The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) has the mission of “educating for liberty,” which, since 1953, has meant working on college campuses to “advance the principles and virtues that make America free and prosperous.”
This national organization makes its home in Greenville, Delaware, in a beautiful old estate overlooking Hoopes Reservoir. We caught up with ISI President and CEO Christopher Long to ask about their low local profile and the challenges of reaching the hearts and minds of American college students.
TSD: You are a national organization whose first president was William F. Buckley, Jr., and you have a presence of some kind in every state. Yet, most people in Delaware have probably never heard of you. Tell us a little bit about what ISI does and why you are in Delaware.
CL: The Intercollegiate Studies Institute runs leadership development and educational programs for college students nationwide on 150 targeted college campuses. Its mission is to inspire students to study philosophy, politics and economics in an integrated way so that they are better prepared for positions of leadership after graduation. We believe that for America to remain free and prosperous, it must be led by men and women who understand the core principles and virtues that are responsible for its success.
The Institute relocated to Delaware in 1995 after 42 years in Philadelphia when a number of ISI’s donors offered to purchase a campus-like headquarters facility. After initially searching for a suitable property along Philadelphia’s Mainline, the board of trustees settled instead on the former Worth estate in Greenville that sits on 23 bucolic acres nestled between Centerville Road and Hoopes Reservoir.
TSD: And this is your second stint with ISI, correct?
CL: After graduating from college, I went to work for The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. Ed Feulner was the president of Heritage and also the chairman of ISI, and he asked me in 1989 to run ISI’s educational programs as its new vice president. I was there for seven years when Greenville-based investment guru Foster Friess recruited me to run his family foundation and non-investment interests. Foster was apparently impressed by my management skills, and I soon became chief operating officer of Friess Associates, treasurer of The Brandywine Funds mutual fund family and a partner in the firm.
After eleven years at Friess, I teamed up with a friend to manage a hedge fund, which we ran for several years until I joined a global investment bank.
Not long after that, I started receiving calls from ISI trustees encouraging me to rejoin ISI following the announcement that president Ken Cribb was retiring after 22 year at the helm. Returning to ISI was the furthest thing from my mind, but after consulting with my wife Sheila we concluded that it would be fun to help take ISI to the next level of its success.
TSD: College campuses are notoriously either hotbeds of liberal academic activity or student apathy. From your perspective as a “conservative” organization, how would you characterize the current political and cultural climate on American campuses today?
CL: First of all, it is true that ISI seeks to conserve the wisdom that has been passed down through Western civilization from the Jews and Christians of ancient Jerusalem, the classical Greek philosophers, the jurists and economists of London and America’s Founding Fathers who assembled in Philadelphia. However, we also seek to encourage innovation and progress and to expand individual freedom. So, ISI appeals not only to students who might self-identify as conservative, but also to libertarians, classical liberals and others.
That said, your question is spot on. We see a great deal of apathy at America’s universities that are today philosophically and culturally monolithic, completely under the thumb of a stifling political correctness that silences free inquiry and intellectual diversity. As opposed to the 1960s or even the 1980s and 1990s when I was is college and working at ISI as a twenty-something, there are not the “culture wars” that I saw with students challenging their radical, Marxist professors. Good examples from that period include ISI students like Peter Thiel at Stanford (who went on to found PayPal and become one of today’s leading public intellectuals) and Marc Thiessen at Vassar (who was president Bush’s chief speech writer and who today writes a syndicated column at the Washington Post).
There is little political debate, because there is little high quality, intellectually stimulating learning taking place. While that is bad for the culture, it is good for ISI’s recruiting. There is enormous interest when we sponsor thought-provoking seminars, lectures and debates on a campus. These programs are a magnet for dynamic, smart, free-thinking students.
TSD: Are you seeing any notable differences in terms of big state schools vs. private? Geographic distinctions?
CL: The primary distinction is a function of the students and professors with whom we work on any given campus and their interests. We use a bottom up approach to meet their needs, rather than imposing top down themes from ISI. We see growing interest across the board at large state research universities, medium-sized liberal arts colleges and small religious schools. Interestingly to me, students today are less interested in foreign policy and more interested in economics, especially issues around income equality, and about the family, with the concept of the traditional family under fire from the Left.
TSD: Does ISI believe it has made real progress on your goals since your founding over fifty years ago? Do you think there is a healthier, more balanced dialogue around issues like individual liberty and the free market economy in the halls of academe?
CL: For sixty years ISI fought a war against the politically correct American university, and the university won. When I became president in 2011, we decided to focus on individual students with leadership potential and an inherent love of liberty. Today we are educating, training, credentialing and placing into their first jobs more potential leaders than ever before. It is through these promising future leaders and the influence they will have on the culture that ISI’s impact will be felt.
TSD: How do you remain relevant and vital and even edgy enough to attract young students to your mission?
CL: We are launching a new website in the coming days that will mirror the more edgy and Millennial-appealing IntercollegiateReview.com that is wildly successful. As you might guess, the area in which we are doing the most hiring and increasing the budget the most is in social media. In addition, ISI sponsors a platform of 60 alternative student newspapers called the Collegiate Network. Each of these papers are written by Millennials for Millennials, and it serves as a great sounding board for us as we keep in touch with the needs and interests of today’s college students.
TSD: The kind of people attending college in this country has changed dramatically over the last several decades. For example, more and more foreign students are attending American schools. How do you take that into consideration in your planning?
CL: Our top programs have enormous interest from students from China and Latin America. There is more interest in studying the hard-fought wisdom of Western civilization among students from Asia, Africa and Latin America than from American and European students who for reasons we can argue about instead seem more ready to embrace moral relativism, big government, and an all-leveling egalitarianism that seeks to blot out all individual human achievement and uniqueness. Students from the third world are more likely to have experienced first-hand the bleakness of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, and they choose economic, political and religious freedom.
TSD: Tell us what you are reading these days.
CL: I just met George Friedman and am enjoying his latest Flash Points: The Emerging Crisis in Europe that chronicles the impact of the 31 years from the Start of WWI through the end of WWII that he sees informing the current crises in Ukraine and within the EU. For fun, I am re-reading George Santayana’s Persons and Places because I enjoy his mastery of language. I have also been writing and speaking about Peter Thiel’s Zero to One.
TSD: When not traveling or staring out the window of that beautiful office overlooking Hoopes Resevoir, where might people find Chris Long enjoying his free time?
CL: You are likely to find me walking my dogs across the road from my house at Valley Garden Park. Since we are almost empty-nesters and spending less time at our children’s school activities, I am more involved with a number of other non-profits. I am very exciting about an initiative that There du Pont at Longwood Foundation is spearheading called Delaware Talent Live! that aims to staunch the brain drain in our state and make it a more dynamic and exciting environment for young people to put down roots.