Ayn Rand Studies on Campus, Courtesy of BB&T Since 2005, banking giant BB&T has given several million dollars to different colleges and universities in an effort to promote the study of Ayn Rand's books and economic philosophy. But should a corporation have a role in establishing curricula?
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Ayn Rand Studies on Campus, Courtesy of BB&T

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Ayn Rand Studies on Campus, Courtesy of BB&T

Ayn Rand Studies on Campus, Courtesy of BB&T

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Let's talk next about the next generation of American business leaders and the education they receive. Marshall University in West Virginia is debating whether to accept a $1 million donation from BB&T Banks Charitable Foundation. The money would go toward teaching courses at the business college based on the economic philosophy of the writer Ayn Rand. Clark Davis of West Virginia Public Broadcasting has more.

CLARK DAVIS: BB&T CEO John Allison say the author Ayn Rand has changed his life.

Mr. JOHN ALLISON (CEO, BB&T): My favorite book is "Atlas Shrugged," which is the best defense, I believe, of capitalism ever written.

DAVIS: Over the last three years, Allison has helped ensure that Rand's philosophy receives attention at 25 colleges and universities. At Marshall, a $1 million grant would help create the BB&T Center for the Advancement of American Capitalism. Professor Cal Kent will direct the center. He says BB&T officials just want to give students an additional perspective on capitalism.

Professor CAL KENT (Marshall University): In my experience, you're not able to propagandize students. And BB&T recognizes that, and certainly that is not our intent in this course. And if it were our intent, we would be doomed for failure from the beginning.

DAVIS: At least one college has turned down BB&T's money. Two years ago, faculty at Meredith College in North Carolina rejected $420,000. Professor Beth Mulvaney says many faculty were concerned the money would be used to promote economic propaganda but that ultimately, faculty didn't want to let a corporation have a role in curriculum.

Professor BETH MULVANEY (Meredith College): The main concern that I heard articulated was the concern that no one outside of this college should ever tell an instructor what the reading for a course should be.

DAVIS: There are different definitions of Ayn Rand's philosophy. Critics like Rick Wilson often seize on what they consider its selfish aspects. Wilson, a sociology instructor at Marshall, heads what's called the West Virginia Economic Justice Project.

Professor RICK WILSON (Sociology, Marshall University; West Virginia Economic Justice Project): I think it's a curious interpretation of philanthropy to use corporate funding to promote proven extreme ideology. Ayn Rand's philosophy, which she called objectivism, is based on the view that selfishness is the only moral value, which seems kind of paradoxical. It goes against, I think, the collective wisdom of the human race pretty much everywhere.

DAVIS: Despite the criticism by some professors at Marshall University, Faculty Senate President Larry Stickler says it's too early to judge the course's merit. Dan Holbrook of the history department, who at first objected, now says he's willing to give the course a chance.

Professor DAN HOLBROOK (History, Marshall University): I think that it's very easy to blow this out of proportion, and that I think 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.

DAVIS: Rand is also the author of "The Virtue of Selfishness," though Marshall's Cal Kent says her philosophy isn't so scary.

Prof. KENT: It's based on the idea of individualism, and what that means is individual choice. That means the freedom of individuals to contract with other people, the freedom to choose their occupations, the freedom to do what they see as being in their own best self-interest with the resources that they have.

DAVIS: Kent says BB&T probably wants to help business schools develop students that meet the bank's employment needs.

Prof. KENT: I'm sure it's not all altruism on their part, that this is really a way for them to get a foot in the door, a very large foot in the door, in the recruiting process for better students.

Ms. PHYLLIS ARNOLD (President, BB&T's West Virginia Operations): Yes, Ayn Rand has written a book that is one of the best writings of the moral defense of capitalism.

DAVIS: Phyllis Arnold is president of BB&T's West Virginia operations.

PHYLLIS ARNOLD: But the subject at hand is forwarding and supporting a discussion and the knowledge of what capitalism brings to the success of our democracy and to the overall economic success of the country.

DAVIS: The course will be offered to both business and non-business majors starting next school year.

For NPR News, I'm Clark Davis in Huntington, West Virginia.

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