"Universities, the Major Battleground in the Fight for Reason and Capitalism"

Conditions placed on gifts from the BB&T Foundation range from the seemingly benign, funding for faculty and student research and a speaker series, to the sharply contentious, required reading of Ayn Rand.
By Gary H. Jones

At the turn of the twentieth century, the presidents of Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago issued declarations bolstering institutional resistance to attempts by external agencies to influence a faculty member’s stance on issues of the day. The American Association of University Professors emerged some fifteen years later out of the climate of those times, and one of the AAUP’s first official documents, the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, addressed the same concern. Although the prose style may seem dated, the message of the Declaration of Principles is not: “It is the first essential that the scholars who carry on the work of universities shall not be in a position of dependence upon the favor of any social class or group.”

Recent donations from the charitable arm of BB&T, one of the nation’s largest banks, have raised the issue of external influence anew, sparking concerns about academic integrity and the role of the faculty in decisions about accepting gifts that come with curricular or other strings attached. At the center of the concerns about these donations is the requirement that objectivist Ayn Rand’s novels be taught in special courses extolling capitalism and self-interest.

In belated response, a handful of universities across the country, including several in the Southeast, where BB&T was founded, have tightened institutional policies governing the acceptance of gifts. These new policies are certainly a step in the right direction: the BB&T gifts raise questions of both substance and procedure. Faculty members at several universities did not even know of the gifts or that BB&T’s donations had curricular implications until after the agreements were signed. At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, for example, three years passed before faculty members learned that a million-dollar gift agreement establishing a new course contained language requiring both that Rand’s lengthy paean to laissez-faire capitalism, Atlas Shrugged, be assigned reading and that professors who teach that course “have a positive interest in and be well versed in Objectivism.”

“This type of secretiveness may sometimes be appropriate in the initial stages of arranging donations with sensitive donors,” said UNC–Charlotte anthropology professor Gregory Starrett. “But in [Charlotte’s] case, the continuing secretiveness and sometimes deception by the individuals making these arrangements [are] deeply troubling. Aside from the problems of specific policy violations . . . such arrangements may indicate that shared governance structures are not present or are not functioning.”

UNC–Charlotte’s chancellor, Philip Dubois, said he had not been aware of the book requirement, and faculty members at Charlotte were able to revisit the agreement and prompt a retreat from requiring the reading assignment to encouraging consideration of it. But these kinds of requirements are not rare occurrences; on the contrary, they have been stipulated in agreements between the foundation and at least seventeen colleges and universities, the Charlotte Observer reported.

Untangling the Strings

According to published accounts, more than two dozen colleges and universities have been the recipients of some thirty million dollars in total donations from the BB&T Charitable Foundation. The BB&T Corporation was headed for twenty years by the recently retired John Allison, a longtime admirer of Rand and her free-market philosophy of objectivism. As outlined in her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, the philosophy of objectivism (some philosophers wince at this designation, preferring the term “point of view”) espouses the virtues of reason, laissez-faire capitalism, and rational self-interest—and disparages both government economic intervention and individual altruism. On the fiftieth anniversary of the novel’s publication, Allison told the New York Times that it “offers something other books don’t: the principles that apply to business and to life in general. I would call it complete.”

Determining the exact stipulations involved in agreements between donors and university foundations is difficult, because the agreements are not considered public documents and are typically kept private. Larger gift amounts range from several hundred thousand dollars to a million dollars or more, doled out over five to ten years, and often contain a provision for matching funds.

Stipulations range from the seemingly benign—funding for faculty and student research and support for a speaker series on capitalism, leadership retreats, and the establishment of Ayn Rand reading rooms—to the sharply contentious. At Western Carolina University, for example—as at UNC–Charlotte—in addition to the creation of new courses involving required reading of Rand, the original 2008 agreement included a condition that faculty members who teach the new course on capitalism “shall work closely with the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) and have a reasonable understanding and positive attitude towards Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.” In this and other agreements, the BB&T Foundation’s close ties to the Ayn Rand Institute, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Irvine, California, are evident. The institute’s stated mission is to work “to introduce young people to Ayn Rand’s novels, to support scholarship and research based on her ideas, and to promote the principles of reason, rational self-interest, individual rights, and laissez-faire capitalism to the widest possible audience.”

Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, is another relatively recent recipient of BB&T Foundation money where some controversial elements of the gift agreement have been made public (see the sidebar by Richie Zweigenhaft at the end of this article). Faculty governing bodies and curriculum committees at Guilford did not learn of the agreements until after they had been signed—and those agreements include assigning Atlas Shrugged in its entirety, all twelve hundred pages.

