A $1 million gift from the BB&T Foundation to Western Carolina University has raised basic questions about academic freedom versus funders’ ability to affect curriculum decisions.
The gift agreement stipulates that WCU’s College of Business will use the money—plus another $500,000 in matching funds it hopes to obtain from the state Legislature—to create a new “BB&T Distinguished Professorship in Capitalism” and develop a program exploring “the moral and ethical foundation of capitalism,” according to the school’s Nov. 17 announcement. While the new program will encompass “all points of view,” the agreement specifically focuses on just one, “the philosophy of objectivism as portrayed by Ayn Rand in her classic novel Atlas Shrugged and in her essays,” the announcement states. (See sidebar, “Private Ambition, Public Benefit.)
In accepting the gift last month, Western joined some 40 colleges and universities in North Carolina and across the Southeast receiving similar grants from the philanthropic arm of the Winston-Salem-based BB&T Corp. Although the specifics vary, the agreements apparently share an emphasis on—and sometimes require outright—incorporating Rand’s philosophy into the curriculum. The grant recipients include Appalachian State, N.C. State, UNC-Chapel Hill and six other members of the state university system, along with such private institutions as Duke and Wake Forest universities.
The WCU agreement has sparked criticism both on campus and beyond. Jennifer Washburn, the author of University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education (Basic Books, 2005) describes 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 40 different colleges and universities simultaneously.” Such commercial grants “violate the basic principle that faculty—not outside funders—should control all internal academic matters,” says Washburn, a fellow at the New America Foundation (www.newamerica.net). The nonprofit, nonpartisan public-policy institute is based in Washington, D.C. “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,” she told Xpress.
Ronald Johnson, the dean of WCU’s College of Business, actively sought the funding and says he’s fine with the philosophical implications. “Not that we want students to come out and be ardent supporters of objectivism,” he notes, “but we want students to come out and not be automatons, which is what happens in the colleges of business where there is no intellectual foundation.”
A firm foundation
BB&T’s John Allison, who’ll be stepping down as chairman and CEO at the end of this year, has been an unabashed proponent of such study programs—and specifically of Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged. In speeches and interviews, he has often mentioned his own encounter with Rand’s philosophy—which greatly influenced his business ethic—when he was a student at UNC.
The novel “offers something other books don’t: the principles that apply to business and to life in general. I would call it complete,” said Allison, as quoted in The New York Times last year (“Ayn Rand’s Literature of Capitalism,” Sept. 15, 2007). Another Rand fan, the article notes, is free-market guru Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve.
But Rand’s books stirred a good deal of controversy even during her lifetime, and their influence is still strongly felt today (see sidebar).
Meanwhile, affected faculty members at some schools have not taken kindly to BB&T’s push to have Atlas Shrugged included in their courses of study. Meredith College in Raleigh, for example, turned down roughly half a million dollars in 2006 because of faculty unhappiness over a donor’s so directly affecting curriculum decisions. Similar criticism has arisen at UNC-Charlotte and at Marshall University in West Virginia, according to a March 2008 report in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Johnson, however, says he’s comfortable both with Western’s new course of study and with the potential inclusion of Rand’s writings. In fact, Johnson says he sought out the BB&T funding shortly after taking the reins at the business school in July of last year.
Johnson came to Western from Texas Southern University, where he held the JP Morgan Chase Chair in Finance in the Jesse H. Jones School of Business. He’s also taught at Florida A&M, Northeastern and Howard universities. Earlier in his career, Johnson worked as an economist for the International Monetary Fund and was division chief of domestic financial markets for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
That varied background may help explain why he deems it important for students to understand diverse economic philosophies. Johnson believes it can help them arrive at their own point of view—and know how to defend it. And he has no problem with including Ayn Rand in the mix.
“We … really want to have a discussion in terms of the marketplace of ideas,” Johnson explains. “As a businessperson, you have to have a set of principles—or a philosophy—because markets and production can be uncertain at times, and you have to then have some foundation from which you operate. Those people who do not have a firm foundation … are not likely to be very successful.”
For his part, says Johnson, “The base of my philosophy is wealth maximization.” That, he explains, entails prioritizing “customer benefit” rather than merely focusing on a company’s own profit. A significant challenge in business, he notes, has been that without a philosophical bent, “people will look at the end and that drives what they do.”
Despite the new program’s impressive-sounding title, however, there has so far been no public mention of broader ethical issues, such as worker health, environmental responsibility or larger community impacts. It remains to be seen whether such concerns will be included in the curriculum alongside Rand’s work.
Off the books
But the road to Western’s agreement with BB&T hit a detour. After Johnson met with Allison in October 2007 to gauge his interest in the school, Johnson formed a committee that drafted the agreement signed by both parties last March. According to Johnson, it contained “no requirements” such as those that touched off a “hue and cry” at UNC-Charlotte soon thereafter.
BB&T’s $1 million gift to that school came with the stipulation that Atlas Shrugged “be included in a course as required reading,” according to a March 30, 2008, editorial in The Charlotte Observer. The editorial took issue with “letting—or appearing to let—a donor prescribe a university’s course content” and called for a systemwide policy for the state’s universities.
If Western’s agreement with the bank did not literally cross that line, it did stray pretty close. And when the general faculty learned about the agreement (which didn’t happen till late spring, according to Richard Beam, WCU’s Chair of the Faculty), some weren’t happy about it.
