John Galt to the Rescue

A major academic controversy has been building in the last few years, featuring arguments about academic freedom, faculty autonomy, ownership of the curriculum, the rights of university donors—and Ayn Rand’s famous novel, Atlas Shrugged.

The person who initiated the Ivory Tower’s disquiet is John Allison. Allison is the recently retired chairman of BB&T, a Winston-Salem-based bank that grew rapidly under his leadership to become the 11th largest bank in the country. He is also a devotee of Rand and used the money from BB&T’s charitable foundation to promote Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, and favorable attitudes toward capitalism and individualism on campus.

Allison and the foundation have given grants to over 40 colleges and universities, mainly with stipulations to create pro-capitalism classes in which Rand’s writing is included. Sometimes, copies of Atlas Shrugged are passed out to large sections of the student body as well.

The latest (July/August) issue of Academe—the house organ of the American Association of University Professors—launched a two-article attack on Allison’s activities. One article is written by Guilford College psychology professor Richie Zweigenhaft, who decries the fact that the entire faculty was not consulted before his school accepted the grant.  The other article, by Gary H. Jones, associate professor of business communication at Western Carolina University, gives a more comprehensive overview of the BB&T’s grants and the issue of donations with strings attached.

In condemning the BB&T gift to Guilford, Zweigenhaft cites Jonathan Knight, the former head of the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance, who said: “’A corporation crosses a line and a university is complicit in crossing the line if it accepts money’ and accedes to a request to assign specific books.”

Nobody wants to allow cornflakes manufacturers to fund college nutrition courses extolling the health benefits of their products. Nor do they want schools taking money from the Church of Scientology and assigning the writings of L. Ron Hubbard in theology classes. Certainly, an ethical line would be crossed if BB&T money were used to promote BB&T products or to explicitly advocate specific banking regulations favorable to its bottom line.

But Allison’s grants were not intended to make him rich (or richer). His intent is to help others get rich by promoting beliefs that lead to individual success, and to redeem a nation that he sees is losing its way. (And if any professor cannot see the qualitative difference between Rand and Hubbard, then he or she is either close-minded, dull-witted, or both.)

Not everybody is thrilled with Allison’s largesse. Rand’s ideas are anathema to mainstream academics, and his use of money to bring them to campus is a threat to the faculty’s traditional monopoly on the curriculum. Some schools, such as Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, have rejected Allison’s money outright.

But he has been successful enough to stir up the AAUP opposition. The AAUP portrays Alison’s introduction of Rand onto campuses as a unique threat—Jones’s article suggests that other donors rarely place such aggressive stipulations on a grant. But other donors are not trying to introduce ideas held in contempt by academia’s mainstream, and he therefore must get explicit agreements to ensure that his wishes are fulfilled.

Wealthy liberal donors, on the other hand, have no such need to specify their intentions contractually.  They know ahead of time that, from the left’s overwhelming dominance in the humanities, social sciences, and arts, that their aims will be carried out. Left-wing philanthropist George Soros would not have to demand courses on such radical thinkers as Foucault or Derrida if he gave a college grant, because those philosophers are darlings of the post-modern set and their works are already read and cited throughout the curriculum. Nor do the Ford Foundation or the Pew Charitable Trust need to make any specifications when it comes to social welfare policy or environmental sustainability—the recipients are totally in sync with their wishes.

Furthermore, the single biggest monetary supporter of academia does indeed demand explicit cooperation from universities in order for them to receive funding—and it is welcomed with open arms . The federal government insists on compliance with various mandates—or else threatens to withhold funds. One of the best-known examples is Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which mandates non-discrimination based on sex. Many say its specific provisions on intercollegiate sports have gone too far and have forced schools to drop male-only athletic teams in order to achieve compliance.

The federal government’s threat to withhold funding unless its Title IX mandates are complied with is not all that different from Allison’s willingness to give money only if certain conditions are met. The business community’s involvement in academia constitutes undue outside influence no more than the government’s does.  Yet the AAUP’s outcry comes only when private industry tries to make the academy more market-oriented, not when an expansive government tries to impose a more statist perspective.

The AAUP and faculty favor statism, and they want to control the intellectual discourse in the country. At most universities, the faculty controls the curriculum, and they also control the hiring of faculty. As a result, through a gradual process of exclusion of contrary-minded scholars, academia has drifted ever leftward, eventually achieving a sclerotic orthodoxy that brooks little dissent.

The AAUP guidelines concerning academic freedom and faculty autonomy were created to defend freedom from without; to defend professors who made unpopular statements from political pressure. But the rules do nothing to defend academic freedom from the much-greater threat from within—the stifling uniformity—that is prevalent today.

In another case of an outside donor trying to maintain the integrity of his gift, a wealthy alumnus gave several million dollars to Hamilton College to create a center that would focus on history, freedom, democracy, and capitalism. At first it was welcomed with open arms, until the founders of the center rebuffed faculty attempts to gain control and co-opt the center’s free market agenda into just another left-wing program. A tug-of-war ensued for control, until the founders of the center—named the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization—moved it off-campus and ended its affiliation with the school.

While any conservative or free-market course or program is likely to draw the ire of the faculty, Rand’s inclusion is especially galling to the campus left. In the Academe article by Gary Jones, her work was derided as “badly written and simplistic,” and not something to be included “at a serious university and in a serious course.”

While her philosophy of Objectivism has not entered the mainstream, it is hard to imagine it being more erroneous than the ideas spawned by left-wing icon Karl Marx, who based much of his thinking on the thoroughly discredited Labor Theory of Value, and whose ideas have failed the test of time. Yet Marx needs no champion like John Allison to bring him onto campus—he is quite commonplace there.

Rand’s true legacy, at least to date, is less as a philosopher than as a popularizer of important ideas through fiction. Her books created attractive, noble characters who rejected submission to the state, and made the capitalist and the rugged individualist sympathetic like nobody else ever has.

Other than Rand’s books, the capitalist’s portrayal in popular culture has been almost exclusively negative, from the novels of Charles Dickens to the movie Wall Street; her writing has served as an antidote for that stereotype for several generations. In 1991, the Library of Congress took a poll to see which books most influenced the lives of Americans. Atlas Shrugged came in second, below only the Bible. Because of her gift for influencing young people on an emotional level—which the left has long known is the easiest way to reach them—she is definitely not welcome on campus.

Jones quotes author Jennifer Washburn, the Frederic Ewen Academic Freedom Fellow at NYU, who said of Allison’s strings-attached generosity that “if universities continue down this path…they will undermine the public trust and the very reason for their existence.”

She is obviously unaware that universities have been losing much of the public’s trust for a long time, largely because they reject middle class values of faith, capitalism, and patriotism. In fact, it may be that if the now-mainstream universities cannot find a way to take in more outside influences, they will gradually become marginalized.

Perhaps it is time for a broader definition of “intellectual freedom” that supersedes the AAUP’s idea of “academic freedom.” One that welcomes influences from outside the narrow confines of academia and recognizes ideas that circulate in private industry, in churches, and in non-profit think tanks. The AAUP’s attack on John Alison shows that it is not really about the freedom of ideas, but about controlling which ideas academics are free to express.