Thursday, April 03, 2008

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 the BB&T grant is 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 scholars.

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.

No comments: