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Academic Freedom

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“The conservative movement has risen in prominence, both politically and culturally in America, and the reason for this is the power of its ideas,” says ISI president T. Kenneth Cribb Jr. “Since its founding, ISI has taken most seriously the notion that ideas have consequences. As a result, ISI, more than any other organization, has worked diligently to instill in each rising generation of college youth the principles of a free society.” Photograph by Todd VachonRichard Brake’s journey to Wilmington’s Intercollegiate Studies Institute is not an atypical one.
Doctorate in American politics from Temple University in hand, Brake spent several years seeking a tenured teaching position. Despite his academic credentials, he eventually came to believe three fundamental things prevented him from achieving his goal.
“I was the wrong race, the wrong gender and, most significantly, I believe, possessed the wrong political outlook,” he says.
Richard Brake is white, male and politically conservative. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute where he works was founded mainly as a rampart opposed to what conservatives in the 1950s perceived as a system of higher education dominated by “progressive pragmatists and socialists.” That ISI is alive and well in chateau country is a testament to the success conservatives have had on college campuses and in society overall. Yet Brake’s story is also a testament to how much work Intercollegiate Studies Institute still has to do.
The institute, on an estate once known as Scarlet Oaks on Centerville Road near Hoopes Reservoir, became the permanent home of ISI in 1996. By that time, ISI had become a nationally prominent institution, its president, T. Kenneth Cribb Jr., having served in high positions during Ronald Reagan’s administration. Still connected politically, still under Cribb’s leadership, ISI remains true to its original principles of “educating for liberty.”
“We’re not directly involved in making policy or participating in politics,” says vice president for academic affairs Mark C. Henrie. “We’re solely concerned with promoting education based on first principles”—limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, a free market economy and moral norms.
With an annual budget of $12 million, ISI provides graduate fellowships, conducts seminars and lectures, publishes books and periodicals, and guides conservative editorial conduct for campus newspapers.
ISI’s Greenville headquarters is the result of the financial support of some of the area’s business leaders. The first $1,000 check that became seed money for the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists in 1953 was provided by Sun Oil Company founder J. Howard Pew. Most of the $2 million paid for the 9,000-square-foot stone mansion and grounds of Scarlet Oaks was contributed by New Jersey philanthropist Fred M. Kirby.
A local Realtor told ISI senior vice-president H. Spencer Masloff about Scarlet Oaks as he was traveling back from Washington, D.C., to ISI’s then-headquarters in cramped offices in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Why an organization that is so well-known and connected in conservative business, social and political circles across the country would choose Delaware as its permanent home was a conscious decision.
“We have it in ISI’s bylaws that our headquarters can never be located in Washington, D.C., or New York City,” Henrie says. “That’s so we can better reflect the identity of the country as a whole, rather than its political or financial centers.”
That the former Scarlet Oaks is a structure of stone and steel is a reflection of ISI’s foundation in rock-ribbed conservative principles. And though ISI’s early years were full of hope, they were years of uncertainty, not the least of which was financial. One of the first issues to settle was its name.
The original Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, according to the late William F. Buckley Jr.—ISI’s first president—elicited “spontaneous outbursts of laughter” when he mentioned it in his campus talks. Conservative publisher Henry Regnery said the name “smacked of crackpotism” and “that it reminds people, somehow or other, of nudists.”

