Banking on the Curriculum

New paper details extent of a grant program that linked funds to courses that were required to teach Ayn Rand.

October 16, 2015
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Fears of corporate influence on higher education are nothing new. But are colleges and universities, which receive smaller and smaller shares of their budgets from public funding, and which have struggled to bounce back from the 2008 recession, more likely to accept gifts with ideological strings attached than they would have been previously?

That’s the idea behind a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Academic Ethics, called, "BB&T, Atlas Shrugged and the Ethics of Corporation Influence on College Curricula." It says it is the first study to track a particular set of donations by the financial services holding company BB&T to colleges and universities stipulating that they teach the works of free-market capitalist Ayn Rand and address the “Moral Foundations of Capitalism.”

The paper says these agreements, which have largely ceased, happen under a veil of secrecy, often without the knowledge of faculty members, and that BB&T’s foundation is set on correcting what it sees as an overly liberal curriculum.

“This has been reported on ad hoc, mostly by individual universities and their campus newspapers,” said Douglas Beets, the article’s author and a professor of business at Wake Forest University, which has its own BB&T-funded program. “But otherwise you can’t find information on [BB&T’s] website, and that’s one of the major problems -- this is not transparent.” And Beets says that, given current discussions over allegations of corporate influence over university research agendas, the Ayn Rand grants need more attention.

Prior to Beets’s study, he says, the most comprehensive list of colleges and universities affiliated with BB&T Moral Foundations program was kept by Clemson University’s Institute for the Study of Capitalism. But the list was not complete, and the funds each institution received, in exchange for what kinds of curricular requests, were not listed.

By scouring local news stories and university press releases, along with other means, Beets determined that at least 63 colleges and universities received Moral Foundations grants, averaging about $1 million each.

The grants typically stipulate that the institution will offer a course featuring Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged -- a famously pro-free market novel -- and provide even unenrolled students in the relevant department a free copy of the book; in some cases, Atlas Shrugged is the only book on the course syllabus. The requirements are notable because, even though donors regularly will give support to a given department or field of study, dictating a book to be read would for many professors and others cross a line into inappropriate donor influence.

Beets quotes a BB&T spokesperson telling Bloomberg in 2008, “These gifts are really about the study of capitalism from a moral perspective and all we want is to make Rand part of the dialogue.”

One contract included the creation of an Ayn Rand “reading room” in the department, while others stipulated the development of a dedicated “center” of some sort -- in some cases, just a website. Others funded faculty chairs or other professorships, contractually geared in some cases to ideological allies. A 2011 Western Carolina University advertisement said applicants for its BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism should be “at least familiar with, if not actively receptive to, the writings of Ayn Rand.”

Many of the contracts required an Ayn Rand-inspired speaker series, and some specified the series was to appeal to the general public.

Beets broke down the grants by three metrics to determine their proportionate influence on each institution: funds per student, university endowment per student and grant divided by endowment. Barton College, Johnson C. Smith University and Presbyterian College are among those colleges with the biggest grant-per-student values, at $500 each.

Beets determined that 78 percent of identified contract agreements were announced from 2006-10, although some were made as early as 2002 and some as late as 2012. Amounts varied widely, from $150,000 to Shenandoah University to $4.9 million to Clemson University. The mean contract was $1.1 million.

Contracts between BB&T and the participating institutions typically ran over 10 years, with the stipulation that nonperformance of requirements could result in cessation of funding.

Geography seemed to be the main determinant of where BB&T looked to grant. Most identified institutions are in the bank’s operating region, the Southeastern U.S., with 39 located in North Carolina, the bank’s home state.

The grants resulted in “superlatives” at some colleges and universities, according to the study. At the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, for example, the contract doubled the number of endowed professorships, to four from two. At Fayetteville State University, the contract was the largest corporate donation ever.

Beets asserts that it wasn’t shared ideology with BB&T’s former chief executive, John Allison, who reportedly made his managers read the book, that led colleges and universities to accept the grants. Rather, he says it was financial desperation from shifting funding structures. No longer able to count on public funding, many colleges and universities had to look elsewhere.

