More on the Propriety of Donations with ‘Strings’

The latest attack on BB&T’s educational donations—and on academic freedom—comes by way of this Charlotte Observer editorial, which opens with the obvious truth that “A public university’s faculty and administration—not donors—should have the final say on the content of courses.” The editorial closes with the obvious truth that “it’s wrong to strike fund-raising deals that suggest a university’s curriculum can be shaped by the highest bidder.” Unfortunately, what lies between those two undeniable truths is a series of non sequiturs, non-principles, and nonsense having nothing to do with the factual nature of BB&T’s grants.

Of course the faculty and administration of a university should have the final say on the content of courses—and of course it is wrong for a university’s curriculum to be shaped by the highest bidder. If a university were to permit the content of its curriculum to be shaped by the highest bidder, imagine the cognitive destruction that could be wrought by the likes of George Soros or British Petroleum (BP). But for the Observer to suggest that BB&T somehow has or seeks the final say regarding the content of university curricula is absurd.

Certain universities and professors have chosen to include Ayn Rand’s books in the reading material of their courses, and some of them have sought and received BB&T grants that are contingent on including her works. This voluntary meeting of minds is called academic freedom and moral responsibility: The academics are free to choose their course content and to accept or reject the grants—and BB&T is being morally responsible with respect to its donations by ensuring that its money is put toward curricula consonant with its values.

The second sentence of the Observer editorial claims: “Otherwise, the college classroom becomes just another a [sic] arena of commerce, not a place where independent learning and research take place.” If an arena of commerce (i.e., free trade) is somehow incompatible with learning, does this mean that no one can learn anything by reading the Charlotte Observer, which is certainly an arena of commerce? The notion that free trade is incompatible with independent learning or research is utterly refuted by such obvious examples as the private-school industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the computer and software industries, and libraries—which are filled with the products of the book-publishing industry. If the Observer’s editors want to proceed with their “logic” they will have to contend with these facts.

The editorial continues: “That’s why the University of North Carolina system ought to enact a clear policy that forbids universities to seek or accept private funds that come with strings about what will be taught to students. This is an important principle, one that affects each of the 16 campuses.” If the Observer’s editors had read and understood the works of Ayn Rand when they were in college, they wouldn’t call such a non-principle a “principle.” A principle is a general truth on which other truths depend. The actual and relevant principle here is that of academic freedom: recognition of the fact that teachers and universities should be free to choose their materials and to seek funding for their courses—including, if they choose, funding that comes with strings. If the Observer’s editors have a principled argument against academic freedom, they should put it forth. To do so, however, they will have to specify the general truth by reference to which professors and universities should be forbidden to choose their materials and curricula and to accept funding in support of their choices.

As to the alleged impropriety of businessmen and corporations donating money to support educational initiatives of which they approve, the fact of the matter is that it is illogical and immoral to give money to an educational organization without stipulating in principle (if not in detail) how that money is to be used. If you blindly give money to a biology department rather then specify what the department must teach in order to receive your donation, the department might use your money to teach “intelligent design” as science. Likewise, if you blindly give money to a political science department rather than attach strings stating what the department must teach in order to receive your funds, the department might use your money to teach such nonsense as the notion that socialism is compatible with freedom.

Donating money without strings to universities is not noble; it is irrational and irresponsible. Nor does the attachment of strings to a donation in any way violate the autonomy of the recipient (be it a professor or department or university); he (or it) remains (and should remain) free to accept or reject the offer.

In sum, this is how educational donations should work: Professors and universities seeking funding for their courses should say—and be free to say—in effect, “Here is what we want to teach, and we will accept donations to teach it.” Likewise, businessmen and corporations who want to support higher education should say—and be free to say—in effect, “Here is what we would like to see taught, and we’re willing to donate money to those who are willing to teach it.” To argue against this approach is to argue against academic freedom and moral responsibility.

BB&T’s donations would not have ruffled a feather had they gone toward teaching the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or John Stuart Mill or Thomas Hobbes. It is high time that the anti-Rand academics and the rabble-rousing media stop spewing fallacies and abusing language in their efforts to keep Rand’s ideas out of higher education (where they are clearly and desperately needed). If these people have a valid argument against academic freedom and moral responsibility, they should set it forth in plain, logical English. If not, they should move on to less obnoxious endeavors.

See also Rational ‘Strings’ are Good Things

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