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Ayn Rand is the author of Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and The Virtue of Selfishness. In 1999, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor, using the above painting.
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John Allison, CEO of banking giant BB&T, calls Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged "the best defense of capitalism ever written." He says that Rand changed his life, and he's working to ensure that the deceased author isn't left out of the nation's college curricula.
Since 2005, the BB&T Charitable Foundation has given 25 colleges and universities several million dollars to start programs devoted to the study of Rand's books and economic philosophy. In January, the company announced it was donating $1 million to Marshall University in West Virginia.
The money would establish a course dedicated to Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, and help create the BB&T Center for the Advancement of American Capitalism on campus.
But not everyone at the university is excited by the gift. Rick Wilson, a sociology instructor at Marshall and head of the West Virginia Economic Justice Project, says that Rand's philosophy, objectivism, is based on the view that selfishness is the only moral value.
"[Objectivism] goes against the collective wisdom of the human race, I think, pretty much everywhere," says Wilson. "I think it's a curious interpretation of philanthropy to use corporate money to promote, really, an extreme philosophy."
Two years ago, faculty at Meredith College in North Carolina rejected a $420,000 grant from BB&T, citing concerns about allowing a corporation to develop curricula.
But Marshall professor Cal Kent, who is slated to direct the center funded by the grant, says BB&T officials just want to give students an additional perspective on capitalism.
"In my experience you're not able to propagandize students," says Kent. "Certainly that's not our intent in this course, and if it were our intent, we would be doomed for failure from the beginning."
Kent adds that Rand's philosophy isn't as scary as some of her detractors insist.
"It's based on the idea of individualism," he says. "That means the freedom of individuals to contract with other people, the freedom to choose their occupation, the freedom to do what they see as being in their own best self interest with the resources they have."
Despite the criticism by some professors, Marshall Faculty Senate President Larry Stickler says it's too early to judge the course's merit. He supports offering the class on an "experimental" basis before making it an approved course.
Dan Holbrook of the history department first objected to the grant, but now says he's willing to give the course a chance.
"I think it's very easy to blow this out of proportion ... the smart thing to do is to wait and see exactly how they teach those books, because there's no one right way to teach those books or to even read those books," says Holbrook.