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The Intercollegiate Society of Individualists formally became known as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in April 1966. The new name was prompted in part to distance the organization from Berkeley radicals such as Mario Savio, who had begun calling themselves “individualists.” By then, however, ISI’s determined confrontation with campus leftists of all stripes had been joined.
ISI started small, distributing the literature of other conservative organizations, then issuing a newsletter of its own in 1954. In 1956 ISI published its first book, “Religion and the Social Problem,” and began offering students copies of previously published conservative texts at reduced prices.
Also in 1956, ISI received a grant that would lead to one of its most influential university programs, the Richard M. Weaver Fellowship Program, which has since funded more than 400 fellows. In 1965 ISI issued the first edition of what was to become its flagship publication, The Intercollegiate Review, a biannual journal of essays, reviews and commentary that is distributed free to some 50,000 college students.
Free distribution of the Review, along with its offering of published works at reduced costs, resulted in a chronic shortage of funds in ISI’s early years. Determined to get ISI’s financial house in order, Cribb, appointed president in 1989, gradually expanded ISI’s reach beyond the university to join with the larger “movement conservatism” that had found political expression in the candidacies of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
“The conservative movement has risen in prominence, both politically and culturally in America, and the reason for this is the power of its ideas,” says Cribb. “Since its founding, ISI has taken most seriously the notion that ideas have consequences. As a result, ISI, more than any other organization, has worked diligently to instill in each rising generation of college youth the principles of a free society: limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, market economy, and moral norms.”
Though ISI remains first and foremost an educational institution, it is Cribb’s leadership that has linked ISI to the world of politics. During his years in the Reagan administration, Cribb rose to high-level advisory roles in domestic policy and in recruiting “promising young conservatives” for various posts. As Attorney General Ed Meese’s “right-hand man,” Cribb was one of the main advisers on the selection of William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia for the Supreme Court.
Cribb’s Reagan years taught him valuable lessons about ISI’s role in developing future political leaders and policy makers. Recalling his experiences in the book “Educating For Liberty,” Cribb observed, “The correlation of forces was already mostly decided [and that] it was late in the game then for any consideration of ideas.” These experiences led him to realize the importance of instilling those ideas in the minds of the young, before they achieved positions of influence.
It also explains why Cribb focused on making ISI one of the country’s foremost conservative educational institutions. In the view of one ISI staffer, “Our job is to take smart students and make them conservatives and to take conservative students and make them smarter.”
ISI’s book publishing arm has surpassed 400 titles. It currently publishes 24 new and classic reprints a year. Its myriad publications top 500,000 in distribution, and campus membership in ISI-sponsored clubs is up to 65,000 students nationwide. The institute organizes about 150 campus lectures per year, as well as a two-week summer session at Princeton University that trains young, untenured university educators in curriculum development, as well as how and where to get published. Its faculty associates have reached the 1,300 mark. Two teach at the University of Delaware.
Stephen Barr is professor of theoretical particle physics in UD’s department of physics and astronomy. Aware of ISI and its programs “for about the past 20 years,” Barr has attended several ISI lectures at Scarlet Oaks (now known as ISI’s F.M. Kirby Campus). He’s a regular contributor to the journal First Things, and in 2003 he published “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.” ISI’s Jeremy Beer was familiar with Barr’s published work.

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“I first encountered professor Barr’s writing in First Things,” says Beer, editor-in-chief of ISI Books. “Then I learned about his book just before it came out. I contacted him about writing our ‘Student’s Guide to Natural Sciences.’ After that book came out, he spoke at ISI as one of our Curran lecturers.”
Professor Eleanor Craig of UD’s economics department had known about ISI for more than five years before joining its American Civic Literacy Board. In 2007 the board conducted the first scientific survey of its kind, finding that college seniors knew “astoundingly little about America’s history, government, international relations and market economy.” (The average college senior scored a failing grade of 54.2 percent on the exam.) Professor Craig was part of several economists charged with developing the economics portion of the exam.
The disappointing test scores prompted her to make changes in her own economics department. “We now have seven Ph.D. candidates teaching smaller classes, and there is more monitoring of the teaching to make sure the basics are being covered,” says Craig. “Plus, I make up the final exam for undergraduates, and I’ve included the questions from the Civic Literacy Exam on that final.”
While links to college campuses expand and deepen (ISI is working with UD to develop a conservative campus newspaper, to join the 109 it supports on other campuses), the institute believes there is much to do to balance political forces on modern campuses.
Brake’s story reflects the challenge. Following several failed attempts to secure a tenured position, Brake thought his search had ended when he was hired to teach at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey.
“I was more than qualified for the tenured position being offered,” Brake recalls. “But when the college saw that there was no candidate sufficiently diverse, they pulled the position.”
Brake had to decide whether “it was worth it to be part of an institution that treats you like a pariah.” Still needing a job, Brake learned ISI was looking for someone to run a grant program. He jumped at it. Now the director for ISI’s University Stewardship and the Culture of Enterprise Initiative, Brake is directly involved in reforms designed to de-politicize college curricula.
“We don’t want to replace a liberal agenda with a conservative one,” says Brake. “We just want to create an atmosphere for a vigorous discourse on first principles from a common basis of understanding.”
Says Cribb, “The principles that guide a free society in general, and ISI in particular, remain the same. They are constant and true. They saw us through the horrors of the mid-20th century, and they will provide us with the intellectual arsenal to combat future threats as well.”

 

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