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Independent scholars: research beyond the ivy-covered walls

By Eloise Lee LeitermanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 1983

Organize eccentrics? Ron Gross, an intellectual iconoclast garbed in Madison Avenue haberdashery, had the audacity to try. His Independent Scholarship Project is a ''network'' for scholarly loners - studious people not affiliated with universities who pursue a subject as relentlessly as mountaineers climb Everest ''because it's there.''

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To Mr. Gross, independent scholars provide the forward thrusts of thought. They're self-motivated, driven by the necessity to know, working when and how and as they can without benefit of institutional prestige or facilities. ''Having found what turns them on, they can come to the cutting edge of a discipline without being a professor,'' he insists.

Buckminster Fuller was the archetype of the independent scholar, Gross says. Fuller once said of Gross's work: ''If humanity is to pass safely through its present crisis on earth, it will be because a majority of individuals are now doing their own thinking. The Independent Scholarship Project has pioneered in improving the climate for such thinking in the United States.''

The Independent Scholarship Project, which Ron Gross founded, is a clearinghouse for independent scholars. It issues a regular newsletter, announcing fellowships (often obtained at his urging), study, and employment opportunities. The project holds conferences and helps scholars find or start support groups, which provide a forum for sharing information and resources and critiquing each other's work. Gross estimates there are ''thousands'' of serious scholars working ''outside the walls'' of universities and research institutions.

Diversity is the hallmark of independent scholars. ''People nominate themselves,'' he says, explaining that ''what they really nominate themselves for is endless years of toil in their chosen field.

''A lot of people in academia express the fear that self-selection will result in a horde of barbarians descending upon libraries and eating the books. But the Library of Congress, which provides study rooms for serious scholars, says it doesn't have to turn away unqualified people. . . . The Institute for Research and History in New York, one of the local organizations of independent scholars, requires applicants to attend one session before joining. Some people know right away that they're not ready to participate in the movement at this point and select themselves out.''

Mr. Gross expects his movement to grow not only because of his high visibility, but because many younger scholars with recent PhDs have been caught in a demographic shift that has reduced new faculty positions. Hence, if they plan to continue their study, it may have to be on an independent basis.

''What Ronald Gross is doing is critically important,'' says Dr. Irving Spitzberg, president of the American Association of University Professors. ''From now until about 2005-2015, American universities will be producing more scholars than universities can absorb. Universities would love to hire them, but they can't, because higher education isn't receiving enough support in this country. So we need to devise strategies to keep them within the scholarly community - not just for their sake, but in order to benefit from what they know and continue to learn.''

Some independent scholars publish, some don't. Some have advanced degrees, others don't. But they are not dilettantes.

Among their accomplishments:

* After years of night and weekend research, Leon Miller recently won the Milton Society Award for best article of the year on Milton.

* Thomas Burke, a retired banker, has pursued studies of diatoms (microscopic marine cells) and made taxonomic findings widely referenced in related scientific literature.

* Reinhold Aman established his own institute, scholarly journal, and an international network of peers when his chosen subject, aggressive verbal behavior, proved unwelcome in academic circles.

* Dorothy Welker, a communications consultant by profession, is a long-time scholar at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Her translation of the works of an important 16th-century Brazilian colonist has been widely used by other scholars.