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Buying a Spot on the Syllabus

February 27, 2008

Some professors at Marshall University believe that the institution has crossed an ethical line by accepting a gift that requires that a specific book -- Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged -- be taught in a course.

While the criticisms have come from professors who are not fans of Rand's philosophy, they stress that their objection has nothing to do with this particular book, and that they would have no problem with a professor making the choice to include it on a syllabus. Their concern, they said, is a university accepting a gift that requires any book to be taught -- when book selection should be a faculty prerogative.

" Atlas Shrugged can be taught. It's the required part that is problematic," said Jamie Warner, director of undergraduate studies in political science. Under this precedent, she said, "you could see neo-Nazis giving money and saying that you have to teach Mein Kampf."

The gift in question was $1 million to Marshall's business school, from the BB&T Foundation, the charitable arm of the BB&T Corporation, a financial holdings company. The press release announcing the gift last month said that the funds would support a lecture series and an upper level course that would focus on the principles of Atlas Shrugged and also Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Much of the discussion has focused on Atlas Shrugged because that was the key requirement of the gift.

The BB&T Foundation has given a series of large gifts to universities generally to support programs involving business, ethics and philosophy. While Marshall officials have cited those gifts to argue that their agreement is appropriate, those other gifts did not necessarily contain the same requirements. For example, Duke University last year accepted a $1.75 million gift from BB&T to support a lecture series and funds for visiting scholars as part of Duke's Values and Ethics in the Marketplace Program.

Ken Spenner, a sociology professor who directs the program, said that Duke "would absolutely reject" any requirement that a particular book or idea be taught or not taught. In light of the concerns about BB&T proposed gifts elsewhere, Spenner said that Duke officials thoroughly reviewed the agreements to assure that there were no such requirements anywhere, and they found none.

In 2006, the faculty at Meredith College, in North Carolina, voted down a proposal to create a course, "Global Capitalism and Ethical Values," that would have led to a $500,000 gift from BB&T. The objection from faculty members was that Atlas Shrugged had to be required and professors said such terms violated academic freedom.

Similar arguments are prompting concern at Marshall. George Davis, a political scientist, said that the concern is about a gift giving a donor "input into the curriculum" in a given course. Davis said that with a different donor, and different donor-approved book, it's hard to imagine Marshall just going along. "I'm assuming we wouldn't take money from the American Communist Party to require us to teach the Communist Manifesto. That would cause an uproar," he said.

Calvin A. Kent is a vice president for business and economic research and distinguished professor of business at Marshall, and he will be teaching the course with Atlas Shrugged in the fall. Kent argued that the gift provides a great opportunity for the university, and that there are no academic freedom issues. Kent noted that there is no requirement that Marshall students take the course, and that he will include material beyond Rand.

"The expectation is that this book will be used. I don't think that is an unreasonable expectation," he said.

Kent said that he is a fan, having first read Atlas Shrugged in college, where he found it "pretty profound," and said that he still views the book that way.

The threat to academic freedom, Kent suggested, isn't from accepting a gift but from discouraging it. "I would not go around telling the history department or the English department that they have no business using a particular novel or a particular historian," he said. "For someone to tell us that we should or should not include something smacks of censorship." Asked about the argument that some professors would reject a gift requiring any book to be taught, Kent said he's skeptical.

"I think that's the way they are trying to spin it," he said. "There are a lot of people out there who don't agree with her philosophy. I happen to agree with most of it, but not all of it. The thing that has really got people upset is that they don't like the book."

In fact, fund raisers do have shared philosophies about conditions on gifts, and the norm would not be to accept a donation that required a book to be taught in a course -- even if donors routinely pick one program over another to endow a chair or create a scholarship fund. Rae Goldsmith, vice president of communications and marketing of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, said she didn't know about the Marshall dispute, but added that "there's a difference between providing support that helps an academic program operate and dictating the contents of the program -- that's the line."

Added Goldsmith: "Donors should not typically expect to be able to tell the institution what courses they should teach, what the content of those courses should be, or who gets to teach them. Those are academic decisions."

Many times, she said, donors may not be familiar with academic approaches to such issues, and good fund raisers can work with them to find ways to make a gift reflect their interests without infringing on faculty roles. "It's not uncommon for a donor to come in with some expectation that an institution can't honor because it's not appropriate professionally or ethically," she said. Part of what fund raisers tell would-be donors is: "We can't do that, but maybe we could do this."

 

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