Wake Forest University is embracing a new focus on how capitalism is studied amid increased skepticism about its socioeconomic effects.
Wake Forest debuted its Center for the Study of Capitalism in June 2008, benefiting from by a $ 2 million, 10-year grant from BB&T Corp.’s charitable foundation.
The BB&T funding established a university-wide faculty advisory board, a center executive director and a BB&T fellowship in capitalism and free enterprise.
With BB&T’s grant commitment expiring recently, the university has opted to continue operating the center, primarily through self-funding means.
“The center’s mandate is to be a trusted source of information about and to lead a national conversation on capitalism,” said Christina Elson, who was named as the center’s executive director in March.
“In doing this, we support the ability of students and the public to make informed choices on what well-functioning capitalism looks like.”
The foremost shift to date is the unveiling of what has been branded as The Affiliate Program.
Elson said the program brings together researchers, executives and communicators, such as filmmakers, artists and writers, to collaborate with students “to contribute to national conversations about the meaning of well-functioning capitalism.”
“Not all of them are Wake Forest faculty, but all are working with the center on projects or events,” Elson said.
The center has named three affiliates to date, including Winston-Salem entrepreneur Billy Prim last week.
The others are John Allison, the retired BB&T chairman and chief executive who spurred the creation of the BB&T capitalism centers, and Richard Levick, chairman and chief executive of global communications firm Levick.
Allison quickly became the face of the capitalism school after joining as an executive-in-residence in November 2015. He has had numerous high-profile appearances on cable business and news shows.
Prim, the former top executive at Blue Rhino Corp. and Primo Water Corp., said he chose to become an affiliate because he views the center as “playing a critical role in educating and preparing young people.”
“To do that, it needs to paint a vision of size and significance and to confront head-on the current challenges facing capitalism.”
Elson said Prim was selected in larger part because he “is a firm believer in the power of principled entrepreneurship to create positive change for individuals and society.”
“Wake Forest students will benefit from getting to know Billy and learning from him how to bring the spirit of principled entrepreneurship to all they do in life.”
Elson said there are plans to announce a research affiliate and a communicator affiliate.
“We intend to grow the program in the coming years,” she said.
The university said the affiliate program was created to “identify inspirational and influential individuals and supports efforts including research, public speaking, writing projects, such as books or long-format journalism, art and information visualizations, and media projects, such as podcasts and films.”
“Project outcomes drive high-quality conversations and help create a better-informed public.”
The affiliate program plans to emphasis four socioeconomic areas:
- Environment: “How might we mitigate current crises and manage the natural world ethically while still supporting global development?”
- Health: “How might we manage technology and resources to sustain a healthy, growing world population?”
- Education: “How might we create opportunities for intellectual development to encourage and enable participation in a capitalist economy?”
- Systems: “How might we design business, government, civic and non-profit systems that foster individual creative potential and general prosperity?”
“Given the current environment, there has never been a better time to launch a program addressing the role of markets in contributing to the health and wellbeing of society,” Elson said.
“Even before this crisis, polls and surveys documented the distrust of both business and government to solve complex 21st-century problems associated with education, health and the environment.
“The current economic situation demands that we explore the role of dynamic markets in addressing problems that don’t have easy solutions.”
The Wake Forest center, along with at least 64 similar centers, was inspired by Allison, who served as BB&T’s chairman from 1989 to the end of 2009 and as its chief executive from 1989 to the end of 2008.
Even as BB&T fulfilled its financial commitments of about $70 million over the past 12 years, the bank opted to pursue a different educational approach under chairman and chief executive Kelly King.
BB&T became Truist Financial Corp. in December following its $33.4 billion purchase of SunTrust Banks Inc.
The Truist approach emphasizes “leadership development, economic mobility, thriving communities and educational equity,” spokesman Brian Davis said.
The Truist Leadership Institute in Greensboro represents a high-profile example of the shift, along with the onUp Movement that offers tools “to provide financial confidence and resiliency,” and a partnership with EVERFI that has provided personal finance instruction to more than 1 million high school students.
As such, the bank “has not initiated any new agreements since then,” Davis said.