“College presidents often delegate a significant degree of fund-raising to subordinate deans and department heads, thereby charging those whose former priority was the quality of academic programs with fund-raising responsibilities and consequently shifting and reprioritizing their job descriptions,” Beets wrote. “These factors combine to make unusual and ideologically based grants alluring that once would have been considered unethical threats to the missions of higher education.”

It stands to reason, then, that regional universities in North Carolina, which have been hit hard by state budget cuts, and smaller, private colleges would be the most vulnerable.

One notable exception is Meredith College, a small, private liberal arts institution in Raleigh, N.C., which rejected a $420,000 Moral Foundations grant in 2006 that would have funded a course on global capitalism and ethical values. The decision was based on a faculty vote, 54-34. Opposed professors said they worried the contract would result in loss of some academic freedom, given that an outside entity would be dictating part of the curriculum.

Melyssa Allen, a college spokeswoman, said the faculty at that time also approved a resolution supporting academic freedom and limiting external funding for curricular offerings. “There was a consensus among faculty in attendance that academic freedom is a core value at Meredith,” Allen said.

A curriculum committee at Auburn University, a public institution with an enrollment of 25,000, turned down a $1.5 million grant from BB&T in 2009.

Beets says these grants can have outsize influence, as some states have programs that match corporate donations with public funding. Beets also points to a major funding overlap with Charles and David Koch, billionaires who have poured millions into conservative causes; some 42 institutions with Moral Foundations programs also had received donations from the Koch brothers’ charities. Both BB&T and the Kochs also have been major contributors to the Ayn Rand Institute.

One campus that’s accepted both BB&T and Koch grants is Florida State University, the latter of which caused much tumult on that campus. The institution accepted a $3 million BB&T Moral Foundations grant in 2008, in exchange for creating a course on market ethics, among other requirements.

“We are very appreciative of the confidence that BB&T has placed in Florida State University to create programs to emphasize the moral and ethical dimensions of our free enterprise system,” T. K. Wetherell, FSU's former president, said in an news release announcing the grant. "In these difficult economic times, it is more important than ever that public universities find new ways to partner with the private sector to develop the sorts of academic programs that our society will need in the coming decades." 

The BB&T grant is still active; it’s set to expire in 2018. A spring 2015 syllabus for the course, called Market Ethics: The Vices, Virtues and Values of Capitalism, does feature a discussion called “Taxation is theft” but otherwise hardly suggests it’s a breeding ground for ardent capitalists.

“Critics of capitalism say it is an amoral system, or worse, that it encourages immoral behavior,” the syllabus reads. “Capitalism exploits people, it is unfair, and it values material things over more virtuous values. This course will examine the vices, virtues and values of capitalism to evaluate its ethical properties … the course is not designed to give you answers to these questions, but rather to raise questions and clearly structured issues so that you can think through them and form your own ideas.”

Still, the grant has riled faculty members who say that BB&T and Koch Industries are buying their way into the curriculum. Part of the problem was the way Allison, the CEO, dictated terms of the grant to administrators.

“It is very important to us that any program we support meets the highest academic standards and encourages students to hear all points of view,” Allison wrote in a letter to the deans of business and social sciences. “Frankly, we are confident that, when given a fair hearing, capitalism will prevail. Unfortunately, we find that many graduates of business schools, while understanding the ‘technology’ of business, do not have a clear grasp on the moral principles underlying free markets.”

Allison requested that the economics department create the new course, and that Ayn Rand be required reading. The finance department would add additional readings and course content on free markets, according to the letter, and both working paper and speaker series would be organized. All business graduate students and finance and economics majors will get a copy of Atlas Shrugged. BB&T requested two professorships, and that the program initially be directed by a department head, among other details.

The deal caught the attention of Kent Miller, a professor emeritus of psychology at Florida State, and Ray Bellamy, a medical faculty member, who expressed their concerns in the American Association of University Professors’ Academe journal in 2012.

