The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 18, 2018

Intercollegiate Studies Institute
John Zmirak - 03/13/12

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute was founded in 1953 by libertarian journalist Frank Chodorov in order to counter the widespread and growing popularity among America’s educated elites of socialist and other collectivist ideologies. Chodorov’s libertarianism had been inspired in part by the writings of his friend Albert Jay Nock, a sharp critic of the New Deal, foreign interventionism, and other “statist” political programs that enjoyed near-universal acceptance among intellectuals and policymakers after the massive success of the Allied war effort. If the state could manage the conquest of Hitler, went the dominant line, surely it could establish permanent prosperity. Nock and Chodorov, among others, disagreed. Already sixty-three years old and an editor at the conservative paper Human Events, Chodorov conceived in 1950 the idea of a chain of campus clubs, a lecture bureau, and a journal aimed at rediscovering and disseminating the classical Western principles of “ordered liberty” among future American leaders.

In an article titled “A Fifty-Year Project to Combat Socialism on the Campus,” Chodorov announced the goals of the organization that he would later found as the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists. Chodorov’s goal was not simply negative, nor was his inspiration the radical individualism of then-popular novelist (and guru) Ayn Rand, who preached the “virtue of selfishness.” Instead, Chodorov, who had returned to his Jewish faith after years as an atheist, saw the religiously informed liberalism of Adam Smith as the best formula for general affluence and freedom.

Chodorov’s timing was fortunate. Richard M. Weaver had in 1948 published his stunningly contrarian Ideas Have Consequences, tracing the decline of liberty in the West to the rise of skepticism and materialism; this analysis shocked consensus thinkers, who followed the Whig view that religion was the enemy, and science the friend, of freedom. And within a year, Russell Kirk would publish his landmark study, The Conservative Mind, which through copious documentation and cogent argument dispelled the popular notion that there was no conservative tradition in America; Kirk himself would in 1957 found Modern Age, a scholarly journal intended to carry on this tradition among intellectuals.

Chodorov saw ISI’s primary mission as identifying freedom-minded faculty and undergraduates at American colleges, helping them meet each other, and keeping them supplied with fresh arguments and insights regarding the roots of liberty in the Western tradition. Starting with a small donation from Sun Oil Company founder J. Howard Pew, Chodorov launched ISI with the young William F. Buckley Jr. as its first president. Buckley was already famous as the spokesman for conservatives on campus thanks to his 1951 book God and Man at Yale. Buckley’s involvement with ISI was largely symbolic; he was already busy planning his biweekly National Review, which he intended to serve as a journalistic organ for the new movement. But as he would later write in a letter to ISI’s E. Victor Milione, “It is quite unlikely that I should have pursued a career as a writer but for the encouragement [Chodorov] gave me just after I graduated from Yale.” During the subsequent decades ISI would perform a similar service in the career paths of countless young conservatives, listing among alumni of its summer schools, honors programs, lectures, scholarships and other initatives such luminaries as Paul Gottfried, William Kristol, Edwin Feulner, Angelo Codevilla, John F. Lehman, Larry Arnn, Paul Craig Roberts, and Claes Ryn, among many other important academics, journalists, and activists.

According to its mission statement, ISI was founded to “further in successive generations of American college youth a better understanding of the economic, political, and spiritual values that sustain a free and virtuous society.” It began to do so in 1952 with a mailing list of “about six hundred undergraduates—out of a total college population of approximately 2.5 million,” as Lee Edwards notes in his history of ISI, Educating for Liberty (2003). The group began modestly, providing free subscriptions to students of existing publications such as Human Events and the literature of the free-market Foundation for Economic Education. However, Chodorov knew that he wanted to provide something deeper than policy analysis and polemics on economics. He founded a newsletter for ISI titled the Individualist—which Russell Kirk criticized as being too, well . . . individualist. Kirk wrote Chodorov urging him to include more voices from the traditionalist Right, more articles about the cultural underpinnings that make a free society possible. Chodorov consequently began to reach out to prominent conservative academics such as Thomas Molnar, Richard Weaver, and Kirk himself, building a faculty network that would number, as of this writing, more than 20,000. With the help of Chodorov’s energetic assistant Milione, ISI also started a lecture bureau that offered college students the chance to hear in person the dissenting voices the group was trying to gain a hearing on campus. In its early years, ISI was also instrumental in fostering conservative journalism, aiding in the start-up of numerous campus conservative papers—a role it would take up again in the 1990s through its Collegiate Network.

