Ayn Rand enthusiast Carl Barney says he ethically objects to government-backed loans because they interfere with unbridled free market capitalism. But that has not stopped the private college tycoon from ruthlessly building his fortune on students who take out such loans, only to face horrific debt, high drop-out rates and an educational environment fraught with abuse.
Yet, according to a New York Times profile by Patricia Cohen, Barney sees himself as a principled ideologue, contributing millions of his own dollars to the Ayn Rand institute and forcing employees who seek to advance in the ranks to read Atlas Shrugged, as well as his own manifesto.
“This is what Rand taught me,” Barney told the Times, “identify that values are important to you and practices the virtues to achieve that.”
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In fact, Barney — who immigrated from Britain to the United States in the 1960s, told Cohen that the “central purpose” Rand infused him with inspired him to go into education in the first place. He described thinking, “Wow…you could actually buy a college? That’s what I want to do.”
Barney did not buy just one college, purchasing or establishing CollegeAmerica, Stevens-Henager and California College, as well as the online Independence University. These schools in 2012 merged with the free market, non-profit “Center for Excellence in Higher Education,” whose organizational structure allowed Barney’s education empire to attain nonprofit status.
As Huffington Post journalist Robert Shireman pointed out in 2015, the Center declared in a 2012 disclosure form that it aims to advance “the idea that capitalism is not simply about economics, but rather is fundamentally a moral system in which individuals exercise the unalienable right to pursue their own happiness.”
The organization also likely had another purpose. Cohen notes that “a whistle-blower lawsuit brought by two former recruiters in 2014 that charges the merger was done ‘at least in part, to evade certain regulatory requirements that apply to for-profit schools.'”
Barney, who is fond of employing red baiting to dismiss his critics, has faced a host of other accusations. Cohen outlines a few:
The Colorado attorney general’s office, for example, has accused CollegeAmerica in Denver of deceptive advertising and lying about job placements and graduation rates. Former students have said in court papers that they were misled about the transferability of credits, courses and instruction, and employment prospects. Former employees have filed affidavits saying they placed misleading advertisements and were pushed to graduate failing students and lie to independent auditors. The Justice Department has joined one whistle-blower suit that says Stevens-Henager recruiters were illegally awarded bonuses for signing up students.”
Linda Carter, the former dean of the Cheyenne campus in Wyoming, for example, resigned in 2012, saying she was pressured to misrepresent information to school accreditation panels and was disturbed about what she called misleading advertising.
Despite this troubling track record, Barney is unapologetic, telling Cohen, “We’re not perfect, but when we find something that’s wrong, we fix it.”
Meanwhile, Barney is dabbling in projects far beyond private education. He is listed as the sole funder of the Objectivist Venture Fund, whose stated purpose is to “is to financially support worthy projects that will advance Objectivism and Ayn Rand.” The organization has funded projects extolling “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” and “health policy that seeks to raise visibility of free-market and Objectivist ideas.”