Monday, March 24, 2008

And the Rand Influence Widens

Donor gave, and UNCC winced
$1 million with strings

3/12/2008 - BB&T CEO John Allison speaks before a large crowd during a forum, a prelude to the dedication of UNCC's Ayn Rand Reading Room. The room was paid for with a grant from the BB&T Foundation.

50 years later, Ayn Rand's ideas still spark debate
Business, philosophy merge

As a college student in Chapel Hill, John Allison stumbled across a collection of essays by Ayn Rand and was hooked by her philosophy of self-interest and limited government. As he rose over the decades to chief executive of BB&T, one of the country's leading regional banks, Rand remained his muse.

He's trying to replicate that encounter through the charitable arm of his Winston-Salem-based company, which since 1999 has awarded more than $28 million to 27 colleges to support the study of capitalism from a moral perspective.

But on at least 17 of those campuses, including UNC Charlotte, N.C. State and Johnson C. Smith University, the gifts come with an unusual stipulation: Rand's novel, "Atlas Shrugged," is included in a course as required reading.

The schools' agreements have drawn criticism from some faculty, who say it compromises academic integrity. In higher education, the power to decide course content is supposed to rest with professors, not donors. Debate about the gifts, which arose at UNCC this month, illustrates tensions that exist over corporate influence on college campuses.
UNCC received its $1 million gift pledge in 2005, but details about the "Atlas Shrugged" requirement came to light as the school dedicated an Ayn Rand reading room March 12.

"It's going to make us look like a rinky-dink university," UNCC religious studies professor Richard Cohen said Thursday after UNCC Chancellor Phil Dubois told the faculty council about the gift. "It's like teaching the Bible as a requirement." Dubois, who learned of the book requirement this month, says it was ill-advised. He may ask Allison to reconsider it, he told faculty.

Allison has been surprised that the gifts can generate controversy. He says he simply wants students exposed to the late author's ideas, which he believes the academic community has largely ignored. He welcomes opposing ideas.

He also points out that the schools approached the foundation, not the other way around. "We obviously can't make anybody teach something," he says. "We wouldn't want to, we wouldn't try to. These are professors that want to teach this."

"Atlas Shrugged" tells of an America where the most gifted industrialists and creators go on strike. The book, more than 1,100 pages long, showcases Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, which says individuals have the right to live entirely for their own self-interest. An atheist, Rand criticized government regulation of business.

Her followers "regard her as the greatest thinker to have graced this earth since Aristotle and the greatest writer of all time," Reason Magazine wrote in 2005. "Mainstream intellectuals tend to dismiss her as a writer of glorified pulp fiction and a pseudo-philosophical quack with an appeal for impressionable teens."

Allison discovered Rand as a business major at UNC in the late '60s. "Atlas Shrugged" remains his favorite book. "Most of the defenders of free markets mostly do it from an economic perspective," Allison says. "They argue that free markets produce a higher standard of living, which is certainly very good. But Rand makes a connection to human nature and why individual rights and free markets are the only system consistent with human nature."

BB&T officials say they never made a specific decision to spread the gospel of ethical capitalism and Ayn Rand. But in 1999, Duke University received money from BB&T to support the teaching of values and ethics in business The gift didn't require that Duke teach Ayn Rand. Her work was already being taught there.

As word spread of that gift and others, more colleges approached the foundation with proposals. Allison shared his interest in Rand with them.
At least one school, UNC Wilmington, offered to make "Atlas Shrugged" a requirement, figuring "our proposal might be more favorably received" if it were part of the package, officials said in an e-mail to the Observer. Wilmington got a commitment of more than $1 million. But unlike most campuses, the faculty voted to approve the proposal first.

Money with conditions

Companies have long endowed college professorships and programs that fit their areas of interest. Sometimes, schools reject gifts if they can't live with a donor's conditions. But as state legislatures reduce higher education budgets, business is playing a bigger role in the classroom, experts say. "They're so desperate for funding sources that they're willing to take more money with strings attached," says Jennifer Washburn, author of "University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education."

Some companies, including IBM, have developed curricula for schools that teach skills to make graduates good employees. In California, critics have complained that the University of California system has sold out to oil, following a $500 million research deal with oil giant BP. At Hunter College in New York, faculty are crying foul over a course sponsored by a coalition of companies, including Chanel, Coach and Reebok, that's trying to combat low-cost knockoffs of their products. In the class, students would create a campaign against counterfeiting.

But many schools defend the "Atlas Shrugged" requirement. Administrators say it'll be one of many views studied, and professors are free to teach it as they want. "We would not have accepted anything that would have been so narrowly drawn that it restricted academic freedom," JCSU President Dorothy Cowser Yancy said in a written response to the Observer. At UNCC last week, several business students said they weren't bothered that a donor is choosing a book to be required in a course. The school needs money, several said, and it can't hurt to read a book, as long as it's presented objectively. "I certainly don't see an issue, unless the cost outweighs the benefit. That's what they teach you in business school," said Josh Greenberg, 23.

But the gift sparked controversy in Raleigh, where faculty at Meredith College rejected $420,000 from BB&T in 2006, saying the book requirement violated their academic freedom. (Believe me, this is not about academic freedom. If it were, these universities would purge their curriculum of any dollar attached influences. What about government grants? Those grants and the resultant publications are not about investigating any ole thing the professor's heart desires. SCB) In West Virginia, some Marshall University faculty recently voiced similar criticisms.

Details were a surprise

At UNCC, few people knew much about the BB&T money until a couple of weeks ago. UNCC's $1 million is to be distributed over five years to develop a course on the fundamentals of capitalism, organize a speaker series on business ethics, provide faculty research money and create an Ayn Rand reading room in the business school.

The deal was brokered by former business school dean Claude Lilly, who left UNCC last spring to become a dean at Clemson University. At that point, UNCC practices didn't require a review of the agreement, though they would now. Dubois came to UNCC as chancellor after Lilly got the gift in 2005. He says Lilly told him the money came with two conditions -- creating a course on the ethical foundations of business and giving copies of "Atlas Shrugged" to business students. He says Lilly told him the book would not be required. But Dubois says when he saw the agreement for the first time recently, "it had more conditions." Lilly, asked to respond to Dubois' recollection, said he wouldn't want to speak for the chancellor.

In a 2005 letter to Allison, Lilly had offered to teach the first "Ethics and Capitalism" course. When it was offered last spring, Lilly was listed as co-instructor with another professor. Lilly taught only one meeting of the semester-long class.

That course's syllabus didn't include "Atlas Shrugged." Lilly says he assigned students to read a chapter or two from the book. This semester, the course isn't being offered.

Dubois explained the BB&T gift's history and conditions to UNCC's Faculty Council last week. He said he didn't like the "Atlas Shrugged" requirement or the fact that the school has named a business school reading room for Ayn Rand, but he believes UNCC should live up to its commitments.
Cohen, the religious studies professor, responded that Rand was an ideologue, not a serious economist. "It would be exactly like having a Karl Marx room," he said. (I don't think they need a Karl Marx room when many universities are entirely Karl Marx universities. At a Georgia Tech bookstore I visited recently, Karl Marx is everywhere. Rand is not to be seen. SCB)

One faculty member asked Dubois if he could renegotiate terms of the gift with Allison. Dubois said he's planning to talk to Allison about it. But "we would like it not to be the last gift from BB&T."

Here's a some conversation from Charlotte, NC.

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