Independent scholars: research beyond the ivy-covered walls

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.''

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.

* Coy Eklund, president of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, researched, wrote, and published a documentation of the grammar of the Chippewa language.

* Urban historian David Mollenhoff won first prize in the scholarly category in the annual competition of the Council for Wisconsin Writers. His ''Madison: A History of the Formative Years'' was chosen because it carries urban biography beyond the familiar captioned photo-album or booster book.

Mr. Mollenhoff, who makes his living as a real estate developer in Madison, says that he ''tried to portray the city's development through three basic themes: the clash of cultures, the contention over the city's destiny, and the growth of local government power.'' He received support from some 25 foundations , corporations, and individuals.

''In the beginning, (about 1977) I found independent scholars one at a time, '' says Mr. Gross, ''but now they tend to find us, because we're more visible. They see me as a kind of advocate; I look to them as having the power to nudge scholarship into multidisciplinary directions.''

Last year in Minneapolis a national conference (convened, naturally, by Ron and his wife, Bea, and attended by representatives of foundations, government, universities, and business, as well as a few independent scholars) grappled with the question of just what an independent scholar is. The consensus seemed to be this: ''An independent scholar is someone who knows Ron Gross.''

Gross himself functions smoothly in both establishment and independent circles. He possesses no advanced degrees and returned his undergraduate degree to Syracuse University after 15 years ''because I retained only 15 percent of what I had been taught there. My true education came from working at the Ford Foundation and the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies,'' he says. ''There I saw people at the center of the establishment getting things done. I admire gutsy people who take chances and are willing to put money behind new things.''

He uses his foundation experience to write grant proposals and walk them through. His first grant, from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, came some years after he started helping independent scholars. It supported the establishment of an office in the Grosses' Great Neck, N.Y., home.

''I was the director and Bea the assistant director,'' Ron says with a laugh, ''which really sounds too pretentious for the size of the grant.'' The grant also paid for last year's conference at Spring Hill, just outside Minneapolis, and for the publication of the College Board report, ''Independent Scholarship.''

Gross is founder and nurturer of ''40 or so'' groups around the country that provide independent scholars with some of the collegiality they miss through lack of academic affiliation. He believes that support groups and networking are helpful to independent scholars.

Among other needs he has identified: released time, since nonacademic employment is often demanding and does not relate to the individual's scholarship, as it does in the academic community; publishing opportunities, since scholarly journals and university presses are often wary of nonaffiliated scholars; access to information sources; and funding.

Mr. Gross moves boldly in behalf of the Independent Scholarship Project in government and financial circles, but gently within the ''community'' of independent scholars. He explains that ''they are fiercely independent, and committees and meetings do not always appear to conform to their chosen mode.''

At the Spring Hill conference, Gross devoted a session to explaining why independent scholars need computer time. But at dinner that night, one illustrious but cantankerous scholar announced that he preferred 3-by-5 cards. He hadn't replaced a standard typewriter with an electric model because ''the electric goes faster than I can think.''

The address of the Independent Scholarship Project is 17 Myrtle Drive, Great Neck, N.Y. 11021.m

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