Column on Funding Rand Studies

Funding Rand Courses
Tibor R. Machan
Throughout the American Southeast, where BB&T bank conducts most of its
business, the company’s foundation has been doling out some big bucks to
support the study of the work of Russian born American
novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. The grants are made to various colleges and
universities–among them Duke and Marshall–to set up various centers or
professorships and sometimes the condition for receiving the funds
includes putting Rand’s blockbuster and huge novel, Atlas Shrugged, on a
course reading list.
In most cases the funds are welcome, especially–and not surprisingly–by
college or university administrators. In a few instances, however, there
has been some protest from folks who claim they are worried about academic
freedom. Both proponents and opponents have invoked the idea of academic
freedom. And with some justification. If you give money to an educational
institution, often it is the institution itself that determines how it
should be used. But by no means always. People contribute huge sums to
have libraries or interfaith centers built with their names attached.
Donors often establish endowed chairs–I myself hold one at Chapman
University–with the aim of giving the teaching of certain subjects a
boost. Although there is no directive to use the money contributed in any
specific way, it is most often well understood that a donor’s agenda will
carry influence.
For example, the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently
received a $10 million contribution from the John D. and Catherine T.
MacArthur Foundation so as to establish a new national program on "the law
and neuroscience." The website that describes this states that “The effort
will seek to integrate new developments in neuroscience into the U.S.
legal system. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is the
honorary chair of the Law and Neuroscience Project, which will be directed
by Michael S. Gazzaniga, a professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara and
director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind.”
Now there is a definite agenda involved here, laid out in, for example, a
recent Op Ed column in The New York Times. The idea is to influence the
reform of the criminal law system so it takes into consideration findings
of neuroscience that challenge certain of the assumptions of our legal
system. Among these assumptions is the view that defendants facing
criminal charges have free will, can decide what they will do for
themselves, etc. The program will promote the idea that in fact people’s
minds are determined to function in certain ways and no one is really free
and, therefore, guilty.
There are innumerable programs with various agendas throughout the
academy. Various schools of the sciences, the arts, and the humanities
receive support from wealthy donors who have been convinced of the merits
of one or another way of understanding some subject matter being discussed
in the halls of the academy.
And this is just what BB&T’s grants are trying to do: influence the
culture through the scholarship of those at colleges and universities
doing work in some field along lines the donors regard important. Because
colleges and universities have many different departments addressing
innumerable issues, and these departments would (properly) have highly
diverse faculties, with a great variety of perspectives, there is supposed
to be no danger of turning the faculty into some kind of one-sided, biased
advocacy group. One can be sure, for example, that wherever Ayn Rand’s
works will be studied, there will be many other novelists who are also
examined in depth, depending on the professional judgment of teachers and
The hoopla surrounding the BB&T effort to support the serious study of
Rand is mostly a turf fight, not unusual in higher education. People who
go into teaching usually have strong convictions in their discipline, many
with public policy implications. Just consider the controversies
surrounding intelligent design or creationism. Publicly run and funded
educational institutions will naturally be subjected to these
controversies–many desire and believe have the right to have an input so
as to influence the culture to promote what they deem to be worthy ideas.
Of course, in our time most of the disciplines that involve moral and
political components tend to be taught by people with convictions that
lean leftward. This is no secret. And when other viewpoints gain a bit of
inroad, there are efforts to resist it. Again, not very surprisingly. And
this resistance is usually expressed in terms that make it sound very
noble–“We are defending academic freedom”–instead of what it really is,
namely, an effort to keep or gain dominance.
No university or college is forced to accept grants from anyone but most
of them do toe the line favored by the government that funds them. It is
certainly a welcome development that the private sector’s values are
gaining some support here and there.

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