Meredith College faculty reject BB&T money | Wake County | Indy Week

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Meredith College faculty reject BB&T money

Concerns about ethics course


The faculty at Meredith College in Raleigh struck a blow for academic freedom Friday, and in so doing, might've cost the college $420,000 from the BB&T Charitable Foundation. At issue: A grant from BB&T--$60,000 a year for seven years--for an honors program featuring, apparently at the bank's insistence, such right-wing texts as Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Frederick Hayek's The Road to Serfdom.

The faculty's position: We can't allow donors' money to dictate what we teach. The vote was 54-34.

The problem, according to documents circulated to faculty in advance of the Friday meeting by Beth Mulvaney, chair of Meredith's Faculty Council, was that specific texts for the program's core course were negotiated as a condition of the grant by Maureen Hartford, Meredith's president, and BB&T.

A series of faculty committees, and finally the full faculty, decided that they needed to retain control over course curricula, not cede it to donors, according to a Meredith staffer who made the documents, and the results of the Friday vote, available to the Independent.

Thus, the faculty declined to approve the course, called "Global Capitalism and Ethical Values," unless it was clear to BB&T that "the faculty teaching this course now and in the future are free to design [it] with no pre-conditions."

That was the language of a resolution approved two weeks ago by Meredith's Academic Council and upheld by the full faculty Friday. The Academic Council had gone on to say: "any funding obtained for the College that includes conditions that the Faculty interpret to be restrictions on academic freedom cannot be used to support the development and implementation of this course or any course."

Hartford, according to a reliable source, warned the faculty that if it rejected BB&T's conditions for making the grant, she'd have to decline the money.

We could not reach Hartford for comment before or after the vote. The college did issue a brief statement yesterday, in response to our questions, acknowledging that because of the vote, Meredith "is not able to use BB&T funding for its original purpose." Hartford has been in touch with BB&T officials since Friday, it added. "A decision about the status of the gift has not yet been reached."

Earlier, in a rebuke to Hartford, a nine-member Faculty Affairs Committee declared: "We consider the process that led to the college's accepting the current terms of the grant to have been seriously flawed. The College Handbook clearly states that the faculty is responsible for curriculum, and FAC firmly maintains that no funds should be accepted in situations where a donor appears to have played any role in curricular decisions."

Hartford and BB&T, the FAC continued, had violated that policy.

Meredith College is not the first academic institution to confront these issues. Just last year, the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty balked when it was discovered that administrators were talking to the conservative John William Pope Foundation about money for a new "Western civilization" curriculum that would--if the foundation had its way--avoid bows to multiculturalism. (That's the idea that different people--the descendants of slaves, for example, as opposed to white men--might see the march of Western civilization quite differently.)

In January, a university-sponsored task force issued a report called "Donors Affecting the Curriculum," which critics say leaves the door open to UNC's donors doing just that.

Nor is Meredith the first to entertain a gift from BB&T tied to the works of conservative thinkers like Ayn Rand. Far from it. Just last August, for example, the business school at UNC-Charlotte announced that it was getting $1 million from BB&T to create a program on the moral foundations of free enterprise. "The gift will also fund faculty research on the philosophical underpinnings of capitalism ... and establish an Ayn Rand reading room on campus," the school said.

According to the Charlotte Business Journal, that grant arose after business school Dean Claude Lilley and BB&T CEO John Allison broke bread. "Our conversation turned from ethics and leadership to metaphysics, objectivism and Ayn Rand," Lilly told the paper. "John and I discovered that we share an interest in how business schools discuss capitalism in their courses, as well as the importance of teaching ethics and values in business."

Meredith's own saga began 14 months ago when, after some preliminary conversations, Hartford wrote to BB&T asking for money to help start a program on the moral and ethical foundations of business, to be developed jointly by Meredith's business and religion departments.

According to a timeline developed by Mulvaney (and based in part on letters and information supplied by Hartford), that proposal was turned down by BB&T CEO John Allison, apparently because the bank was uncomfortable bringing religion into it. "Their interest was in a course to explore morality and capitalism," the timeline says of BB&T.

Negotiations continued, and in July, Hartford was writing again to BB&T, this time to propose an Honors Program colloquium "that will focus on the American ideals of democracy and capitalism (tentatively titled 'Democracy and Capitalism: The American Ideal')."

Students would be given "a solid understanding of capitalism," Harford assured Allison in her "Dear John" letter, and would be required to do extensive reading, including Atlas Shrugged and The Road to Serfdom.

"Free enterprise" and "objectivism"--the latter Ayn Rand's pet theory--would both be central to the course, Hartford wrote.

Moreover, every student in the Honors program, whether in the colloquium or not, would receive a copy of Atlas Shrugged, which would serve to underscore its importance.

In 1962, Rand described objectivism as the complete separation of government from the business world:

"Man--every man--is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life," Rand wrote.

"The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man's rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders."

Rand continued: "In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church."

Hartford assured Allison that she would be personally involved in the colloquium and would use part of BB&T's money to lead trips to New York City, where students could visit the stock exchange and meet with business leaders that she'd help choose--with Allison's recommendations welcomed.

This was the application BB&T wanted, and the one it approved, contingent, however, according to the timeline, on the money being "used as outlined in the proposal" sent in July.

Those were contingencies the Meredith faculty decided it couldn't stomach.

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