Who Is John . . . ?

A row has broken out in higher education regarding grants that the BB&T Foundation has made to some institutions, grants that typically require, as a condition of receiving the money, that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged be assigned in its entirety. The grants apparently do not stipulate what else may or might be taught, nor do they stipulate what other courses might be taught by the funded professors or departments; it appears that the sole condition is that that one—albeit long and controversial—book by Ayn Rand be in the mix.

A series of articles has appeared discussing the matter. In the July/August issue of Academe magazine, which is published by the American Association of University Professors, there are two articles decrying the grants: one written by a psychology professor at Guilford College; another by a business professor from Western Carolina University. A third article, defending BB&T and its grants, is by Jay Schalin of the Pope Center.

The personage who is fast becoming Public Enemy Number One among the offended academics is John Allison, former chairman of BB&T bank. He is a strong proponent of Ayn Rand’s works, as well as of her philosophical, moral, and economic vision, and under his leadership the BB&T Foundation has begun combing the academic landscape looking for professors or institutions willing to let her work be taught.

I think the Academe writers are making too much out of this. Richie Zweigenhaft of Guilford College, for example, writes in his Academe article:

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 the three books given to every business and economics major?

My suspicion is that the students won’t think much of it at all, and will probably hardly notice. More striking to me is the admission contained in that rhetorical question that Guilford college doesn’t require any other books in its curriculum! That is far more damning, I expect, in the eyes of students (and parents), than that they give every student a book of Rand’s. The obvious solution would seem to be not to ban Rand but to add more books. Why aren’t there ten—or twenty or thirty—books required of all students in their college?

Professor Richie goes on to charge that the college has “simply sold a chunk of the curriculum,” from which he concludes that everything “is for sale, even the college curriculum.” Well, it is only one book—which can be a “chunk” of the curriculum only if there isn’t much else in it. He laments moreover that at his college “some faculty members will have to teach Atlas Shrugged (in its entirety).” But that makes it sound as if they had no choice. BB&T did not force anyone to take the grant, and I presume no professor opposed to teaching Rand will be required to do so.

In his Academe article, Professor Gary Jones quotes University of Chicago law and philosophy professor Brian Leiter as saying:

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. […] 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.

Leiter continues that “interest in Ayn Rand is obviously self-serving rather than scholarly,” and he concludes:

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.

These are eminently reasonable sentiments. Yes: let decisions be made on the merits, not for self-serving, especially politically self-serving, purposes. Let only serious works and serious authors and nothing simpleminded or badly written be taught, and do not let an “ideological campaign,” as it is put later in Jones’s article, get a toehold in academia.

Yet . . . an awful lot of unserious authors, and unserious and simpleminded and badly written work, is taught right now on campuses across the nation. And there is a lot of self-serving, including politically self-serving, decision-making going on—about everything from hiring and tenure to curricula to the creation of centers, majors, and programs.

The complaints about the BB&T grants have, therefore, something of a hollow ring. If faculty wish to apply the standards Professor Leiter articulates—which I would wholeheartedly endorse—then they should apply them across the board. Open their entire curricula, all of their course syllabi, and every assigned and required work to public scrutiny; judge them all on grounds of scholarly seriousness, and revise or reject material that is self-serving, ideological, simpleminded, or badly written. 

That would require quite a measure of self-examination and scrutiny—and a lot of what goes on right now would, I fear, fail these tests. If faculty are not willing to submit to this level of scrutiny, then they might wish to reconsider just how much protesting of BB&T grants they want to make.


6 thoughts on “Who Is John . . . ?

  1. It is my understanding that federal grants and student loans require colleges and universities to take certain admission and other academic and administrative actions as a condition of accepting the federal grants or student loans. Where is the outcry from the academic world on this?

  2. Absolutely. We should only heed the credit rating agencies.

    Why should a third party have the right to impose on our youngster a book they like? That right belongs rightfully only to the professors… or does it?

  3. There is a very simple solution for the self-rightously indignant professors…do not accept the grant money. Problem solved.

  4. Hedge,

    The grant is given to the institution, not the individual professor. Professors don’t have much influence over an institution’s decisions about what grants to take.

  5. Its pretty clear from the articles that teaching Atlas Shrugged is not the “sole condition”:

    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.”

    As for opening up syllabi etc. to public scrutiny, that may be a good idea, but why on earth do you think the public would judge the books on the basis of “scholarly seriousness”? Are non-scholars able to judge books on that basis?

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