If you were, say, the new president of a struggling small college in Flyover Carolina, you ought to be thrilled by getting a shout-out from Wendy Brown in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.
I mean, The Times is, well, The Times, the national paper of record and all that. And Wendy Brown is an academic superstar (if you think I exaggerate, check out the CV & booklist on her Wikipedia page.)
She’s currently UPS Foundation Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. Previously, she was a core faculty member in The Program for Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. She has guest lectured or visited just about everywhere that counts in academe, and produced weighty books exploring the galloping decline of democracy and freedom.
But maybe, if you were the new prez of a certain Friends school, such national recognition by Prof. Brown might be a wee bit, in the current campus argot, problematic. Especially if it was like this,
“On campus, for example,” Brown said in an interview for the Timesmag’s May 6 issue, “the constant harangues about cancel culture and wokeness on the left that you get from the right keep us from seeing enormous amounts of foundation money and use of the state to try to control what is taught, to build institutes and curriculums that comport with a right-wing engine.
Guilford College, this little Quaker school in North Carolina, takes half a million dollars from a foundation in love with Ayn Rand. Every econ and business major in the college for the next 10 years had to be given a copy of [Rand’s novel] “Atlas Shrugged,” and at the center of the curriculum there had to be a course in which “Atlas Shrugged” was the required textbook.5 [Emphasis added.]
[Footnote: “In 2009, Guilford accepted a 10-year $500,000 grant from the BB&T Bank’s charitable foundation, which included the stipulation that a course titled “The Moral Foundations of Capitalism” would be taught. Students majoring in business and economics were, upon beginning their junior year, given a free copy of Rand’s novel.”]
Ahem, well yes. It’s true. Guilford was facing very tough financial times. Desperate times call for desperate measures (though looking for rich donors is an every-day-of-the-week duty of all college presidents who expect to be employed for more than a few months). And the BB&T foundation was handing out buckets of cash to colleges— with conditions.
The condition here was hooking up with a cult philosopher-novelist whose magnum opus is a libertarian pamphlet that turned into an1100-page doorstop paean to selfishness as salvation.
Atlas Shrugged’s message comes down to a main character’s vow that, “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
Rand’s most famous convert was one Alan Greenspan, who proved his fanatic devotion to her creed as head of the Federal Reserve, by letting a doomed real estate bubble almost take down the whole damn world economy in 2007-8. (Way to go, Al, I’m sure Ayn was real proud.)
Well, okay then. A college prez has gotta do what they’ve gotta do. The BB&T money was a shot in the arm, but Guilford has continued to stagger under the burdens of a big debt load and declining enrollments. Presidents were forced into several rounds of staff and faculty layoffs afterward, which torpedoed not only morale, but also, staff job numbers, and the presidents’ careers
Then COVID dang near sank the whole school; an emergency campaign raised enough last year to push the wolves back into the campus woods for the moment, and culminated in the installation of a new president, Kyle Farmbry.
Just the other day, a thick slick college magazine from Guilford showed up in my (real, outdoors, post-in-the ground) mailbox, with Farmbry’s visage dwarfing the cover and taking up the main pages inside.
The article about him (the magazine has not yet shown up on Guilford’s website) was admiring, what you’d expect for a debut/honeymoon issue. It focused several breathless paragraphs on how much listening he’s been doing in these initial months: listening to students, staff, faculty, etc.
Farmbry said his listening stance was influenced by his being an introvert. No doubt, but given Guilford’s recent history, one suspects it also reflects the likelihood he hasn’t yet found concrete answers to two Key Questions that stumped those who occupied his office in the years since BB&T’s contractual charity coup made the college, um, unforgettable to the likes of Wendy Brown.
Those Key questions are (there will be a quiz later):
1. Where will Guilford find several hundred more students (especially those with parents who can pay its $42,000-plus annual price tag)? And
2. Where will Guilford get a bunch more new donor money? (“Bunch” here is technical shorthand for “many millions”; the other key word is “new”.)
I wish Farmbry the best in his quest; he’s running in a very crowded lane, elbowing with just about every other college prez on the continent. Yet I think I forgot a third item in the list of key queries, namely:
3. Can he get this necessary pile of new money without again making Guilford a byword for selling out (or leasing for a decade or two) its brain and soul to cockamamie crackpots with spare cash?
This is not, pardon my platitude, an academic question. There are other rich folks circling around like vultures waiting to feast on the bones of academic roadkill. People named Koch. And Soros. And Gates. And others.
Oligarchies are like that.
But Farmbry surely knew that. He doubtless knows too that another piece of the Ayn Rand/Greenspan legacy is a baby bust that followed their big 2007 crash. As a result, the latest reports on college enrollment are the stuff of executive acid reflux. Such as this, from the Washington Post in March:
Colleges across America face a daunting challenge: Their student head count has shrunk more than 5 percent since 2019, according to a national estimate, as debate over the value of higher education intensified during the public health crisis and economic tumult.
That’s an enrollment loss of nearly 1 million students. Some drifted out of college, while others never started. Many colleges are on an urgent quest to keep current students and recover their lost freshmen.
Continued erosion of enrollment is raising alarms
At stake are not only the education and career prospects of huge numbers of young adults, but also the financial health of regional colleges and universities. Once students leave, they often don’t return.”
So best wishes to Guilford’s new prez, and here’s hoping he can get past the ripples spreading from Wendy Brown’s untimely comment and find those well-heeled new students, plus the even some better-heeled philanthropists at loose ends.
And — come to think of it, maybe I have an idea: turns out that I actually wrote a potboiling novel too. A mystery, called Murder Among Friends. It’s available, and perhaps we could work a deal for freshmen at Guilford to get a copy and use it in a course, yes?
It’s a Quaker mystery, so the ideology it tries to peddle is one version of Friends; and it weighs in at a whole lot fewer than 1100 pages, not to mention . . . .
Oh wait. Just checked my bank statement, and I’m way short on the half mill you’d need to back it up.
Well, never mind then.