Threat to Academic Freedom

In its 2007–08 annual report, the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure noted its disapproval of arrangements such as the ones involving the BB&T Foundation: “Academic institutions relinquish autonomy and the primary authority of their faculty over the curriculum when they accept outside funding that comes with such conditions attached. Committee A believes that the solicitation and acceptance of gifts, conditioned on a requirement to assign specific course material that the faculty would not otherwise assign, is inconsistent with principles of academic freedom.”

Committee A’s belief has not held sway on all campuses. At institutions that have accepted BB&T donations, some faculty members and administrators assert that such donations can be judiciously managed. Officials at Newberry College, High Point University, and Queens University of Charlotte said they were grateful for the BB&T contribution and reported that they simply did not have to contend with intrusive provisions. At Clemson University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the University of South Carolina—institutions where foundation donations did have academic implications—faculty members and administrators expressed satisfaction with the degree of faculty involvement in the curricular review procedure.

Whether the economic perspective of Atlas Shrugged represents the “specific course material that the faculty would not otherwise assign” is debated in some quarters. However, objectivism has not generally been taught in colleges of business without some external inducement—that is, funding. The scope and magnitude of that funding are suggestive of the passion of Rand’s supporters.

Perhaps Rand’s most enthusiastic advocate is John Allison himself, who not only has supported the introduction of study programs focusing on Rand’s views but also has promoted her version of economic self-interest at BB&T and in the wider business community. But Rand’s many detractors have little tolerance for her views or for Atlas Shrugged. “A course on the moral foundations of capitalism might include Atlas Shrugged, though it’s not an obvious choice—it’s badly written and simpleminded,” said the University of Chicago’s Brian Leiter, director of the Center of Law, Philosophy, and Human Values. For such a course, he said, the must-reads would include Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. “There is a large contemporary philosophical literature defending markets by scholars like Robert Nozick, David Schmidtz, and Jerry Gaus. I would think at a serious university and in a serious course, you would look at this kind of work long before you get to Ayn Rand.”

Governance Concerns

A serious university is founded on its faculty, and back at Western Carolina University, faculty members were serious about questioning some of the stipulations of the 2008 BB&T agreement. Amid strongly voiced faculty concern in the spring of that year, WCU’s chancellor, John Bardo, addressed the faculty senate shortly after the BB&T provisions became widely known and suggested that some of the more contentious language could be revisited. Bardo subsequently supported the formation of a small task force that included faculty senate representatives and university counsel. The task force drafted a university policy statement governing external gifts with academic implications and also suggested modification of the original language of the BB&T agreement—the latter realized to some degree by a memorandum of understanding signed by the BB&T Foundation in August 2008.

In place of the stipulation that faculty members teaching the new courses work closely with the Ayn Rand Institute, the memorandum stated that the professor “shall maintain open communications with the donor concerning his or her role within the College of Business and the university and the implementation of the gift agreement.” The stipulation requiring a positive faculty attitude toward objectivism was dropped. The proposed new courses on the moral and ethical foundations of capitalism, it was made clear, would be created “through established faculty governance processes for the creation and approval of new courses and curricula.” The reading requirement was changed to stipulate that professors who teach these courses would be asked “to consider, in their sole and unfettered discretion, the assignment of portions of Atlas Shrugged and other writings from both pro-capitalist and anti-capitalist perspectives.”

It is unclear what effect the Western Carolina University task force might have had on the substitution of this language, however, as an essentially identical compromise was reached in a memorandum of understanding between the BB&T Foundation and UNC–Charlotte just two months earlier.

The Public Interest

Faculty governance and academic freedom aside, an issue that has been less examined is the role of public funding. The BB&T donations at several public universities have come with a provision for a matching dollar amount from the state, meaning that public money is leveraging BB&T’s priorities. Taxpayers tend to believe that private funding for universities replaces support that would otherwise have to come from tax revenues, but the reality of funding is more complicated. Public money often ends up supporting narrowly stipulated private money goals. And matching grants are just one obvious aspect of the problem. The public money devoted to university infrastructure indirectly supports the ideological goals of the external funders that rely on that infrastructure. Consideration of what is in the public’s interest requires, minimally, a forceful and transparent policy.

