Proposed College Resurfaces, in Virginia

Officials of for-profit Founders College insist that emphasis on liberal arts, not Ayn Rand's philosophy, would distinguish it.
August 23, 2006

The founders of Founders College are shifting their focus, geographically if not philosophically.

Two and a half months ago, a group of academics and others steeped in the philosophy of Ayn Rand had applied in two states, Maine and North Carolina, to create a new private, for-profit institution, and its leaders' connections to Objectivist philosophy led to speculation among regulators in both states that the institution, wherever it landed, would have Rand's teaching at its core.

But in mid-June, the project seemed to go underground. Officials in both states said that Founders officials had canceled proposed meetings and site visits in which state officials planned to gather information about the proposed college and decide whether to approve the applications. Last week, officials in both states said they had not heard a word from the Founders team since late June, and that they assumed the project was dead.

Founders College is not dead, though -- it has just shifted its gaze, in multiple ways. On August 15, an entity known as Founders College Education, Inc., applied to a state panel in Virginia for certification to begin operating a degree-granting, for-profit postsecondary institution there by September 2007; Alan Edwards, who oversees the licensure process for the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, said a decision on the college's application, made by the council's staff and top officials, could come within two weeks.

Officials affiliated with the proposed institution are under contract to buy an 1,100-acre estate in Lynch Station, Va., in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Lynchburg, pending due diligence and the approval of county zoning officials. Century 21 lists the property (which includes two lakes, five barns and a horse riding ring) as having been on the market at a price tag of $12 million.

Gary Hull, an instructor at Duke University who will preside over Founders College as its chief executive officer and chairman, says the college will be distinctive because of its single-minded focus on the liberal arts. Most colleges today, he says, have become "swamped by political correctness, by diversity, and by other other nouveau political movements over the last 20 years, pushing out all of the core courses. Other liberal arts colleges have become very watered down by layering in a whole bunch of subjects we think are completely irrelevant to a core undergraduate education."

Founders would begin with just a handful of key majors -- history, literature and the arts, economics and philosophy -- plus a B.A. in business and a certificate program in education. Students would take a set curriculum in the first two years dominated by mastery of "important concepts that are hierarchically structured and integrated" through the academic program. "Our goal is to transfer an important body of knowledge to the next generation and teach students how to think -- to set their minds on fire," Hull says. The institution would put its (wholly nontenured) faculty through a rigorous 60-hour teacher training program aimed at ensuring "passionate, quality teaching."

Hull directs the Program on Values and Ethics at Duke and edited The Ayn Rand Reader, and audio of his five-hour seminar, "An Introduction to Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand," is featured on the Web site of the Ayn Rand Institute.

That background -- and the fact that he and a Duke colleague, Eric Daniels, founded a nonprofit group in 2005 that describes its mission as providing “a reality-based, rationally grounded education, by applying Objectivism, the philosophy of Rand, to all of the Corporation’s activities and undertakings” -- prompted concerns that Rand's embrace of laissez-faire capitalism and "rational self-interest" would dominate a Founders education.

While Hull acknowledges that Objectivism is his "own personal philosophy" and that of some of the proposed institution's other leaders, "there is no ideological orientation of Founders College. It is not an Ayn Rand university."

He says that professional instructors, just like professionals in other fields, don't let their personal views dominate their teaching. "We will not put up with" teachers who inject their viewpoints inappropriately into their classroom presentations, Hull says. "That's why some of us are escaping from academe today -- because there are political litmus tests for how people advance or get fired."

Rand's ideas "will be presented in class alongside competing ideas when the topic is appropriate," Hull says. "If we have a class discussion about abortion, pro and con, we'll present the religious arguments against it, and in favor, we might use Ayn Rand's argument, but other arguments, too.

Adds Hull: "She's not going to get any more special play at Founders than Marx does, Plato does, or any of the popes do."


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