand.

J.V.


Rand is mediocre as a novelist, her use of the dollar sign as a symbol is crass, and her celebration of "selfishness" is misguided -  yet she is one of the few writers in any genre who celebrates the role of the entrepreneur as the key creator of value and prosperity.  Insofar as entrepreneurial value creation is a sine qua non of prosperity since 1800, if students do not learn about the role of entrepreneurs as creators of prosperity and value through Rand , where, exactly, in the curriculum will they learn about this?  Not by means of neo-classical economics, where the entrepreneur is invisible, nor in most mainstream business classes, and it is quite unlikely that they will learn of this key phenomenon of modernity in other social science or humanities classes.  Thus in the absence of Allison's gift, academia would continue to neglect the means through which some two billion human beings are no longer poor, the means by which another two billion are rapidly escaping poverty, and the means through which the remaining three billion hope to escape poverty in the coming century.  Allison's gift is a brilliantly entrepreneurial approach to educating and humanizing the academy.

M.S.

 


There is irony in this requirement.  I happen to have been an Economics major with an English minor; and, along with many other Guilford alumni, I didn't read Atlas Shrugged while in college.  Now, don’t get me wrong; we didn’t ignore the book.  We simply didn’t read it in college.  We read it in junior high school, where the book and its base arguments belong.

Still, Rand’s inclusion in a Guilford curriculum isn’t all for the worst.  If nothing else, Rand ’s collective writings demonstrate just how dangerous a blatant disregard for compassion and humanity can be – an important lesson for students of a school that has historically focused on service.  Besides, I’m sure some lively debates will spring into the courses as students of great intelligence unravel and debunk Rand ’s elementary mythologies.  And, while Rand’s works may become commonplace in a previously dry campus, I suspect the BBT Foundation’s propaganda efforts will be shrugged - reading the book and addressing its message certainly doesn't imply agreement.

 J.C.

Comments

Is it for sale, or is it up for expropriation and distribution according to those who "know" what everybody else needs.

I'd like to see a few of those same students debunk Marxist thought. But that's unlikely as long as it forms the basis of most economic and political theory taught at state universities. And as long as it remains in intellectual fashion.

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