At WCU, the task force drafted a university policy outlining clear procedures when a proposed gift has curricular implications. “Development of the policy was a very important step, which is why I was so supportive of it,” Chancellor Bardo said. “I think that the policy really answered the key questions and gave a clear path for development of future gifts.” The first paragraph of the one-page policy recognizes that both the code of the University of North Carolina system (WCU is one of its seventeen campuses) and the regional accrediting organization “place primary responsibility for the curriculum with the faculty, [so] it is appropriate that provisions be made for faculty peer review of any conditions relating to such gifts which might have curricular impact.” The regional accrediting organization for the Southeast, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), takes a strong position on the centrality of faculty oversight of institutional curricula: “The institution places primary responsibility for the content, quality, and effectiveness of the curriculum with its faculty.”

As at Western Carolina University, the faculties at both UNC–Charlotte and at least one other UNC institution, Appalachian State University, have initiated tighter university policies governing external donations with academic implications. These policies stipulate early and substantial procedural involvement and academic oversight by faculty members in such circumstances— oversight crucial to the principles of both academic freedom and faculty responsibility for curriculum.

When it comes to curricular matters, Brian Leiter acknowledges that there can be a fine line between the academic freedom of the individual to accept a gift and that of a collegial curricular committee to question it. “Does it violate academic freedom for that scholar to receive financial support for that work from businesses whose interest in Ayn Rand is obviously self-serving rather than scholarly? I think it depends on how the money is spent. To the extent it starts to shape the curriculum and emphasis of a department, then there is a serious problem. The curriculum, the scholarly conferences, and the mix of students in a department should reflect scholarly judgments on the merits, not the fact that money is available for one topic but not another.”

SACS officials are aware of the concern about gifts. “We do not have a specific policy or standard that speaks directly to the matter of gifts that might affect the curriculum,” Tom Benberg, SACS vice president and chief of staff, said. “However, we do have several standards that would pertain to this issue.” In addition to the principle of faculty curricular responsibility mentioned above, Benberg cited four other standards of relevance: fundraising activities, academic policies, programs, and the duty of governing boards to be free from external influence.

Similarly, the top executive officers of two other accrediting organizations, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, said that while officials were mindful of the issue of gifts influencing academic curricula, they were not aware of donations of this nature in the regions they serve. The president and executive director of the Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Ralph Wolff, noted that the organization he heads does not have a specific policy on the situations described but does have a number of “criteria for review” under existing standards that would address the matter. He cited seven guidelines that would apply to gifts with curricular implications, noting, “We have had occasions when these issues have arisen and teams have applied or considered these elements of our standards in reviewing these issues.”

Ideological Push

Despite the apparently low reported incidence of donations with specific curricular requirements to institutions beyond the Southeast, efforts to spread the word of Rand are not insignificant. “ARI seeks to spearhead a cultural renaissance that will reverse the anti-reason, anti-individualism, anti-freedom, anticapitalist trends in today’s culture,” notes the Ayn Rand Institute’s Web site. “The major battleground in this fight for reason and capitalism is the educational institutions—high schools and, above all, the universities, where students learn the ideas that shape their lives.” The institute notes that more than 1.4 million copies of Ayn Rand’s novels have already been donated to thirty thousand teachers in forty thousand classrooms across the United States and Canada. “Based on a projected shelf life of five years per book, we estimate that more than 3 million young people have been introduced to Ayn Rand’s books and ideas as a result of our programs to date.” A major expansion of efforts to promote Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged to high school and college students is planned for 2010–11, according to the Web site.

This coordinated push to influence educational curricula, exemplified by some recent donor agreements, has triggered criticism beyond debates over the substance of objectivism. Jennifer Washburn, author of University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education, has described BB&T’s philanthropic program as “one corporate funder—a large banking chain—waging a strongly ideological campaign to directly shape and influence the academic curriculum and the development of new academic programs and centers across [many] different colleges and universities simultaneously.”

Washburn, currently the Frederic Ewen Academic Freedom Fellow at New York University, noted, “If universities continue down this path—allowing corporations and private donors to exert excessive influence—they will undermine [the] public trust and the very reason for their existence.”

At WCU, as the first installment of the million-dollar gift to the College of Business wends its way toward course design and faculty committee approval, Chancellor Bardo makes his position clear. “If the committee or the senate were to turn down the curriculum change, then the grant/gift may have to be returned or agreement to modify the gift/grant would need to be sought,” he said. Bardo, who also serves on the executive council for the Commission on Colleges of SACS, concluded, “In any event, the university committee and governance structures [must be] followed. I would be uncomfortable with any other process given the nature of a university.”

Gary H. Jones is associate professor of business communication at Western Carolina University and recently served as vice chair of the University of North Carolina faculty assembly. His e-mail address is [email protected].