This Chronicle of Higher Education post-mortem on the failed “Great Books college for devotees of Ayn Rand” filled me with both Schadenfreude and sadness.
Because I’m a decent human being—at least most of the time—I don’t like to mock failure. But because I’m a despiser of all things Randian, I can’t help but take perverse glee in this tragically hilarious tale.
I was originally going to highlight some choice excerpts and add some snarky remarks, but I ultimately decided to leave it unadorned. I don’t want to sully the experience of reading the article by adding my silly commentary. Though fans and foes of Rand will want to read the whole thing, here are a few of my favorite passages to get you started:
That fall day in 2007 seemed an auspicious start for a college with only five professors and 10 students.
. . .
Founders certainly started with high aspirations. It was the inspiration of Gary L. Hull, a longtime visiting professor of sociology at Duke University and director of its Program on Values and Ethics in the Marketplace. Mr. Hull has long been a high-profile proponent of objectivism, the philosophy of Rand. And he had wanted to shake up the college market for years. Where most colleges saw degrees, he saw a hodgepodge of classes and incoherent goals. He hoped to create an objectivist college where all students would have the same academic foundation and be taught to think rationally.
However, not all of the students who would end up at Founders knew that. English Tong, who was home-schooled, found out about the college through a friend who had heard Mr. Hull promote Founders as ideal for home-schoolers. “Not until I arrived did I realize it was an objectivist school, so I was thrown into that without really agreeing with it,” Ms. Tong says. “It was kind of weird. They had advertised the college to everyone differently.”
. . .
Instead the campus was opened near the North Carolina border at Berry Hill Plantation, which included an inn and conference center that once landed in The New York Times as “A Hotel Stephen King Might Find Just Right.”
. . .
In retrospect, [enrollment director] Mr. Weiss isn’t even sure he was suited to admissions work. “I didn’t even go to college,” he says. “Do I think I was qualified to say, ‘You belong at this school’? No.”
. . .
None of the students at Founders, with the exception of Ms. Tong, were paying anywhere close to full tuition or room and board. Some were on full scholarships, they say, and others simply weren’t paying, or paying very little, until they heard more about their eligibility for federal aid. Still, in the beginning, the students were living in resort-style rooms and eating gourmet meals.
“Friday nights were jazz nights, and we were able to sit with the public and order filet mignon and scallops,” says Ms. Tong.
. . .
At the end of the first semester, students say, the inn ran low on food. The English professor told students he was resigning because he wasn’t getting paid. “He tells us goodbye and walks out,” Ms. Fogg says. “He gave us a letter that says he will not be conducting final exams.” Ms. Fogg thinks he was finally paid, because she and the other students later took the exam at his home, off campus. He refused to come back to the property, she says. “It was extremely stressful.”
. . .
By Christmas, Founders and the Berry Hill Inn had lost no fewer than 17 employees, including Mr. Weiss and the English professor. . . Still, five students, including Ms. Fogg and Ms. Tong, returned for the spring semester.
Professors sped up classes to finish the year early. Students took economics for six hours each Saturday, Ms. Tong says, because the professor would make the drive from Washington only one day a week. At some point, Founders had arranged for the students to be dual-enrolled at Southside Virginia Community College, so they would have transferable credits. Southside says it reviewed Founders’ curriculum and faculty qualifications and charged Founders for the students’ tuition.
But, toward the end of the year, Ms. Tong says, the students heard that the community college hadn’t been paid—and they were concerned that they’d be left with nothing to show for their work. Whatever the case, the students did ultimately get credit for most of their classes.
Ms. Fuller held a final meeting with the students. “She asked us if anyone was coming back next year,” Ms. Tong recalls. “I was amazed at the delusion.”
. . .
Founders College closed in November 2008. The state never stepped in.