Thursday, December 5, 2013
By Jay Price / The News & Observer
Russian-born novelist Ayn Rand in Manhattan in 1962. Heartless arch-villian or triumphant free-market oracle, she is under a large spotlight as economic muse to U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan.
RALEIGH, N.C. — Even before GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney picked U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, a certain selfish, dead and enduringly controversial novelist already was enjoying an unusual boom in university classes, thanks to tens of millions of dollars in grants from a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based bank.
Now Ayn Rand, heartless arch-villain to some, triumphant free-market oracle to others, is under an even larger national spotlight, thanks to her role as economic muse to Ryan. Dozens of stories, blog items and columns on the Rand-Ryan connection have popped up in the past few days, and Twitter has been awash in Rand tweets.
Her work is a unique stew of fiction, economics and her own brand of philosophy – Objectivism – that includes the belief that the driving moral force in life should be the pursuit of "rational self-interest."
A outspoken atheist, supporter of abortion rights and adulteress, she can seem an unlikely hero for conservatives, at least those most concerned with social issues. Her views on unfettered free markets, limited government and personal responsibility, though – and the way she expressed them – have always been powerful stuff.
Rand, whose first name rhymes with "mine," has long inspired a dedicated cadre of fans, including John Allison, the former CEO of BB&T. Like Ryan, Allison was known for handing out copies of her popular 1957 polemic novel, "Atlas Shrugged," to his staff and others.
In recent years BB&T's charitable foundation awarded grants to dozens of colleges and universities to support teaching about capitalism, in many cases the moral aspects of free-market economics. The requirements often include teaching "Atlas Shrugged."
In 2008, a spokesman for the bank said it had made 37 grants worth a total of $38 million, according to the Winston-Salem Journal. A spokeswoman for BB&T declined to update the totals or name the institutions that have received grants.
According to published reports, interviews and news releases from the institutions, they include: Appalachian State University; Winston-Salem State University; UNC-Wilmington; Western Carolina University; UNC-Charlotte; Guilford College; Queens University of Charlotte; Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte; Wake Forest University and N.C. State University.
At least one grant originated with conversations between Allison and a university administrator. In other cases, institutions simply applied. Typically the gifts range from $400,000 to $2 million.
The bank's charitable wing also teamed with the Anthem Foundation, which promotes Rand's work, to make grants to UNC-Chapel Hill's philosophy department and Duke University's Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program.
Allison retired in 2008 and recently was named to lead the libertarian Cato Institute, a think tank partly owned by conservative activists Charles and David Koch. BB&T spokeswoman Maria Lachapelle declined to say whether the bank foundation is still making the grants.
The terms vary, and universities don't always disclose them. One agreement, at Florida State University, mandates teaching Rand and dictates how many students the course would accommodate. The Ayn Rand Institute must be consulted on speakers for a lecture series, and every undergraduate business student gets a free copy of "Atlas Shrugged."
The grants spurred faculty uprisings at some schools. Critics protested that accepting such conditions with gifts opens universities – many of them cash-strapped after budget-cutting – to being bribed to teach material that fits a donor's agenda, but which may be sub-standard or otherwise inappropriate.
Meredith College rejected a $420,000 grant in 2005 after faculty voted against it, saying that it was crucial not to cede control to donors over what's taught. At UNC-Charlotte and Western Carolina, faculty dissent led administrators to renegotiate the terms with BB&T, according to a 2010 story in the journal of the American Association of University Professors, by Gary H. Jones, an associate professor at Western Carolina. The bank agreed to concessions such as leaving it up to instructors whether to teach "Atlas Shrugged."
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