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Wednesday, 07 January 2009 13:45

Who controls what’s taught? Donation sparks debate over academic integrity

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Western Carolina University’s College of Business recently secured a $1 million donation from BB&T — but not before discerning faculty fought to loosen the strings that came with the donation.

Stipulations attached to the money — namely that business students be taught an ardent pro-capitalism philosophy — raised a red flag for many faculty. Professors took a stand in order to preserve the university’s control over its own curriculum, and in doing so, sparked a debate about the influence of corporate dollars on campus.

More than 25 universities, including NC State and UNC-Charlotte, got a similar donation from the Winston-Salem-based BB&T Foundation. At most of the schools, the donation has come with several stipulations — universities have to set up a course of study focusing on the ideas of philosopher and author Ayn Rand, and make Rand’s book, Atlas Shrugged, required reading.

BB&T CEO John Allison is a major Rand devotee. He discovered the philosopher in college and aims to spread her message through the bank’s donations.

“It offers something other books don’t: the principles that apply to business and to life in general. I would call it complete,” Allison said of Atlas Shrugged in a New York Times article.

Rand’s controversial philosophy that espouses capitalism above all else — called objectivism — has been both hailed and hated since her first major novel was published in 1943 (see related article). To many at WCU, though, the issue wasn’t Rand’s philosophy — it was allowing a private donor to dictate the curriculum.

“Among some faculty from a number of areas there was some concern as to whether or not the objectivist philosophy is something we ought to be teaching. I think that quickly got taken over by the thought that that’s not the issue — the issue is whether or not by virtue of someone giving us money we should teach his particular point of view or subject matter,” said Richard Beam, Chair of Faculty at the college.

When word spread of the proposed gift last April, some faculty were concerned. One in particular was Darryl Hale, a professor of philosophy.

“I felt like somebody needed to be a gadfly and raise these issues,” Hale said.

After speaking with various faculty and receiving an estimated 40 emails in support of his stance, Hale became an unofficial spokesperson for those who questioned the donation.

“Many feel very strongly that curriculum is a faculty issue,” Beam said of the opposition. “The idea that any donor could have conditions that effectively dictate specific textbooks or course content is something touchy to a lot of folks.”

Nationwide, some say corporate donations that influence education are becoming more common — and that schools need to be wary.

“It is more and more of a trend. We don’t think it’s a good one, but unfortunately, this is occurring more and more frequently as we’ve seen funding for schools drop across the nation, be it K-12 or college level,” said Tonya Hennessey, project director for CorpWatch, a corporate watchdog group based in Oakland, Calif. “We would always urge schools to tread very carefully in circumstances like this.”

 

Faculty weigh in

In its agreement with the university, dated March 14, 2008, BB&T agreed to give WCU $1 million over seven years. Officials from the College of Business, aware that the bank had made donations to other schools, approached BB&T about the money because they wanted to establish an interdisciplinary business course, “designed for students to explore issues involving ethics, leadership and capitalism,” said Ronald Johnson, Dean of the WCU College of Business.

In exchange for its donation, BB&T wanted “to impact the leadership, ethics and capitalism” curriculum, according to the agreement. Some of the ways it would do so proved to be a bone of contention with some faculty, who didn’t become aware of the terms of the agreement until after it was already signed by university administrators.

The agreement called for the establishment of a new Distinguished Professorship of Capitalism. “The Professor shall work closely with the Ayn Rand Institute and have a reasonable understanding and positive attitude toward Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism,” it stated.

This was a red flag for Hale and others, who wondered how the professor could be critical of Rand’s philosophy if he or she was expected to hold it in a positive light.

“It is clear that s/he will have little academic freedom to analyze critically Rand,” wrote Hale in an email to the chancellor, provost and deans.

There was also concern over the involvement of the Ayn Rand Institute. The organization seeks to further Rand’s ideas, and is viewed by some as espousing radical right-wing viewpoints. Recent opinion pieces and articles on its Web site included “The Danger of Environmentalism,” and “Animal ‘Rights’ and the New Man Haters.” Faculty were cautious of the organization wielding too much power over the new curriculum.

“The concern was that there was an implication, whether intended or not, I can’t say, that the Ayn Rand Institute would amount to a veto power as a selection of a faculty member for the professorship,” said Beam.

Another concern lay with BB&T’s requirement that Atlas Shrugged be required reading for at least one course, and that a free copy of the book be provided to all juniors.

“An outside influence that would require a certain book to be read would probably be detrimental to what we’re about as an educational institution,” said Leroy Kauffman, a WCU professor of accounting and former dean of the College of Business.

Many felt the choice of what book to use in a course should be left to the professor teaching it.

“The idea of an external agency mandating to me that I must include some material I find personally offensive,” said Beam. “That wouldn’t mean I wouldn’t include it, but I want to include it as a matter of choice based on my expertise, directions and goals for the course.”

Faculty brought their concerns to the university administration, which agreed to address them even though the agreement between the school and BB&T was already in place.

Chancellor John Bardo called for the creation of a faculty task force to study the matter. The task force met a number of times over the summer and came up with some changes to the terms of the donation that place the power to determine what is taught at WCU squarely in the hands of the faculty.

“We don’t really look at it as a renegotiation, but rather as an effort to clarify some language that was unclear in the original agreement,” explained Clifton Metcalf, the university’s vice chancellor for advancement and external affairs.

The modified agreement makes no mention of the Ayn Rand Institute’s involvement in the curriculum, instead stating only that the distinguished professor “shall maintain open communications with the Donor concerning his or her role within the College of Business and University and the implementation of the Gift Agreement.”

Another change — faculty aren’t required to use Atlas Shrugged, unless they want to. And the teaching of Rand’s ideas must be accompanied by other viewpoints.

“The University will ask each faculty member ... to consider, in their sole and unfettered discretion, the assignment of portions of Atlas Shrugged and other writings from both pro-capitalist and anti-capitalist perspectives,” the revised agreement states

“It moved (the teaching of Rand) from mandatory to being clearly at the option of the professor, which to me is a significant change,” Beam said.

Faculty were generally pleased with the outcome.

“I think the way they worked it protects the interest of the donor and the integrity of the academic institution,” said Kauffman.

Although the new agreement does little to ensure the teaching of Ayn Rand’s ideas, the BB&T Foundation didn’t seem to mind. BB&T CEO Allison signed the modified document on Aug. 13, and in an accompanying letter wrote, “we understand that these amendments do not change the fundamental purpose and intent of our contribution commitment.”

The university officially announced the donation in November.

In the end, WCU was able to snag the money on its own terms, thanks to a group of faculty who stood up in defense of academic integrity.

Prior to BB&T’s donation, there had never been a widespread debate at WCU over the influence of private donations on curriculum.

“It was not an issue that had risen to general knowledge and hence general discussion in quite the way it did with this particular grant,” Beam said.

The university is now prepared if a similar matter arises in the future. A policy instated last month calls for “a process of faculty peer review of any gifts to Western Carolina University that might affect the curriculum.”

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