Elson said the Wake Forest center is being funded by a “mix of university support, endowed funds, donations, and applying to foundations for program-specific grants.”
“We are launching an endowment campaign to support the center long term.”
Objectivism and Ayn Rand
The centers of capitalism were devised by Allison, an unabashed devotee of a conservative philosophical theory called objectivism.
Objectivism extols rational individualism, creativity, independent thinking and a limited role for government as a protector of the peace.
Objectivism is most often associated with author Ayn Rand, who wrote the novels “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead” and the nonfiction book “The Virtue of Selfishness.”
Allison was interviewed by President Donald Trump in early 2017 as a potential U.S. Treasury Secretary candidate.
In 2008, Allison said that “it is important to us that any program we support meets the highest academic standards and encourages students to hear all points of view.”
“There is overwhelming evidence that capitalism produces a higher economic standard of living, which is why there needs to be a deeper understanding of the morality of capitalism and its causal relationship to economic well-being.”
Page West, the center’s first director and also a faculty member in the university’s Schools of Business, taught an elective class for business school students that used Atlas Shrugged, along with books by Karl Marx, Fredrich Engles, Adam Smith and Edward Bellamy.
Elson said the course focused on “the origins of capitalism, reactions to it over time, and current ideas about it.”
Elson said that with West retiring this year, the course he taught will be continued by other faculty members. “That is currently a work in progress,” she said.
When Elson was hired, Allison said the Wake Forest center’s mission remains “to facilitate an objective discussion of the positives and negatives of a system based on individual rights, free markets and limited government.”
Allison said Elson “is uniquely qualified to lead this effort because of her intelligence, broad background and ability to rationally integrate conflicting perspectives.”
The university centers of capitalism have included Appalachian State, Clemson, Duke, Johnson C. Smith, N.C. State, UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro and UNC-Wilmington.
At UNC Wilmington, the BB&T Center for Global Capitalism and Ethics exists within the Cameron School of Business, said William Sackley, the center’s executive director. The university received $1 million from BB&T.
“When we applied to the BB&T Foundation to hopefully participate in the generous donations they offered to several universities, we stated that we would not permit our curriculum to be ‘prescribed’ by others,” Sackley said.
“We stated that we were willing to expose students to different philosophies, but not through suggesting that one philosophy was preferred over others.”
Sackley said the UNCW capitalism center has engaged at times in a book giveaway “in which we permit students to select one book for free from three or four different titles that are available.”
“In some years, a book by Ayn Rand was offered as one of the titles,” Sackley said. “In other years, none of the choices were authored by Ayn Rand.”
Clemson received $3.5 million in October 2008 to help establish its Institute for the Study of Capitalism, and $4.9 million overall from BB&T.
The Clemson capitalism institute defined its mission as “to explore the moral foundations of capitalism. In pursuit of this mission, we work with students, the academic community and the general public to increase public awareness of capitalism’s core principles and institutions.”
The Clemson institute is known for having a conservative-leaning focus on political science and economics.
That includes having a guest lecture series sponsored by the John Williams Pope Foundation of Raleigh and having U.S. Trey Gowdy, an outspoken Republican representative from South Carolina, speak to business students.
For example, in February 2018 the Pope lecture was given by Yaron Brock, chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute, who argued for the moral superiority of capitalism over socialism.
The influence of objectivism at the BB&T centers, including initially making Atlas Shrugged required reading at some universities, drew criticism from professors on many campuses.
For example, there was a 2015 article in the Journal of Academic Ethics by Douglas Beets, a business professor at Wake Forest.
Beets wrote in his abstract that “tuition and government funding does not adequately support the mission of many colleges and universities.”
“Increasingly, corporations (such as BB&T) are responding to this need by making payments to institutions of higher learning with significant contracted expectations, including influence of the curriculum and content of college courses.”
“Several ethics concerns about these grants, including their threat to academic freedom, are discussed in this article, as well as the need for focused guidance for university administrators regarding the temptation of large donations with attached questionable expectations.”
Allison has defended the inclusion of Rand’s novel, saying that the schools approach the foundation, not the other way around.
Last week, Beets said that as BB&T/Truist funding “has dried up, some of those centers have been relatively successful, some haven’t.”