Milione succeeded Chodorov as president, and thanks to his indefatigable work (aided greatly by founding trustee and prominent Philadelphia-area banker Charles H. Hoeflich and longtime ISI chairman Henry Regnery) in fundraising, networking, and organizing, in just a few years ISI would emerge as one of the leading intellectual conservative organizations in America. (Full disclosure: it is also the publisher of this book.) Throughout the political ups and downs of the conservative movement, ISI has remained nonpartisan, preferring to approach current events from the longer perspective of centuries of Western and American history. In 1964, Milione announced the Richard Weaver Fellowships, designed to help academics sympathetic to ISI’s ideals—and those of the untimely departed Weaver—complete their graduate educations. In the next year, Milione launched the Intercollegiate Review, a journal distributed free to all ISI members—which by now numbered in the tens of thousands—intended to make the great ideas accessible to undergraduates. The organization itself was renamed the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 1966 to reflect the strong presence of traditionalist conservatives among the partisans of liberty who made up ISI’s membership.

In 1969, a veteran of ISI—its former Western Director, Peter DeLuca—founded a liberal arts institution, Thomas Aquinas College in California, in order to put into practice the educational ideals the group had long been preaching. This school became the inspiration for many other traditionalist colleges that would spring up around the country at about the same time. Another ISI alumnus, former Intercollegiate Review editor Gregory Wolfe, is founder and editor of a widely respected journal of the arts called Image—one of many initiatives across the country, from academia to practical politics, whose roots lie in the work done by ISI in cultivating young intellectuals.

At the initiative of one of ISI’s most important leaders over the decades, executive vice president John Lulves, in 1976 ISI took on the publication of Modern Age, whose financial condition had not kept up with its editorial excellence. The quarterly is aimed more at graduate students and faculty—complementing the mission of the Intercollegiate Review—and publishes long, analytical pieces on broad issues of culture and philosophy.

With the “arrival” of the conservative movement in 1981 after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, ISI saw many of its alumni enter positions of influence and power, including Richard V. Allen, Donald Devine, and T. Kenneth Cribb Jr. Other important activists in the (mis-titled) “Reagan Revolution” with ISI roots included Robert Reilly, Rep. Robert Bauman, and Morton Blackwell. But the organization’s gaze remained steadily on the deeper cultural issues underlying ephemera of policy and power, leaving its mission unaltered and spirits undimmed by the centrist retrenchment of the first Bush administration. According to Lee Edwards, ISI also managed to avoid the worst effects of the growing division on the Right between traditionalists and libertarians on the one hand, and increasingly influential neo-conservatives on the other. Because it had always opened itself to multiple voices—in the beginning, monarchists such as Erik von Kuenhelt-Leddihn alongside rationalist liberals like Ludwig von Mises, and later, traditionalists like Frederick Wilhelmsen and M. E. Bradford beside American Whigs like Harry Jaffa—the organization could never be pigeon-holed or rendered marginal.

In 1989, Cribb, a former Reagan administration justice department official, became president of ISI, employing his extensive connections to increase fundraising and extend ISI’s reach without compromising its core missions. He added to ISI’s programs the new publication CAMPUS, a national magazine written by and for conservative college students. To help incoming students navigate the shoals of academia, in the late ’90s ISI began to publish a college guide titled Choosing the Right College as part of its new, ambitious publishing program led by Jeffrey O. Nelson. A couple of years earlier, beginning with a series of high-quality reprints of conservative classics, ISI’s book imprint, ISI Books, began to produce a wide range of titles by political scientists, philosophers, literary critics, theologians, and economists. Prominent in its catalogue are the Library of Modern Thinkers series, which features examinations of important twentieth-century thinkers on the right such as Eric Voegelin, Bertrand de Jouvenel, Robert Nisbet, and Wilhelm Röpke; its series of student guides to the major disciplines, which has featured authors John Lukacs, Wilfred McClay, Paul Heyne, and Ralph McInerny; and its Crosscurrents series of translations of classic and contemporary works by non-English-speaking intellectuals on the right. ISI Books publishes approximately twenty new books per year and now has more than 100 titles in print.

By 2005, ISI could boast volunteer representatives at over 900 colleges, more than 50,000 ISI student and faculty members on nearly every campus in the country, and over 300 educational programs held on campus each year. At the conclusion of Chodorov’s “50-Year Plan,” America no longer faced the threat of an aggressive communist empire; yet the organization he had founded faced new, unimagined challenges, including the challenge posed by a “wired” world whose core philosophies had been “deconstructed” and whose most basic social institutions—such as marriage and motherhood—were under attack by new species of social radicals, some of them purportedly conservative. Through new media and old, ISI carries on its original mission of forming America’s elites in the wisdom of their ancestors.

Further Reading
  • Nash, George H. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. 2nd ed. Wilmington, Del.: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1996.
  • Panichas, George, ed. Modern Age: The First Twenty-Five Years. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Press, 1988.
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