“Could these provisions be considered intrusive?” they wrote. “In exchange for his ‘gift,’ the donor got to assign specific readings, select speakers brought to the campus and instruct them with regard to the focus of their lectures, shape the curriculum with new courses and specify the number of students in the courses, name the program’s directors and initiate a student club. BB&T also received a disturbing amount of free online advertising through the web pages of FSU’s BB&T Center for Free Enterprise.”

They continued, “We do not know how thoroughly the college has obeyed Allison’s instructions. But if there is any concern about avoiding even the appearance of outside interference in the university, we are in trouble. The university has never existed as an ivory tower, but the ideals of academic freedom, the search for truth, scientific integrity, open debate and faculty control of the curriculum are worth defending. The university should be a place where the search for and transfer of knowledge are not shaped by outside money.”

A group called Progress Coalition also has criticized the grants, saying they violated the university's gift acceptance policy. Ralph Wilson, a recent Ph.D. student in math from Florida State and the group's co-founder, said the BB&T agreement amounts to "selling academic credit to outside influences." And even giving out free books to students signals they're "valid," he said.

Dennis Schnittker, a Florida State spokesman, said the instructor of the market ethics course determines what Ayn Rand readings are appropriate, and that the university has never dictated what should be taught. The university “has a long tradition of strong faculty governance and faculty sets the curriculum,” he said. “Donors do not unduly influence the curriculum.”

At UNC Charlotte, faculty outcry over the initial letter of agreement for Moral Foundations on that campus caused the university to revise its deal with BB&T. Steven Ott, dean of the Charlotte Belk College of Business on that campus, said that under the new agreement, “faculty assigned to the course would determine course content, in their sole and unfettered discretion.” Additionally, he said via email, language requiring a faculty member to have a positive interest in and be well versed in objectivism was elimination. The Ayn Rand reading room requirement also was scratched.

Not all faculty members are opposed to the program, however. In 2008, professors at Marshall University were debating the ethics of that campus’s BB&T grant. But Calvin A. Kent, the vice president for business and economic research and distinguished professor of business at Marshall, who was set to teach the Ayn Rand-based course, told Inside Higher Ed that telling professors he was looking forward to teaching Atlas Shrugged. Telling professors what not to teach violated academic freedom, he said, whereas simply suggesting that they teach one view among others is not.

"The expectation is that this book will be used. I don't think that is an unreasonable expectation," he said. "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. … For someone to tell us that we should or should not include something smacks of censorship.”

Beets disagreed. He said it was simply inappropriate for a corporation -- whether it was pushing Ayn Rand or Karl Marx -- to buy its way into the curriculum.

“I have to admit I’m biased because I’m a university professor,” he said, “but the content and course work in a university has traditionally been based on faculty standards. … I’m not sure what you’re buying when you’re a student and paying top dollar and not really getting the professor’s best course design. Instead you’re getting the corporation’s perspective of what they want to you learn, and that’s a different education and feel.”

Cynthia Williams, a BB&T spokeswoman, said the bank was essentially out of the Ayn Rand business, since it stopped awarding Moral Foundations of Capitalism grants roughly five years ago, when Allison left the bank. BB&T’s foundation now focuses on financial literacy and leadership programs for K-12 students, adults and some college students. Williams rejected the idea that the bank had a transparency problem in relation to Moral Foundations, saying that it doesn’t advertise any of its charitable work.

“When we give money to someone, we just give it," she said.

Beets said that even if the bank’s stopped giving grants, the story still needs to be told.

“Much of the reason for the continuing importance of BB&T's influence on university curricula is the precedent it sets for other corporations,” he said. “BB&T was able to pay an average of $1.1 million to many colleges and universities to include a specific ideology in college courses with minimal transparency and minimal concern from academia, BB&T stockholders or depositors, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. And in many cases, state governments even matched their payments. This is a successful example of exporting corporation ideology that many corporations are likely to follow in the future.”


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