About Those “BB&T Courses”

(Editor’s note: This essay was presented at a meeting on “Emergent Orders in Higher Education” in February 2012, sponsored by the Foundation for the Study of Spontaneous Orders, and directed by John W. Sommer. John Allison was chairman of the board of Branch Banking & Trust, or BB&T, until 2008.)

Ideas drive human action. Unless students (i.e., future leaders, teachers, professors, etc.) learn the principles that underlie a free society, the United States will continue to move toward statism and economic decline. The believers in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” must retake the universities, or America will ultimately become a second-tier country with a dark future. That is the context in which BB&T began its program “The Moral Foundations of Capitalism.”

Commercial banks, both by tradition and under regulatory pressure, have long contributed to local community non-profit organizations such as the United Way. BB&T has primarily been a supporter of education, based on our belief that the only true natural resource is the human mind.

About twelve years ago we re-examined our charitable giving and realized that our contributions to universities were not typically being used in our shareholders’ best interest. At the same time, we were studying the question of why the United States had moved from the land of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to the “redistributive state.” We became convinced that the reason for this transformation was that the Left had taken over the universities and educated future leaders, including teachers, in statist/collectivist ideas.

A related question occurred to us. Why do free-market principles, which by any objective analysis have won the intellectual argument, continue to be dismissed by most intellectuals? We concluded that the free market economic arguments were routinely defeated by moral arguments, and those were primarily focused on the distribution of wealth.

Furthermore, BB&T has used the fundamental ethics expressed in Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism in very successfully growing our business, and we wanted Rand’s ideas to be heard in the academic community.

Finally, in general, BB&T tries to fund charitable projects that are clearly in our shareholders’ long-term best interest, but have goals that would be difficult for shareholders to achieve on their own.

Based on these factors, BB&T has sponsored 68 programs on the Moral Foundations of Capitalism at most of the major universities in our operating area, which includes the mid-Atlantic and southeastern states.

The programs vary from university to university based on the focus of the professors involved. However, most of the programs have similar core components. Typically, Atlas Shrugged is included in the reading list. Sample syllabi are listed at the site of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. The range of our commitments is usually from  $500,000 to $2,000,000, payable over ten years (at $50,000 to $200,000 per year). We have an annual renewal option based on performance.            

Typically, the university is expected to spend the principal, rather than use the funds to create an endowment, although we have funded a few endowments where there is a state match. The key to success has been finding professors who are interested in the ideas that underlie a free society and are committed to communicating these principles.

Each year, BB&T sponsors a conference at Clemson University for the 70 professors involved in the BB&T Program. While many of the professors are in economics or business, there are also philosophers, historians, and political scientists. The cross-fertilization of ideas has been a very valuable experience.

Approximately 25,000 students participate in some aspect of the BB&T program each year. Thousands report a life-changing experience. Many indicate the program is the first time they have heard capitalism defended from an ethical perspective.

BB&T has limited resources and it only funds programs in its primary operating area. Based on these limitations, Fred Fransen, president of Donor Advising, and I have created a foundation to support programs outside the BB&T operating area:  The Fund for the Inquiry into the Morality of Capitalism.

I am a strong advocate of the privatization of education through tax credits or voucher systems. However, even if all public schools were private, where would the schools find the good teachers who understand the principles underlying a free society, given our current university education system? I do not believe that efficiency improvements or technological changes matter much unless students can be taught to think independently, critically, and with the right philosophical premises. That is the underlying goal of these programs.

(Home page-photo of Ayn Rand courtesy of the Ayn Rand Institute.)