'Atlas Shrugged,' and Some Faculty Members Wince

March 24, 2008

At least 17 colleges and universities have accepted grants from the BB&T Charitable Foundation that stipulate that Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged must be required reading in at least one course, The Charlotte Observer reported.

Skeptics have said that such provisions give too much leverage over the curriculum to a major donor. The Observer quotes Richard Cohen, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, as saying, “It’s going to make us look like a rinky-dink university.” The Charlotte campus received a $1-million gift from BB&T in 2005, but the Atlas Shrugged requirement only became widely known there earlier this month, according to the Observer.

The Chronicle reported last summer on the efforts of Rand’s followers to promote the academic study of her ideas. Dozens of Rand-related grants have been made by the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship, a small California-based charity, and by the BB&T foundation, an arm of a large North Carolina financial corporation whose chairman is an admirer of Rand.

UNC-Charlotte is not the only place where the BB&T grants have caused tension recently. The Charleston Gazette reported last month that some faculty members at Marshall University were unhappy about an Atlas Shrugged requirement in a $1-million grant that their university accepted earlier this year. Cal Kent, Marshall’s vice president for business and economic research, defended the agreement, telling the Gazette that the course would be an elective and that “the university was free to accept or reject the grant.”

Meanwhile, the University of Texas at Austin announced last week that it had received a $2-million grant from the BB&T foundation to establish a chair for the study of objectivism, as Rand’s philosophy as known. The chair will be held by Tara Smith, a professor of philosophy who has previously received hundreds of thousands of dollars in support from the Anthem Foundation. Next week, the Texas campus will play host to a conference organized by Ms. Smith on ”Objectivity in the Law.” —David Glenn