Two statements, in particular, sent up red flags about the “relationship of gifts to the curriculum,” said Beam. One was a decree that the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism “shall work closely with the Ayn Rand Institute” and have a “reasonable understanding and positive attitude” toward Rand’s philosophy of objectivism.” Another encouraged a “thorough discussion of the moral foundations of capitalism portrayed via Ayn Rand’s philosophy, objectivism,” and strongly urged the college “to make Atlas Shrugged … part of the required reading in at least one business course each semester.” It also required the school to give all business majors a copy of the book in their junior year.
Both of these flash points were subsequently retooled in a memorandum of understanding signed in August. The latter document gives a nod to the “guiding principles of [Western’s] accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools,” which place primary responsibility for “content, quality and effectiveness of curriculum with its faculty.”
In place of the stipulation concerning the Ayn Rand Institute, the memorandum merely states 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 second change calls for a more generalized “creation of undergraduate and graduate courses on the moral and ethical foundation of capitalism through established faculty-governance processes.” It also states that the university “will ask each faculty member” assigned to those courses to consider, “in their sole and unfettered discretion, the assignment of portions of Atlas Shrugged and other pro- and anti-capitalist perspectives.”
The original agreement caused “considerable concern and fairly widespread discussion among faculty,” Beam recalls. “The WCU Faculty Senate did discuss the questions which had been raised, and at the suggestion of [Chancellor John Bardo], a faculty task force was created to attempt to address those [concerns and the overall] relationship of gifts to the curriculum.” Beam says the task force met several times in early summer and made specific suggestions for revising the agreement, as well as proposing a university policy concerning gifts and curriculum decisions.
Johnson, meanwhile, hopes to develop the requirements for the new faculty position this spring and start advertising the position next fall, once the funding is in hand. He’s also optimistic about getting the additional $500,000 for his program from the Legislature. Speaking about the General Assembly’s budgeting process, Johnson notes: “It becomes dicey, I believe … in the second biennial year. And so it’s hopeful that we will get a proposal and approve a match in this year.” (The General Assembly holds “long” and “short” sessions in alternate years, and 2009 will be a long session.)
Even if the school cannot secure the state matching funds, however, the BB&T money, which is to be paid out in increments through 2014, would still cover the $1 million endowment for the faculty position, says Johnson.
A nasty time for higher education
Washburn of the New America Foundation takes issue with the whole notion of corporate funding for universities and with BB&T’s philanthropic campaign in particular. Nonetheless, she notes, “strings attached” funding has become increasingly common at schools nationwide.
“Universities are desperate for funding,” says Washburn, citing two examples of the kinds of problems that arise. One school, she says, recently allowed a corporate donor to “bar professors from publishing or talking about their research.” Another allowed a donor to interview (and presumably vet) candidates for corporate-endowed faculty chairs.
Catherine Warren, an associate professor of English at N.C. State, is working with Washburn to create a national project studying the issues surrounding corporate involvement on American campuses. Warren is active with the American Association of University Professors, and formerly served on the UNC Faculty Assembly, which approved a resolution this summer concerning donor-influenced curriculum. Crafted just as Western’s agreement with BB&T was being reshaped, the resolution states:
“Established principles of academic freedom include the prerogative of faculty and faculty curriculum committees to determine academic curricula and select curricular materials free from the influence exerted by external entities.”
The resolution further authorizes the UNC Faculty Assembly to work with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the UNC Division of Academic Affairs to establish a set of guidelines for the entire university system.
Taxpayers, says Warren, believe that private funding for universities replaces support that would otherwise have to come from tax revenues, and faculty members believe corporate grants can help them do their work. But, she cautions, “It’s a more complicated picture than that.”
Private money actually leverages public funding, says Warren. Many such gifts, she notes—including Western’s—involve matching grants. So public money is still going into the university, only now, “It’s also going to fulfill [corporate] goals, not broader societal goals or even the goals of North Carolina citizens.”
Meanwhile, continues Warren, a decreasing number of tenured faculty positions at schools nationwide may be robbing higher education of an important voice that could speak up for curricular independence. “These external funding pressures, combined with steady declines in state and federal support for higher education, are threatening the core academic values and public-interest missions of America’s universities,” she asserts.
Arden resident Jane Helm sees things differently. The former vice chancellor for business affairs at Appalachian State, Helm currently serves on BB&T’s board of directors.
“My feeling in general is that if a donor wants to make a donation, he has a right to specify how that money is to be used,” Helm states simply. “The recipient can accept it or not. I have absolutely no problem with it.”
UNCA economics professor Shirley Browning agrees that it’s not uncommon for donors to follow what’s called “giver’s choice,” meaning the recipient must decide whether to accept the terms—“be it capitalism or kumquats.”
But while he acknowledges the intense pressures all universities are facing these days, Browning draws the line at letting donors decide what goes on in the classroom.
“This is a really nasty time right now for higher education, because states are cutting back,” he notes. And that makes it a “fantastic strategic time for somebody to come to a university … [and] wave that check in front of them. It is really hard. How can you rationalize taking the money, maintain faculty control, make the donor happy?
“But … curriculum is a faculty matter—that’s the end of it right there. If Western can finesse this into something that makes sense for their faculty, bless them. I hope they can.”