Six years ago, fresh from helping launch the Princeton politics department's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, a group of men with University ties and conservative leanings turned to a new project.
Out of those conversations grew the Witherspoon Institute, a Princeton-based conservative think tank that since 2003 has sponsored conferences, summer seminars, and scholarly research aimed at audiences both within and beyond the academy.
Witherspoon, which has many friendly ties but no financial or administrative links to the University, remains low profile. Its academic focus and educational mission have kept it off the radar of both liberal and conservative colleagues in the think-tank world, and it deliberately cultivates what president Luis Tellez jokingly calls "the nice kind" of conservatism – respectful of divergent views, committed to serious scholarship, employing dialogue rather than invective.
But as it tackles topics ranging from stem cell research to constitutional law to globalization, the institute keeps one eye firmly on the future: Its summer courses on law, philosophy, religion, and social science enroll students from high school to graduate school, and its research grants go only to scholars affiliated with teaching institutions – "so that we can help them be more effective in their teaching and that way have contact with the next generation of scholars," Tellez says.
And although Tellez says he has no plans for a network of Witherspoon clones, he has offered friendly advice to individuals at Hamilton College and the University of Texas at Austin who hope to establish similar autonomous think tanks.
Despite bearing the name of Princeton University's sixth president, John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the institute stresses its independence of the University. "Think tanks really should be independent operations," says McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George, a leading campus conservative and a Witherspoon fellow. "A university shouldn't have a think tank, just as such, within it."
But cross-pollination between the neighbors is obvious. The four men who created the institute all were involved with the Madison program: George, the program's director; and three members of its advisory board, venture capitalist Donald Drakeman *88, attorney Stephen Whelan ‘68, and Tellez himself.
The institute's links to the Madison Program, portrayed on both the right and the left as a conservative beachhead within the liberal Ivy League, remain strong: eight of Witherspoon's 20 trustees, plus the spouse of a ninth, currently sit on Madison's board, which is headed by Drakeman, a former Witherspoon board chair. And the two organizations receive funding from some of the same right-leaning foundations.
In its work, Witherspoon also draws on the University's intellectual resources. Besides George, the institute's 17 fellows – scholars who receive financial support from Witherspoon and suggest topics for its programs – include two other Princeton professors and three recent Princeton Ph.Ds.
And many of the institute's academic conferences and summer seminars take place on campus, sometimes with logistical support from University programs that count Witherspoon fellows among their faculty. Last fall, for instance, Witherspoon and the Woodrow Wilson School gathered scholars and politicians to discuss the rise of the Latin American left; a month earlier, Witherspoon joined campus religious organizations in co-sponsoring a conference aiming "to equip students with a set of arguments to defend Christian faith and morality as a valid, eminently reasonable system of belief."
Another of the institute's relationships – its supposed connection with the conservative lay Catholic organization Opus Dei – has spawned Internet chatter. Tellez, a former national official of Opus Dei, still runs the group's Princeton programs, and Witherspoon's donors include two foundations with links to Opus Dei members. Opus Dei's politics were controversial even before Dan Brown's super-bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, portrayed the group as a homicidal cabal. But Tellez and other Witherspoon leaders insist that Opus Dei plays no role in the operations of the institute, which supports work on the role of religion in society but has no religious affiliation of its own.
Unlike some prominent think tanks, Witherspoon's focus is education, not legislative advocacy, says Whelan, who chairs the board. "We're trying to influence people's thinking, rather than what happens in Trenton or Washington, D.C.," he says. "We're not seeking to bring people in and then tell them to go forth and lobby."
Still, Witherspoon's best-known work to date speaks directly to contemporary political controversies. A 2004 conference on marriage produced a 47-page booklet, "Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles," signed by 70 scholars from a range of fields and institutions. The soberly written, copiously footnoted document urges citizens and policymakers to resist what the signers see as threats to the institution of marriage from divorce, cohabitation, the unregulated fertility industry, and pressure to legalize same-sex marriage.
The booklet, published in 2006, was praised in the conservative press, and Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas cited it approvingly during a Senate debate that year on a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
The amendment failed, but the marriage booklet had a side benefit: "It's been a terrific fund-raising tool," Tellez says. "I think [donors] saw that it was well done, that the scholarship was serious, that it addressed an issue that is of importance."
Indeed, despite its relative youth, the Witherspoon Institute has achieved a level of financial viability that many older nonprofits might envy: Its annual contributions have ranged from $360,000 in 2004 to more than $3 million in 2006. Last summer the institute moved into an elegant three-story building on Stockton Street, bought for $1.5 million and renovated and furnished for an additional $1.3 million.
Tellez declines to release Witherspoon's complete donor list, but in addition to institute trustees, contributors include the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the now-defunct John M. Olin Foundation, known for their support of conservative causes; the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research on religious and scientific topics; and the Lee and Ramona Bass Foundation, whose three-year, $750,000 gift – the Witherspoon Institute's largest-ever donation – helped pay for the new building.
That building is concrete evidence that Witherspoon, an island of conservatism in Princeton's liberal sea, hopes to grow, says Tellez: "It's an investment in the future."
Deborah Yaffe is a writer in Princeton Junction, N.J.